Labre Ministry and Personal Justice
Campus Kitchen is a relatively large community service operation on SLU’s campus, but there are other smaller outlets that create opportunities for students to connect more intentionally and deeply with the poor and marginalized of St. Louis. Named after St. Benedict Joseph Labre (1748-1783), the patron saint for homeless individuals, Labre Ministry is one such group that uses food as an excuse to create ongoing friendships with people living homelessly. The Labre Ministry at SLU began with a small group of dedicated students in the fall semester of 2011. Each week, Labre volunteers gather to prepare a quality, home-cooked meal and venture out into the streets to encounter the people who live there to spend time, make conversation, and listen. They return from their outings to reflect together on their encounters and conversations. Coordinated by a core group of 15-20 SLU students, Labre operates out of'SLU’s Manresa Retreat Center, a few blocks from the north campus, and meets for four hours on Wednesday nights to do the cooking, driving, and reflecting. The Labre members team up into different “routes” that drive to specific locations consistently over the semester, in some cases over several years.
Using a peer-mentoring model, Labre leaders teach other student members to: (a) listen to their unhoused friends more compassionately and thoughtfully; (b) approach, sit with, and accompany their friends in trauma-informed ways as they vent or tell stories; and (c) notice the deeper pains their friends experience. The notion of “service” tends to fade into the background of such deeply personal contexts, as one Labre student suggested: “When I think of volunteering with Labre ... I don’t think of it as service, I think of it as building relationships and community .... The main focus of Labre is conversation and breaking down barriers in society.” As such, Labre students place a sharp emphasis on the meaning behind their service to understand what their relationships and presence mean to their friends on the streets. In this way, Labre’s approach to justice is very relationally driven and represents a personal modality of justice.
Responding to others through this personal lens makes Labre members vulnerable in ways that arc rare in many service contexts, particularly where there are clearer demarcations of “service provider” and “service recipient.” Students arc clear in their intentions to blur this distinction: “What we arc doing with our friends is recognizing the dignity that is already there and the intelligence and the spirituality that’s already there.” Importantly, Labre students learn how to open their hearts to their friends and be changed by them. This principle guides the work of Labre: not to change or “save” their neighbors on the streets, but to be changed by them. As another student commented: “It basically yells at you to change your perceptions of the world and invites you to connect with people who, maybe, you wouldn’t normally connect with.”
The values of personal connection and respect are also imbued into the students’ preparations and organizing. Although shared meals serve primarily as a conversation starter, they are prepared with the intention of
Justice in Jesuit Education 63 communicating more care and compassion than ready-made or prepackaged food such as sandwiches or protein bars. Having consistent routes not only increases the likelihood of reconnecting with friends but also communicates their commitment to the friendships they form on those routes. Holding Labre on Wednesday nights (a rather inconvenient time period for many students) emulates the inconveniences and disruptions that their unhoused neighbors must live through every moment of their lives just to survive on the streets.
Group reflection opportunities provide the spiritual and intellectual conditions for students to process their encounters. Before going out, Labre student leaders lead a prayerful reflection on the deeper consequences of their work and the ways in which their encounters embody the values of Catholic Social Teaching and relational virtue (i.e., the “right relationships” form of justice). When students return from routes, they take the time to feel the emotions that were evoked during the encounters and to talk through the systems and structures of injustice that keep people on the streets. It also provides an opportunity for students to deepen their faith, oftentimes learning how to do so from their friends on the streets:
The thing that I got most out of Labre was ... my friends on the streets, their faith in God—because I look at my life and how I struggle with my relationship with God, and, you know, praying ... but there are people who are literally, like, “I don’t know if I’m gonna eat today,” and then, they’re like, “but I’ll pray instead.” That is just mind-boggling to me that people can have such a major faith in God ... it rocks you ....