The Surprise I Found in East St. Louis

IMG_8286 Over spring break I had the opportunity to go on a Service & Justice Trip through the CCSJ to Hubbard House in East St. Louis. Eight other Creighton students and I made the seven hour drive to East St. Louis not really knowing what to expect from the week ahead of us. Everything we heard about East St. Louis were warnings to “stay safe” and not to “go out on our own.”

Needless to say, we were excited for our trip but also a little apprehensive about the places we were going and the people we would meet. As an outsider, I was prepared to experience some hostility from the community in East St. Louis, and I knew that the week would be challenging, but I honestly was not expecting to be surprised.

Surprised is an understatement in terms of how incredibly welcoming the people of East St. Louis were to our group. One example of this was on a day where we spent the morning working in a soup kitchen and thrift shop run by St.Vincent DePaul, Catholic Charities. When we first started serving lunch at the soup kitchen, I was overwhelmed by the sad situations that many of the people eating there where going through. The majority of the guests were homeless and many of them had substance abuse problems. I felt like there wasn’t much that I could say to them as I handed them plates of hot mashed potatoes, gravy and ham; so I smiled and gave each of them a warm greeting.

The response I received was not only surprising, but truly touching. They would ask where we all were from and genuinely smiled at us and thanked us for coming to volunteer. Then, one older man named James asked us to join him for lunch. And that day, there in a small, artificially lit soup kitchen, I felt truly connected and part of our larger human community.

James lives a much different life than my group and I do. He experiences poverty, racism and homelessness on a daily basis while we are earning college degrees and sleeping in warm beds, but for that one hour we sat as friends and shared our stories. We shared a meal together and were welcomed with open arms, as guests into a community that only a couple days before we had been afraid of.

It is true that there is much poverty and misfortune in East St. Louis. It is true that the large majority of the community there is African-American. It is true that they have one of the highest crime rates in the country. However, it is also true that there is a lot of life in East St. Louis. There are hundreds of children that are inspired by the portrait of the leader of the world’s most powerful country who looks just like them. There are wonderful people like Paulynn, Sister Marge and Pat who work and live in East St. Louis, running soup kitchens, Catholic Schools and homeless shelters. There are hard working parents who are struggling to provide for their children. There are homeless people who care for each other and form “street families.” East St. Louis is a place where people depend on one another and watch out for each other. In every person we met there, whether rich or poor, black or white, young or old, there was soul and there was a very human quality: perseverance.

Michelle Villegas
Class of 2015
College of Arts and Sciences
Student Coordinator

The CCSJ blogs are meant to be a place for Creighton students, faculty, staff, alumni/ae, and friends to reflect on their experiences with programs sponsored by the office or related to its mission. The views expressed in these reflections, and all other blogs found on or linked to from this website, are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of Creighton University, the Creighton Center for Service and Justice (CCSJ), or any of the University’s affiliates. The University and the CCSJ are not responsible for the actions, content, accuracy, or opinions expressed in these blogs.