Malta Walks minister to Boston's homeless
BOSTON -- Every other Wednesday evening, members of the Order of Malta and their friends gather at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. As night falls, they take to the streets, equipped with bags of food, bottled water, and other items like socks and hand sanitizer. Making their way through downtown Boston, they stop to talk with homeless people on the sidewalks, in doorways, and on benches. The Order of Malta members and their comrades offer them sandwiches and water bottles, and in the winter, they give out gloves, hand warmers, and emergency blankets.
To an outside observer, these interactions may look like commendable but unremarkable handouts. But the purpose of these "Malta Walks" is not primarily to serve homeless people's material needs. Rather, it is about taking the time to engage them in conversation and being present to listen to them if they want to talk and share their stories.
Malta Walks have been taking place regularly since 2015. Christopher Carter Lee helped get them started after moving to Boston from New York, where the local Order of Malta chapter had established a similar ministry a few years earlier. Fellow knights Benjamin Malec and Steven Hardy now coordinate the walks with Lee.
Speaking to The Pilot in mid-July, Malec said that ministry to the homeless has changed in recent years, especially in Boston.
"It's kind of moved away from trying to fulfill material needs and more towards social needs, and to some extent, spiritual needs," he said.
Lee said they maintain a "prayerful posture" as they go out.
"It's not so much praying with a person that you encounter on the streets. It's more like recognizing the dignity of another person created in the image of God, and being able to talk to them, to hear their story, to understand the difficulties that nobody else will take the time to listen to," he said.
Most of the Malta Walks participants are young professionals or students. Some are knights or dames in the Order of Malta, while others are in formation to join. But occasional visitors are also welcome.
The walk coordinators try to arrange for one of the cathedral parish's priests to celebrate Mass for them before they go out. Priests have sometimes accompanied the walkers, providing opportunities for homeless individuals to receive a blessing or make their confession.
One encounter that stands out in Malec's memory involved music. A few years ago, there were pianos set up in Downtown Crossing, and one of the people they met on the street offered to play a song for them. This homeless man turned out to be a talented musician and revealed that he was a former Berklee student. His parents and sister had died in an accident during his freshman year. His parents' life insurance made him very wealthy, but his grief led him to drink and squander his money. Malec said he was struck by the prospect of what he might have felt or done in that situation.
More recently, a family with two small children came to participate in the walks. Some of the coordinators were uncertain about allowing this, but it led to wonderful interactions with people on the street. Many of them demonstrated latent parenting skills and expressed a longing for their own children or grandchildren.
"That was quite beautiful to see. No one's going to reject food from a three-year-old," Malec said.
The ministry's coordinators have built a good relationship with the cathedral community. Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley and Msgr. Kevin O'Leary are both chaplains for the Order of Malta, and the cathedral parishioners have sometimes donated supplies for the Malta Walks.
"This has filled a desire in the ministry offerings of the cathedral, to have a young professional community having a ministry here, and also something that serves the homeless in the neighborhood," Lee said.
He sees the Malta Walks as an opportunity for prospective members of the order to receive formation in their mission to care for the poor and sick. It has been part of the formation of multiple members who entered in their 20s and 30s -- an early age to make a lifelong commitment.
"I think that this is generating not only members but continuity over decades," Lee said.
Coordinating the Malta Walks was part of his formation, as well as Malec's and Hardy's. Because it can be difficult logistically, Lee said, "It forced each of us to commit something to the Order of Malta."
They suspended operations at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, when the cathedral and other churches were closed to the public. But once the cathedral reopened, they were back -- even though there were far fewer participants and recipients. Those who had worked or studied in the city were now doing so remotely, and there were fewer homeless people panhandling on the street because there was so little public activity. But that meant the Malta Walks were all the more needed and appreciated. Malteser International, a nonprofit run by the Order of Malta, donated masks and hand sanitizer for them to distribute, which were hard to come by at that time.
This year, the Order of Malta instituted a COVID-19 medal to recognize the work of its members during the pandemic. This award was granted to Lee, Malec, Hardy, and Edward J. Delaney, who is the grants and membership co-chair for order in the Boston Area and a regular participant in the Malta Walks. Boston Area Chair Thomas Egan Driscoll presented them each with a campaign medal during a Mass at the cathedral on the order's titular feast day, June 25, the Solemnity of St. John the Baptist.
Lee said part of what has made the Malta Walks successful is that they take place regularly, meeting at the cathedral every other Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. Some participants have come back after years away, because they knew the walks would still be happening.
"There were several of our friends who have come and gone, depending on where they are and what they're doing over the years, but they've said it's reliably there. Everybody knows it's every other Wednesday night at the cathedral, and they come," Lee said.
They have now held about 200 Malta Walks, and Malec estimated that they have encountered over 5,000 people on Boston's streets.
Lee said they welcome donations -- particularly of gift cards they can distribute -- as well as new participants.
The Malta Walks coordinators can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about the Boston Area Order of Malta is available at orderofmaltaamerican.org/areas/boston/area-home.