It was 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and the guys—two scruffy college seniors in flannels—were making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Standing in the cramped, sunny kitchen of Manresa House, they searched through the fridge for supplies they had bought with their own money—white bread, apples, fruit snacks. Sometimes they switched it up and made turkey and cheese sandwiches instead. The people they’d be giving the sandwiches to liked to have options, the boys explained.
They would seal the sandwiches in brown paper bags and fill their backpacks with the bagged lunches and some clothes they had picked up from a thrift store earlier in the week. A flannel for Junior, a ski jacket for George. Extra socks and gloves just in case. The tiny kitchen was full of people now, a group of about ten students standing around and chatting about classes, professors, and weekend plans. But before the weekend started, first this.
The group took the T to downtown Boston and by the time the train reached Park Street, they’d split off into groups two or three, each with a backpack full of bagged lunches and a few pairs of socks. They gravitated towards the regulars first, the men and women who made the same street corners and sidewalks of the city into their homes each day, but they kept an eye out for new people. Sometimes they’d offer a lunch to one of the regulars and he or she would pass it up. “But go down a block,” they’d say. “There’s someone around the corner who could use it more.”
The first time I tagged along with these students, all part of a small group known as St. Joseph’s Project, I was a freshman and quiet. Mostly because I was awed by the seniors, but also because I wasn’t sure how to talk to the people we would be meeting on the streets. It wasn’t like volunteering at a soup kitchen or food pantry; there was no counter or table between us. What if I didn’t know what to say?
The work that St. Joseph’s Project does goes beyond squashy bagged lunches and thrift store winter coats. The real ministry was the senior guy who looked the bedraggled and grubby man sitting on an upturned bucket straight in the eye and leaned in for a handshake without hesitation. And then he stayed to talk for the next half hour, listening to the man explain his kidney trouble and summarize his unpublished novel. “SJP continues to help me see the immense value in a simple hello,” says Andrew Craig, a Boston College senior and a St. Joseph’s Project participant. “So many people go months without hearing someone acknowledge them and all many of them want is… someone to hear them.”
At the end, the senior offered the man food, and clothes, and took notes on his phone about what shirt sizes and colors he should pick up next time. Because the senior would be back again next Friday—and every week after. That’s what Xiomara Munoz, a BC junior and one of the current leaders of St. Joseph’s Project, loves most about the group—getting to know the people on the streets and seeing “George’s smile [or] the sparkle in Anne’s eyes once she starts talking about the memories from her youth” at the end of each week.
“That’s why I go back,” she says of the people who she meets. “It’s truly my honor and joy to behold that and accompany these incredible individuals, even for a short few hours on a Friday afternoon.”