It was a student who first asked, “What’s going to happen to Labre?”
Alex Warrington ’21 stopped by my office on Wednesday to ask this question. He had been discussing it with friends. Even as the impending decision to close the school to students approached—and all the implications that were to come with it—they were thinking about the men and women they’ve come to know on the streets.
Frankly, it caught me by surprise. With everything else that had to be figured out, I had not yet planned anything different for our Sunday night ministry to the homeless, which was co-founded by Jim Skerl ’74, named for St. Benedict Joseph Labre, and going 899 consecutive weeks strong.
That first conversation with Alex spurred on many others in the immediate days to follow. It quickly became clear that no students would be able to participate, as all school athletic and extracurricular activities were canceled.
Sunday, March 15, was to be Labre No. 900—a milestone in a ministry that has been active for nearly 17 and a half years. More importantly, the rapidly evolving situation created a lot of uncertainty as to what resources and services might remain available to our brothers and sisters on the streets. Libraries, which effectively serve as a place to hang out, stay busy and avoid the elements, were closing. Agencies that serve this population were starting to change or limit their services. Amid all of the necessary precautions and disruptions to normal life, these people would be affected in very significant ways.
The consensus from conversations among our adult leader team was clear: Labre should continue.
We were unanimous in believing that many precautions had to be taken. Our team of adults going out on the streets should remain small. We would keep our distance from one another, even as we prepared the night’s meal. All surfaces would be cleaned and disinfected. Everything would be packaged or pre-packed, and bags of food would be pre-assembled. Hands would be washed at regular intervals, and we would use hand sanitizer after every single stop. We would follow the latest guidance provided by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, which sent out emails with advice and best practices.
At our visits, we would stay several steps back and calmly explain that we did not want to get anyone sick. Jim Skerl’s old saying, “A smile, your name and a handshake goes a long way,” would be partially amended, given the extraordinary circumstances: no handshakes, hugs or any sort of contact between us or our friends.
And so it was in balancing the tremendous needs of these men and women with whom we’ve formed meaningful relationships, and the importance of safety and everyone’s health, that our band of seven adults made Labre 900 happen.
The evening began, as all Labres do, with time for prayer in St. Mary’s Chapel. As the leader on this evening, it was strange to offer the night’s reflection to such a small audience. The first Labre had two teachers and two students; very few Sundays since then have had such few attendees.
We talked about the Gospel story from Sunday, about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, the idea of people who are “untouchable,” and the present reality that under current circumstances this was a label that applied to each and every one of us. But Jesus asked the woman for a drink of water, and she gave it. And so should we. We can encounter people while still maintaining social distance; we can care even from afar.
That part, actually, was also the message we gave to our team of student Labre leaders, who naturally were concerned about the 120-or-so people we visit on a weekly basis. Men, we said to them, you can still participate in Labre—through prayer. From the hours of 6 to 9 p.m., while we are out on the streets, make some time to pray for us and your brothers and sisters on the streets. God knows they could use it as much now as ever before.
It’s safe to say that we felt their prayer. Any doubts about whether hitting the streets was the right choice evaporated when: we provided a pair of brand new boots to a woman who had been walking around barefoot all day, when we encountered a couple sleeping on a city sidewalk because they said they hadn’t been able to get into a shelter, when people said, “Thank you so much for coming out.”
We went about our routes, and each van returned to Gibbons Hall. The adults who had served as scribes for the evening shared the stories of the people we encountered at each stop. Following the recap of each route, we recited the last words of the Labre prayer together: “Poor in the eyes of men, but rich in the eyes of God, St. Benedict Joseph Labre, pray for us.”
As the situation continues to unfold, Labre will listen to the guidance provided by health officials and NEOCH. But most importantly, we cannot forget the men and women we visit on Sunday nights. It was remarkable to hear from so many people—fellow Ignatius employees, parents of Ignatius students, and young alumni—who all reached out to see if we could use some help.
Our answer to everyone outside of our small team is, yes, you can help. It may seem simple, but as we say every Sunday, prayer is just as important as what we do on the streets.
So please join us in remembering and praying for James and Amy and Charles and Frederico and Brandy and Tony and LaFranz and Chris and all these men and women. You might consider devoting a portion of your Sunday evening in prayer, at home, from 6-9 p.m. You can say the Labre prayer, which follows the end of this story. That, we can honestly say, would be a huge help.
Labre 900 was quiet and strange and beautiful and important. We wish we could have shared it with students but we know that, in a way, we still did. Labre 900 was unique—just like all the others before it, and all the others still to come.
Prayer to St. Benedict Joseph Labre
St. Benedict Joseph Labre,
you gave up honor, money and home for love of Jesus.
Help us to set our hearts on Jesus,
and not on the things of this world.
You lived in obscurity among the poor in the streets,
enable us to see Jesus in our poor brothers and sisters
and not judge by appearances.
Make us realize that in helping them we are helping Jesus.
Show us how to befriend them and not pass them by.
St. Benedict Joseph Labre,
you had a great love for prayer.
Obtain for us the grace of persevering prayer,
especially adoration of Jesus in the most Blessed Sacrament.
St. Benedict Joseph Labre,
poor in the eyes of men, but rich in the eyes of God,
pray for us.