by Connor Walters '09
It was a Sunday evening in November, 19 years and 12 weeks ago, when two teachers and two students whipped up some PB&J sandwiches, bought some bags of chips, and brewed a couple half-gallon thermoses of hot chocolate. They climbed into a Mazda four-door sedan and drove around downtown Cleveland looking for people sleeping on the streets.
As the story goes, 20-30 minutes into the evening, they hadn’t found anyone. Wow—everyone’s got a safe, warm place to stay at night was their initial reaction. Praise God.
They drove past the Bishop Cosgrove Center at East 18th and Superior. Known today as “central intake” into the city’s shelters, this spot is where they saw a man on the corner. They parked the car and got out to meet him.
Tim Grady ’95, one of the two teachers, offered his hand to the man and asked, “Could you use something to eat?”
“Could I?” the man responded. His name was Ron.
After a bit of conversation, Ron told the group where they could find someone else—the corner of East 9th and Superior. So they headed there next and encountered a man named Shorty Roush.
It was after the visit with Shorty that they realized they needed to keep track of who they met and where they were, so that they could find them again in a week’s time. They ripped a piece of cardboard off the box holding the sandwiches and jotted down some notes.
They continued throughout the city in this way, finding and befriending new people, often with the insight provided by others. “Definitely check in this alleyway. There’s a guy who stays there.” “Have you looked in the woods along that road? You’ll find some tents back in that area.”
Later that night, when the group returned to Saint Ignatius, the other teacher—Jim Skerl ’74—suggested they review their notes and pray for everyone they had met by name. When they finished doing so, they agreed that they would head out again the next Sunday night to maintain the new relationships they had begun to forge.
And so it has been for 1,000 consecutive weeks that these relationships have been nurtured on Sunday evenings on the streets of Cleveland. Known today as The Saint Benedict Joseph Labre Ministry to the Homeless, this program has transformed the lives of thousands of students who have made a friend on a Sunday night.
It’s a ministry of presence, as Skerl would say. The food and supplies are good and important material things provided to those friends on the streets, but the heart of Labre is really relationships. Students who become Labre “regulars” know these men and women by name: Surfer Bobby, Charles, Tracey, John, Larry, Don Zero, Andre, and so forth.
When alumni return to campus, they ask about their Labre friends. They rejoice when they learn that a Labre friend is doing well or has found permanent housing; they mourn when they hear that one has passed away. Indeed, the Saint Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearers have assisted with funerals and memorials for more than a few Labre friends throughout the past nearly 20 years.
Many have asked: What’s in the name—Labre? Benedict Joseph Labre lived in the early 18th century and was known as the “beggar of Rome.” Rejected from several religious orders, he chose a life of simplicity, giving to others whatever he could survive without. Labre also spent hours every week praying before the Eucharist. And so, for nearly its entire history, the Labre Ministry has begun each Sunday night praying and reflecting before the giant tabernacle in St. Mary of the Assumption Chapel.
This essential nature of the ministry—being rooted in the Gospel and in relationships—is what Skerl hoped would always remain central to the work. Skerl led Labre, together with his dear colleagues and friends, until his death in 2014. As other schools sought to start their own ministries, he always made clear that for any program to be worthy of the name “Labre,” it needed to remain tied to Christ.
Today, Labre ministries have sprouted up at high schools and colleges throughout the United States. Walsh Jesuit, St. John’s Jesuit, Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin, St. Edward, Loyola University Chicago, John Carroll University, Case Western Reserve University, Boston College, and Boise State University all have active programs. In most cases, these offshoots have been spearheaded by motivated students whose own experiences with Labre propelled them to share the good work with others.
Labre at Saint Ignatius High School has been guided by many faculty and staff through the years, and has seen its share of thousands of students who have had their eyes and hearts opened by the experience. It is the power of the encounters taking place on the streets, in shelters, under bridges, and in the darkest corners of the City of Cleveland, that has made 1,000 consecutive weeks possible.
This streak was never in serious jeopardy but has survived summer vacations, harsh winter weather, and, for the past 100 weeks, a historic pandemic. When COVID-19 shut just about everything down, the school administration agreed that Labre was essential work and enabled it to continue unabated.
I was a student of Jim Skerl’s and consider it a privilege and responsibility to maintain and grow this simple ministry together with our current adult team. As I told our group this past Sunday before No. 1,000 began, we would be missing the whole point if we didn’t take to heart a key line from the Labre prayer: Make us realize that in helping them, we are helping Jesus.
1,000 Sundays is a wonderful thing, but it really is just another week of living out the Gospels in a very real and sort of radical and countercultural way. After all, it was this Sunday, according to Luke, when He said, “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you.”
It’s as if He were saying, directly and unequivocally, to each of us: “Blessed are those you meet on Sunday nights.”
Here’s to the next 1,000 weeks. A.M.D.G.
Do you have a story, memory, or reflection for your own participation in the Labre Ministry? We invite you to please share it using this form. Thank you!