When sophomore TJ Vonderchek first came to Eastern, he, like many students, was excited to take a trip into Boston and explore the city. What he wasn’t prepared for was the amount of men and women he would encounter living on the streets downtown.
“You go in and you see so many people living on the streets and so many people with signs asking for money,” he said. “It pained me to see people of our Christian group who would walk by and not say anything.”
Vonderchek said he wanted to do more, but didn’t know where start. Emily Ludwig, a senior at the time, was one step ahead.
Ludwig was elected student body chaplain that year. Her goal was to increase student interest in community outreach and service.
“I realized personally that I not only had a passion for serving, but I felt like it wasn’t something that was a priority to students on campus,” she said. “I saw students that were strong in their faith, but didn’t prioritize service.”
After working for the Center for Student missions in Oakland, Calif., that summer, Ludwig realized she had a passion for homeless ministry.
“It was just urban ministry really. I had a lot of interaction with the needs of the city and interacted with a lot people living on the streets, in shelters, feeding centers,” she said. “I just saw a lot of stereotypes being broken down as students got the courage to talk to people on the streets. We often assume people are dangerous if they’re on the street begging for money and so we avoid them.”
With the help of a friend from the adult studies program, Kurt Gerold, Ludwig formed the sandwich ministry. The two of them got a group of students together and every Saturday they made sandwiches to take into downtown Boston and serve the homeless. However, Ludwig said feeding people was never their main goal.
“The idea for the sandwich ministry is not about sandwiches at all,” she said. “It’s about giving people friendship who are usually just walked by and ignored. The sandwich gave you a reason to walk up to someone.”
“We’re just trying to have that be an ice breaker toward conversation,” he said. “For a lot of people, we’re the first people that have even talked to them that day. And sometimes that means listening to a two-hour venting session, because that’s what they need.”
Ludwig said in the beginning it was difficult to get students interested in joining the ministry.
“Part of the struggle is we had to create a culture in which [service] is important. I wanted to challenge students to create time,” she said. “We knew that juniors and seniors were so busy, so we target freshman.”
Ludwig said her choice to pass the ministry on to Vonderchek when she graduated tied into this strategy. She hoped that by the time he graduated, the student body as a whole would be more interested in a service-oriented culture on campus.
“It seemed appropriate to give it to TJ, because he had been there consistently enough to know our vision,” Ludwig said.
Vonderchek said that while they average about eight or nine students each week who go out, interest has grown since the group’s start.
“When we first started it was only three or four people that would go out,” he said. “But now, certain sports teams have gone out with us, college groups from other schools have gone out with us — it’s been encouraging to see how many people are interested.”
Vonderchek said, in some ways, taking new groups out has been one of his favorite parts of the experience.
“I think the most rewarding thing is being that educational force,” he said. “Having a group of people be like, ‘Oh I didn’t even know this was such a big problem.’ People just don’t know about this.”
Ludwig agreed that this is her ultimate hope for the ministry – to raise awareness to the needs of the community.
“The hope is still the same as it was — that this would represent how much our students care about serving,” she said. “Something that I tell students a lot is there are all these things that divide us but we’re all in need of the grace of God equally. That’s the only place I know that all people are equally in need.”