Families burdened with bags full of home décor rush past Bobby. Less than a hundred feet away from the Magnolia Silos, Bobby receives little more than a passing glance as tourists move past, many avoiding eye contact completely. It appears as if some sort of barrier separates Bobby from the crowds surrounding him.
Commonly referred to as the Baylor bubble, this divide seems almost indestructible.
After greeting him by name, a few Baylor students strike up a conversation and join Bobby, who can now say he has more friends than just “the good Lord.”
Starting this past spring, Street Talks Homeless Ministry sends college students outside the invisible but far-reaching Baylor bubble.
Houston sophomore Alex Tello said she began this ministry with the mission to “break that social barrier and see the dignity of every person, uniting the community beyond economic status.”
As a freshman, she launched Street Talks with little more than the desire to encourage the college students to befriend those from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Tello began inviting Baylor students to join her in visiting areas of downtown Waco in order to connect with displaced citizens.
“I wanted to create a space of fellowship for college students and also a space of security for our homeless friends,” Tello said. “We live in a city with a high poverty rate yet we are often very blind to the reality of homelessness and poverty in general. Once people build relationships with people who are literally living across the street from us and who don’t have a home, they can’t just unsee poverty.”
She said this ministry has ignited a passion within many students for interacting with displaced Waco citizens.
“They are now compelled to go out on their own and encounter the homeless people in a more loving way, instead of looking at them through the stereotypes we have presented to us,” Tello said.
When she first started Street Talks, the ministry was funded entirely out of her own pocket. Now an official ministry of St. Peter Catholic Student Center, Street Talks invites all students to serve, attracting individuals from a variety of religious backgrounds. According to Tello, more than half of the individuals who attend Street Talks regularly are not Catholic.
Typically held the first Saturday of each month, this ministry begins with a short training session. This focuses on providing students with practical tips for interacting with those living on the street, she said. The students then divide into groups of three to five and venture into areas of Waco where they are able to encounter the homeless population.
The groups bring items helpful for those who spend daily life on the streets, such as socks, hygiene supplies and soft granola bars,” Tello said.
But Street Talks is not simply another opportunity to donate belongings to the homeless.
Street Talks encourages students to introduce themselves to those they encounter, calling them by name. Many walk away from these interactions on the streets having gained a genuine connection.
“As a society we build up these walls, and this ministry pushes us to be the initiator to build a sense of fellowship with these people that desire to be loved,” Chavez said.
Street Talks extends the invitation to serve the homeless to those with little or no experience volunteering in this capacity.
“If you want to love people in need of that love, then come,” Chavez said.
According to Tello, this means that newcomers like Louisiana sophomore Morgan Uebinger are always welcome.
“You don’t have to have a social work degree or experience to interact with the homeless,” Tello said.
Uebinger said she first felt “nervous” as her group approached Pete, a Temple man who was waiting at the Greyhound bus stop to visit his family. They quickly dove into a rich conversation ranging from college football to his newfound Christian faith, Uebinger said.
“Pete was so easy to talk to, and he made me feel like I was having a raw conversation, which can be hard to come by,” she said. “I think we get so caught up in the business of our lives, we don’t really have these deep conversations, especially with people we consider strangers or different from us.”
The experience of interacting with Pete and other men and women living on the streets of Waco shifted her perspective on the issue of homelessness, Uebinger said.
A simple conversation may be all it takes to burst the Baylor bubble.