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Taking it to the streets

Taking it to the streets

Loyola student James Egan, far left, and Water Tower Campus ministry program director Nicole Chmela, right, sit down with a man experiencing homelessness on Michigan Avenue. As part of Loyola's Labre Ministry, they focus on not just offering aid to the homeless but building meaningful relationships. (Photo: Mark Patton)

For students in Loyola's Labre Ministry, helping people who are homeless begins with a simple 'hello'

By Alexandra Jonker

On a recent summer evening, members of Labre, Loyola’s homeless outreach ministry, met in the chapel at the Terry Student Center for a brief reflection before heading out to Michigan Avenue. Amid the fast-paced shoppers and towering buildings, a quiet man they stooped down to chat with could have easily been missed—another fixture of the city to glance at. They stopped and asked if it would be OK to talk with him for a while, share some food, and see how his day was going. Such an ordinary exchange between a few people—a truly effortless gesture—ended in a dispirited man’s genuine smile, the result of having someone to talk to after a day of being ignored.

The same narrative was repeated throughout the evening, as the group encountered men and women on the street in need of not only food, water, and housing but a friendly face amidst a sea of people walking by.

“Labre understands itself as a ministry of presence,” says James Egan, a Loyola senior studying philosophy and one of Labre’s 15 student leaders. Eight years of ministry and four different routes around the Water Tower Campus have provided Labre with plenty of opportunities to form relationships with those they serve.

“It’s about creating personal connections in a spirit of solidarity with people who are often passed by and ignored,” says Egan. “By listening attentively and offering kindness and conversation, [students] can make a small but significant difference.”

This past spring, Labre acted as a pilot for the University’s crowdfunding efforts—with overwhelmingly generous results. Within five days the student-run organization was able to meet their fundraising goal of $2,000 to support their summer outreach efforts, and then went on to more than double that amount, winding up with a total of $4,600 raised.   

“All of our basic needs will be met,” says Nicole Chmela, Water Tower ministry’s program director, who has been with Labre for its entire eight-year history. But these operating goods—things like hot dogs, granola bars, lemonade, and the coolers in which to put them—aren’t the most important parts of Labre’s work.

“We use food as the mechanism for interaction and dialogue, but really it’s more about building a relationship,” Chmela says.
Those relationships have included highs and lows. Chmela says they have seen some people move back into housing, and others have moved away but later returned. There have also been some individuals experiencing homelessness who Labre members have continued to see since the group’s inception.

Although the focus is on the change that can be enacted on the lives of those on the street, there is also a change that occurs within the students involved. “It’s really at the heart of our Jesuit education,” says Chmela. “Students going out to meet people where they are, sharing their stories, and then coming back and reflecting on that in light of their own lives.”

Being on a campus in the heart of Chicago means students are surrounded by need; those who are struggling to make ends meet are often as close as the nearest sidewalk. Labre serves as an avenue for students to get out of their classrooms to really see what’s going on in the city.  

“Labre is an avenue for students to . . . experience some reality of the streets,” says Chmela. “That informs how they use and value their education, then in turn, what they will do when they leave Loyola. And I think that’s really a beautiful thing.”