A night on the streets with Labre
Loyola’s homeless ministry serves up food—and friendship
By Drew Sottardi | Senior writer
Michael Conway has prepared his share of meals as a member of Loyola’s student-run Labre Homeless Ministry.
Since 2010, the Loyola senior estimates that he’s made, packaged, and delivered more than a thousand meals to the homeless living on the streets of downtown Chicago. Sometimes it’s hot dogs and fruit; other times it’s soup and bread.
And it’s always served with friendship in mind.
Conway and other Loyola students meet every Thursday evening at the Terry Student Center near Michigan Avenue to prepare dozens of meals and take them to those in need. They realize what they’re doing won’t do much to end homelessness or hunger in the city—but it will go a long way toward building relationships with people who often are alone and isolated from society.
“Our main mission is to build solidarity with people,” Conway said. “The food is really a bridge to start a conversation. And I’ve been really struck by how many legitimate friendships I’ve made with the people we meet when we go out.”
Labre Homeless Ministry started at Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland in 2002. Since then, the movement has spread to other schools and universities across the country; Loyola students started their own Labre group in 2007.
Nicole Chmela of the University’s Campus Ministry department works with Loyola’s Labre group downtown. She helps the students prepare meals and collect other items for the homeless. Then she heads out with them to deliver food and friendship.
“We try to remind our friends on the street of their humanity,” Chmela said, “and to help our students recognize the homeless instead of just looking away and ignoring them.”
Over the years, Chmela and the students have forged lasting friendships with several people. They see one couple—Victor and Evette—virtually every week along Michigan Avenue, and the two of them always light up when the students stop by for a visit.
“They ask the students about their tests and how life is treating them,” Chmela said. “They’re excited to see us and more interested in hearing about the students’ lives than to share details about their own.
“It’s really quite sweet, because it’s a real connection and not something that’s fake or forced.”
Senior Alex Boesch, who has seen Labre grow by leaps and bounds since he got involved with the group in 2012, is working to get even more students to join the cause.
“I’d love for everyone to find this hidden gem at Loyola,” said Boesch, who helps lead the group’s outreach efforts. “I tell campus organizations, ‘Please bring your whole group out, and we will create a separate night for you to experience Labre.’ ”
It’s an experience, Boesch said, that’s deeply rooted in Loyola’s Jesuit mission.
“We really do care for the whole person,” he said. “It’s the cura personalis phrase that you hear about at Loyola. … We reach out with food to get to know people and care for them—not only their physical needs, but also their emotional needs.”