Labre begins on Monday about 10:30 a.m. in the Styles Room across the hall from the bookstore in Loyola Hall. Myself, Connor Walters ’09 and Chelsea Schwartzman (our current Jesuit Volunteer) meet over coffee and bagels to talk about the previous night’s Labre and to plan the following Sunday’s meal and related activities. It is very informal and a great way to quietly reflect on what happened and what needs to happen for next Sunday. Chelsea is the key player at this meeting, as she is in charge of ordering supplies; organizing drivers, students and vans; and communicating with the various people who will ultimately travel the streets of Cleveland on Sunday. Her service is invaluable; without her, Connor and I would be fish swimming against the current. She, like her twelve Jesuit Volunteer sisters who have come before her, gives a year of her life in service to help with Labre and other C.A.T.-related after school activities.
Thursday is the C.A.T. (Christian Action Team) Meeting in which all of the student service activities at Saint Ignatius High School meet to talk about what happened the week before. Students tell their stories as related pictures are flashed on a screen in the front of Loyola Hall Room 227. It is a great half hour of reflection and prayer. It is also at the end of the CAT Meeting when students are allowed to sign up for the upcoming Sunday Labre.
Seniors first, always, then followed down the line by the remaining classes. It is very busy by the sign-up sheet as the lads firmly, buy lovingly, elbow by each other to get one of the limited slots in one of the three vans that travel the streets weekly. As it seems on the streets, there is more need (for slots) than there are vans to take care of those in need.
Depending upon the week, a flurry of emails and text messages fly among Connor, Chelsea and me over the weekend. “Mrs. X is dropping off some pasta from her son’s Eagle Scout party”; “St. Ambrose had a pancake breakfast and they are dropping off four trays of cakes and sausages”; “Smith got sick, but Jones wants to take his place”; “Ed, is a van coming to see us this weekend?”; “I’m stopping at Phoenix pre-Labre, anyone down for a coffee?” Labre lives in the hearts of so many people in so many places, and it is often fueled by Phoenix Coffee.
Officially, Labre begins at 4 p.m. Sunday afternoon. Three Labre Leaders, seniors or juniors, join Chelsea, Connor and I in the Joseph Family Kitchen. How-dos and stories are told as the weekly routine begins. Labre Leaders are students who have volunteered to come in one hour before the remainder of crew arrive. Their main job is to help organize and pack supplies that will be loaded into one of three vans. Additionally, they organize the various “jobs” in the vans once on the street (Who wants to be the pizza person? Who will hand out hot chocolate?) They also have the key job of scribe. The scribe has a notebook in which a roll of people is kept, what was said, and any possible needs listed.
The Labre Leaders head upstairs to the supply storage room. The storage room has: t-shirts, hoodies, coats, pants, socks, hygiene kits, blankets, scarves, hats, gloves, candles, plastic bags, undies, batteries, hand and foot warmers… The storage room is another domain of the Jesuit Volunteer. (We have an unsubstantiated rumor that a Labre Leader from two years ago is in the supply room...he has not been able to find his way out and we have not made contact. We are working on it. His mom calls occasionally for updates.)
In the kitchen, activities are fast and plentiful. Hot dogs are unwrapped and readied to be cooked on the Labre Grill, which is located on the back deck of the next-door Alumni Volunteer House. Hot dogs are grilled, rain or shine, snow or sleet. Connor or I usually man the tongs, but often a Labre Leader will take the honors.
Water for hot chocolate is set to boiling on the stove, the ovens turned on, sinks filled for washing pots and pans, and other foods on the night’s menu are brought out. It is about this time that Ed Plaspohl (Big Ed) shows up carrying two Santo’s sheet pizzas. Santo’s Pizza in Middleburg Heights has been making four sheet pizzas a week (two for us and two for the Monday Labre at Walsh Jesuit) for at least 10 years, and for at least 10 years I have snuck a small slice (I am the self-appointed chair of the Food Safety Committee. It is also essential that peanut butter and jelly be checked.)
“Hey everybody, what’s happening?” booms Big Ed as he strolls in. Pizzas are laid down, coat comes off, and Big Ed is down to business. He has volunteered and been the main driver for our East Route for over 12 years. Everyone on the streets from Progressive Field to East 55th Street knows Big Ed.
He carries a baby blue backpack with him and it is filled with supplies and such for about any situation the streets might create. (It reminds me of Mary Poppins’ carpet bag, although I have yet to see him pull out a coat rack.) He keeps a beard/hair clipper in the bag and will often shave needy people outside Saint Mary’s Chapel or by 9th and Superior. Lately Big Ed has been the driving force in re-organizing and simplifying the storage room. Tonight I see him quietly slip upstairs to check on the fruits of his labors.
At about 4:45, Mike Grogan comes in. MIke is over 80 years old and has been doing Labre as long as I can remember. He is a member of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, a group of 50+ year-old volunteers giving a minimum of 10 hours per week in service. In addition to knowing every inch of what is known as our West Route, Mike volunteers at St. Augustine Church in Tremont two days a week. He mostly helps homeless/needy people obtain state identification or help from various agencies. He is Jesus on the streets to me. He is in the frontline battle to help those who need it most and he truly is the most selfless person whom I have had the pleasure to stroll the Labre path. Mike is most noted in the Labre kitchen for stopping at Becker’s Donuts on Sprague Road in Columbia Station and picking up leftover doughnuts/cookies/pastries. Becker’s has been donating their excess bakery for over a decade. Mike is definitely old-school when it comes to bakery: One can never have too much, and everyone should sample the goods. Mike is not a man to fear a good Russian Tea Cake or Bearclaw. Becker’s does them both very well.
At 5:00 we move upstairs to the Gibbons Meeting Room for our group organizational meeting. Student volunteers, Labre Leaders, drivers and navigators all sit as the evening’s adult leader/reflector sets the stage for the evening’s food preparation. First and foremost is the announcement that it is the xxx-th Labre (as of this writing, it has been 791 straight weeks that one or more vehicles from Saint Ignatius High School have been on the streets of Cleveland visiting our friends.)
We then quickly shift to menu and jobs. “Tonight we have…” The menu generally includes: pizza, hot dogs, desserts, beverage (hot chocolate in the winter, Jordan Spieth [our version of Arnold Palmer named for the golfer and graduate of Dallas Jesuit High School] in the summer), fruit, peanut butter and jelly, soup in the winter, plus whatever we have on hand or has been donated. Various adult volunteers (Pat Manning ‘73, Benny Chen ‘07 and Ed ‘Little Ed’ Gonzalez most consistently) man various stations to guide the production and packaging of the night’s food. Clothes and supplies are moved to the various vans as well as cartons of food as they become ready. The kitchen is tidied up and we head across the street to Saint Mary’s Chapel for the evening reflection.
The reflection leader is an experienced Labre adult who ties the weekly Mass readings to our mission on the streets. Chelsea will ask one of us to volunteer as the weekly reflector. I am not a Theologian, and for me, this is definitely the most difficult part of the Labre Ministry. To stand in front of 24 or so students and adults with the idea of somehow imparting a message based upon Scripture seems ludicrous to me at times. Me? Rocky River Class of 1976 me? Anything remotely useful that I have learned came at the knee of Fr. Jim Lewis, S.J. when I was praying the 19th Annotation Spiritual Exercises in the mid-90s or listening to Jim Skerl ‘74 countless Sundays at the very same spot in front of the Eucharist on the altar. But stand I do and reflect I try.
The faces--they change, but they stay the same. Eager faces of students craning to hear something that might be of value. The faces of 12-15 high school kids staring at me as I stand before them, trying to relate the Gospel to our work with the homeless. Faces willing to give up a Sunday night to help Val by the Greyhound station or Jim on the West 49th Street bridge. Faces willing to give up a Sunday night to be wet and cold, laughing with Frederico by the FirstEnergy Stadium or discussing college sports with Chris by Metro Hospital. The stunning beauty of Labre is the faces I see, faces that are light years ahead of me when I was their age, faces knowing that life on the streets is not pretty, and yet by seeking the face of Christ on a Sunday night, they might find a dark corner and bring the light of hope. Sunday after Sunday I see this happen, the light of Christ moving students to go places they never thought, meet people they might have dismissed, and to stick a hand out and say, “Hi, I’m Bobby, and I’ve got a piece of pizza for you.”
Tonight’s reflection leader is Connor, co-moderator and an amazing part of our impressive Communications Department. Connor’s job, on Labre at least, is mostly to say ‘no’ to me. I am the 2-month-old puppy and Connor holds the leash. “Hey Connor, why don’t we think about (fill in the blank)?” If Connor pauses more than five or so seconds, I already know the answer is either no or a very reasonable permutation of the original thought. He is the reason we stay within the budget and don’t own a 5-story hotel downtown dedicated solely to homeless people. He is practical and capable of thinking an issue through far better than I. I seek his counsel. I call him friend. I treasure our time together. He makes me a better person. He was a Labre Leader before we had Labre Leaders. Tonight, he does a very good job of relating the story of the leper, Jesus and our friends on the streets. Lepers and homeless are outcasts, overlooked and undervalued, marginalized and avoided, starving for attention. Connor finishes, as all reflectors do, by asking a Labre Leader to lead the group in the Saint Benedict Joseph Labre Prayer, the final line of which reads, ‘Saint Benedict Joseph Labre, poor in the eyes of men, but rich in the eyes of God, pray for us.’ A quick overview of van procedures and we make our way out the door.
In the van, introductions are made. I generally begin with, ‘Tell us your name, class or affiliation with Saint Ignatius, and…’, a question. The question is designed to be a fun ice breaker. Tonight’s question is, ‘What is your favorite movie?’ (Most movies the students mention are ones I would never watch [Tin Cup...really?] and for sure none of them have ever heard of Casablanca.) The student leaders/scribes then ask for volunteers for the various jobs: pizza, beverage, hot dog, soup, etc. The most out-front job is the bag person, the person presenting the empty bag into which all of the food will be placed. It, as do all jobs, requires a handshake, a smile and a name: ‘Hello, my name is ____, and here is a piece of pizza for you.’ First names are essential. Many of our homeless friends might go an entire week without hearing their names. They might hear, ‘Hey bum!’, ‘Get a job!’, ‘Loser!’ The simplicity of a 16-year-old coming out of a van with a smile and a bag saying, ‘Hey Mike, how are you doing this week?’ is the gift of Labre.
At each stop, food and supplies are meted out, and stories are told, some joyful, some not so. A prayer might be said and a picture taken. On to the next stop. In the van, details and circumstances might be shared. Causes and cures are never simple. No one wakes up thinking, ‘Today is a good day to become homeless.’ I try to remember this at each stop, as I sometimes catch myself wondering why someone would choose to live in a tent in the flats rather than apply for housing. It is not simple. I never forget that no matter how cold it is, I am getting into a warm van, out of the elements, and that we are leaving someone living in a tent or makeshift structure. I go home to a warm bed and dry home, not worrying about the potential of being robbed, attacked or set on fire.
I have never come home from Labre thinking that I had wasted my time, nor have I come home ungrateful for the gifts I have received.
The three vans return to the parking lot behind Gibbons Hall around 9:15. Everything is removed and placed back in its proper place, be it kitchen or storage room. The Leaders are good at directing traffic, especially in the storage room. Our goal is to return to school with no leftover food or clothing, one we are pretty good at hitting. Hot chocolate always comes back, so the kitchen becomes abuzz as chocolate packets are opened and hot water applied. A dash of chocolate syrup and the best hot chocolate on the streets of Cleveland is had. Any leftover food is grabbed and when all the vans have returned, unpacked and everyone is beverage-d, we move into the hall for our final prayer. The Labre Leaders act as route scribes, listing everyone making the trip in the van, who we met, what was said and any possible needs that we might be able to meet the next week. “Mike at Burger King was doing well, and he actually asked for some batteries.” Poor in the eyes of men... “Bruno was in his garage and asked us to leave the food in the usual spot.” ...but rich in the eyes of God... “Val is thinking about going indoors.” ...Saint Benedict Joseph Labre... “We stopped at 2100 and dropped off the remainder of our food. All of the guys were very grateful.” ...pray for us.
When each van has reported, Connor asks us to reflect on the people we saw or maybe did not see, and to mention a name aloud. Quietly and randomly, names are said: Alabama Jim, John and Tina, Surfer Bobby, Tony, Austin, Frederico… Connor then asks everyone to remember the people we met, especially those mentioned, in our prayers this week. Prayer is powerful and is the core of Labre and all C.A.T. activities. The group is thanked, people begin to disperse and head home. Leaders and adults finish straightening and cleaning, garbage and recycling taken out and doors locked. The final act of the evening is parking the vans and head home. Labre begins again in less than 12 hours.
(This article is dedicated to Labre co-founders Jim Skerl ‘74 and Tim Grady ‘95, as well as to the hundreds of adults and thousands of students who have participated in the Saint Benedict Joseph Labre Mission.)