Ana Almazon knows that theology and science aren’t necessarily everybody’s favorite subjects in school. But Almazon, a senior at Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep in Waukegan, said she thinks her friends should definitely give them a chance. She was one of about 45 students from seven states who spent a week in July at Loyola University Chicago, participating in the school’s inaugural Theology Healing Earth in Action Institute. The institute was created with funding from a $600,000 grant from the Lilly Institute. It’s part of Lilly Endowment Inc.’s High School Youth Theology Institutes initiative, which seeks to encourage students to explore theological traditions, ask questions about the moral dimensions of contemporary issues, and examine how their faith calls them to lives of service. For its first weeklong summer institute, it chose to focus on sacred water, said Lisa Reiter, Loyola’s director of campus ministry. “I loved it,” Almazon said. “It was fun. It was really incredible to see how the spirituality of water and the science of water work together. It was pretty eye-opening.” THEA institute uses curriculum from “Healing Earth,” an e-textbook developed by the leaders of the International Jesuit Ecology Project. Students studied the instances in which water appears in Scripture in a kind of “applied spirituality” track. Another track focused on environmental science and water, looking at topics such as how to keep water sources clean and how the Great Lakes came to be. The third track looked at the ethics of water. “We believe that water is an intrinsic right because people and plants and animals all need water to survive,” Reiter said. But some people – including nearly everyone in the Chicago area – has access to clean water by turning on a tap, while in many parts of the world, people have to haul water for hours each day. They also looked at the privatization of water. “People take water from the earth and sell it at a profit,” Reiter said. “How does that serve the common good?” Water was an easy theme to use over the different tracks, with the science curriculum, for example, focusing on water as a universal solvent while the spirituality curriculum examined the cleansing of baptismal water. Each evening ended with prayer modeled on the examen of St. Ignatius, and the institute ended with each student creating a community project to take home and share with their parish or school, Reiter said. “Most chose some sort of advocacy,” she said, including letter-writing or trying to persuade their schools to stop selling water in plastic bottles. Next year, Reiter said, the institute hopes to hold two sessions, one for new students with the water curriculum and second one that students could return to, perhaps on biodiversity. Reiter said that for her, spending time with the high school students was immensely fulfilling. “I started out as a parish youth minister,” she said. “Imagine getting to open up young people to imagine what can be their best self. That’s a pretty privileged and sacred place to be with young people.” All of the participants will be juniors and seniors in high school this fall, and about two-thirds of them – including Almazon -- came from schools that are part of the Cristo Rey Network, a group of schools that makes Catholic education possible for students from lower-income families by having each student work one day a week. “The students we had probably reflected more of what the Catholic Church looks like today,” Reiter said. Organizers are hoping the experience will encourage the high school participants to not only go to college, but, perhaps, to choose Loyola, where they might run into their former THEA classmates. “We want to form a THEA community on campus,” Reiter said. Miles Hession, who will be a senior at Lyons Township High School in LaGrange, said he was first attracted to the institute because he’s always been interested in Jesuit education, despite not being Catholic or really any religion. “I’ve never really been to church,” he said. “So the prayer time and all that was different. It was something I learned to respect. And I learned there are so many steps we can take to protect our water.” He is bringing a proposal to build a biodiesel refinery at his school to help power vehicles and machinery used on campus. Omar Nunez, who will be a senior at Arrupe Jesuit High School, a member of the Cristo Rey Network in Denver, said he liked learning about both the theology and the science of water. “I had spoken to the college counselor at my school about my interest in both theology and chemistry,” Nunez said. “THEA was able to combine those passions.” He and two friends plan to work to reduce the number of plastic water bottles used on their high school campus. “Throwing away a plastic water bottle doesn’t just affect one person,” he said. “It affects everybody.” That includes people who no longer have access to water that is being taken from their communities.