by Connor Walters '09
The email arrived in my inbox on a Wednesday morning in November 2020. A young alumnus needed some advice.
"I was on my way last year to slowly beginning a small student group to go into the city of Boston and merely work on holding conversations with the homeless and trying to educate about the help and care that the city has offered to the homeless, but I have to admit that since March my efforts have basically come to a standstill," he wrote. "Nevertheless, I am determined to use this odd time that I have to continue planning and working on something that I think would bring a lot of good on campus as well as to the city of Boston."
I remembered Gerald Mastellone '19 as a repsonsible, upstanding and hard-working student. His interest in starting something like Labre at Boston College excited me. The ministry has spread to high schools around Northeast Ohio, as well as several colleges, including The Ohio State University, St. Louis University, and Loyola University Chicago.
"I wanted to reach out and see if I could possibly volunteer with the Labre program at Saint Ignatius this coming Christmas season to see how a homeless outreach group functions during a pandemic as well as learn the skills that I need to come back to BC and get something started here," Mastellone wrote. "I am really looking forward to gaining more experience in this ministry so that I can take what I learned and feel more comfortable starting something here in Boston."
Mastellone joined us on one Sunday shortly after Christmas, riding co-pilot with me through our East Route, which covers downtown Cleveland. He seemed equally at ease interacting with our student volunteers and the men and women we encountered on the streets. He asked lots of questions and made some terrific observations. He listened carefully as the other adult moderators and I reminded him that Labre is supposed to be a simple ministry; it is about relationships and faith. I think he knew as much, but it always bears repeating.
Shortly thereafter, he returned to Boston College to begin the second semester of his sophomore year. Just a few days before Easter, he emailed me again.
"I know I have kept you out of the loop in the past few months in terms of how the Labre program has been going here at BC, but overall I wanted to wait until the moment was right to show you that progress has been made. So, after many meetings, outings, and text group-chats inviting anyone I know out into the streets of Boston, I proudly present an historic picture of Boston College's Labre #8 featuring a dream team of St. Ignatius High School graduates (Matt Razek '09, Kevin Callanan '17, and myself '19)."
A smile broke across my face--Labre No. 8 already! He had been hard at work, for sure.
"I did my research, experimented with a few routes, got some friends and some bottles of water, and started heading out on Saturday nights to Boston where I have been able to make amazing connections with people who are currently homeless. The stories I have heard and encounters I have had are more inspirational than I would have ever thought possible, and I am so glad that I get to share these experiences with my friends who have come out with me. I started going out on Sundays a few weeks ago and I have seen a few less people but overall the experience has still been going well," he wrote.
"The main focus of this program is to make lasting relationships with those who are living on the streets and not in shelters in order to share the love and compassion that every human being deserves. Through this, I want to ultimately help to be the push factor that encourages people to seek the help that they need either through shelters, homeless programs, or medical care facilities. But at the very least, I know that I have had a successful outing if I have been able to have one meaningful conversation with someone. And all of this is grounded in the Gospels with a strong connection to reflection before and after each outing (I still have the prayer to Saint Benedict Joseph Labre that I got from you guys!)"
Mastellone said that he is trying to establish Labre as a student organization within the university, supported by Student Life or Campus Ministry, and with growing invitations to have more students join in the work.
"As of now I want to start reaching out to different groups on campus (Ignatians society, Jesuit high-school grad clubs, other service/ministry groups) to try and spur some interest from people on campus that I haven't met before... Actually, for the first time last night I met someone on the street who had recognized me from walking around the area in the past weeks. For me, the small victory of being recognized as 'some kid with a backpack and orange hat' is exactly what I want and allows me to know that people in Boston see me as someone who is approachable and only wants to help."
Remarkably, Mastellone is not the first young Ignatius alumnus to start Labre at his college this school year. Ryan Marshall '20, a freshman at Boise State University, found a Jesuit through the university's Bronco Catholic Association, made some friends, and began going out within his first two weeks on campus. He emailed me after each of the first couple of outings.
"We just finished our 1st Labre at BSU. It was me and 2 other freshmen and Kyle S.J. It went well, we didn't see the quantity of labre friends as Cleveland due to the fact there are less homeless people in Boise, but we now know where at least 1 camp is now. It was sort of like the 1st labre was only 4 people and we just tried to find where the labre friends stayed."
The next week: "I was unable to go to Labre today and so was the moderator, but 2 other freshmen still went out and had a simple Labre meal of PB&J. Boise State has now had 2 Labre's and counting."
I worked closely with Marshall for two years' worth of Sunday nights while he served as a Labre student leader. Nothing about his desire and dedication surprised me; the speed with which his efforts took root, I'll admit, certainly did.
Marshall's success in starting and spreading Labre was documented in the Idaho Catholic Register in November. In the article, Marshall said, "I see God in the homeless. It has impacted how I see everyone, how I treat everyone." Before Christmas, the Boise State Labre Ministry more than doubled its $700 fundraising goal to cover expenses for food and basic supplies.
For both of these young men, the work they have undertaken perfectly embodies two of Saint Ignatius' mottos: Men for Others, and A.M.D.G. Neither one is doing this for attention or praise. Neither is concerned about who gets the credit. Both simply want to be friends with those in need, and to do so because they have discerned that, at this point in their lives, this is what God wants from them.
In a year with too few stories to smile about, these young men are spreading them far and wide, on campus and on the streets.