written by: Sam Edwards, Class of 2014, St. John’s Jesuit High School
Imagine yourself standing on the steps of a church but instead of being in your Sunday best, you’re in the same shirt and pants you’ve worn for weeks. Envision yourself lying silently next to a railroad staring at the stars, but instead of dreaming about your next school or job, you’re dreaming about where you will find your next meal. Lost in the uncertainty of day to day living, alone with nothing to accompany you but a shadow of your life’s past, and forgotten by a society which fails to acknowledge you exist. Though this is far from what most people envision when they think about the common experience of members of their community members, upon looking deeper, it is often the reality.
When I arrived at Walsh Jesuit High School on the day of Labre number 281, I had few expectations of what I would be doing. I thought we would simply be preparing food, packing it into a van, and delivering it to all who needed it. My personal goal was to try my hardest to get to know some of the people who are experiencing homelessness in the Akron community and show them someone cared. What I was not prepared for was how these people would affect me.
The experience began with a drive from St. John’s Jesuit High School and Academy in Toledo, OH to our sister school, Walsh Jesuit High School in Akron, OH. Upon arriving, several students, faculty, and I prepared sandwiches and bagged chips while volunteer parents made soup and lemonade in large quantities for us to load into the van. Bag after bag we packed it all into the van until we were ready for our trip.
Before we left, we had a small prayer service to ready ourselves for the day’s experience. When we walked into the chapel we were handed a small card with a prayer on it. The bottom of the card read: “St. Benedict Joseph Labre ‘Poor in the eyes of men and women, rich in the eyes of God.’” I thought about what that meant; the small quote seemed so powerful and so true. Then Ms. Marissa Madden, a theology teacher at Walsh, shared a story with us about a woman that was going through a long struggle with alcohol addiction. This was a person that the majority of society would see as poor and struggling, but Ms. Madden got to know her, saw Christ in her, and cared for her. I thought that this may be what the quote really meant.
With the card’s words still in my mind, I joined my group as we set off for our first stop under a bridge and next to a loud railway. Being our first stop, I was nervous and apprehensive, but as I got to know Bob, a man who had turned the big 5-0 that day, and his friends I became more comfortable. We surprised Bob with a tent which he had always wanted and gave food, hygiene kits, and most importantly friendship to him and his friends. Everyone was so grateful for everything we had done, and before we left one of Bob’s friends said to me, “You guys are doing the work of God.” The only thing we had done was handed out a few bags of food and talked to them about college basketball March Madness, and to him that was an act of God.
On our way to stop two, a man named Carl approached our van. He had come not for the food or the friendship, but to tell a story about his life. As he spoke he held a straight, unchanging face, and he told us about how he became homeless. He was a man that had it all: shelter, family, a chance to do whatever he wanted in life. He got into the wrong things in his life and at one point was spending $800 on cocaine each day. Carl talked about how under that same bridge that we had just left he was stabbed and left to die. As he said, “God gave me a second chance.” Tears started to fall from his eyes just as they had from everyone in our group. He kept repeating, “Don’t be like me.” After sharing his story, he said a short prayer where he asked God to give him the power to move away his demons so he could see his angels. I am the son of a Pentecostal preacher and was raised my whole life in the church, and I can truly say that was the most powerful prayer I have ever heard.
We made numerous stops throughout the night, meeting wonderful people who shared stories about life’s ups and downs. I thought back to the card and what that small quote really meant. These were people that society saw as poor and having nothing to contribute to the community. But the fact is that the people I met are God’s face on Earth.
Saint Benedict Joseph Labre Homless Ministry is a weekly program originated at St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, OH designed to share food, faith and friendship with people experiencing homelessness. The program is now running at 2 other Jesuit Ohio schools: Walsh Jesuit High School and John Carroll University. Learn more: http://www.ignatius.edu/page.aspx?pid=502
To learn more about Labre project and getting it started in your community, please email firstname.lastname@example.org