Young adults 'Encounter' homeless on the streets of Boston
BOSTON -- Prayer, fellowship, and street ministry. These are the three pillars of Encounter, a ministry to the poor and homeless organized by young adults. Some participate once a month, some once a week, some several times a week; but all have the same mission: to bring to others, and discover in others, the presence of Christ through authentic friendships.
Encounter began with two women, Colleen McDonough and Monet Souza. In the summer of 2020, they went on a mission trip with Christ in the City, which forms young adults to serve as missionaries and build relationships with the chronically homeless. When the women returned to Boston, they decided to continue their work here. At the same time, students at Boston College were also beginning to minister to the homeless. They and other similar groups eventually united to form Encounter.
Father Michael Zimmerman, the assistant vocation director for the archdiocese, serves as the group's chaplain. He described the approach of Christ in the City as seeking to address the "poverty of loneliness," which the future leaders of Encounter found "very beautiful and inspiring."
"We're not going with donations or providing material assistance so much as building relationships, trying to form friendships. And we're not going so much trying to fix a problem but rather just love the person that's there," Father Zimmerman said.
In September 2022, Encounter established two communities -- one for men and one for women -- for those who wanted to devote themselves more fully to the ministry.
They hold "Jesus walks" three or four days each week. They start the day with a Holy Hour and Mass together, then split into teams and go out for about two hours of street ministry. When they return, they discuss their interactions and pray for those they met.
One participant said he and one other stopped carrying backpacks on these walks because the people they approached would immediately assume they were social workers. While they do sometimes have donated items to give out -- such as gift cards or winter clothes like hats and gloves -- their primary concern is not providing for physical needs but rather social and spiritual accompaniment.
Instead of giving handouts, they approach people on the margins of society simply to talk, acknowledging and even sitting with those who are used to being ignored. Many of the people they meet thank them for talking with them.
"It's a real blessing for people, just to have someone stop and talk to you," the Encounter participant said.
On the third Saturday of every month, they have a larger ministry day open to anyone. They meet at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross for prayer and formation before breaking into teams and going out into the streets. When they reconvene, they have lunch, debrief, and pray together.
They have had as many as 50 people come to the monthly ministry days. Most of the participants are in their 20s and 30s, though sometimes they are joined by high school students and their chaperones. Father Zimmerman acknowledged that a "certain level of maturity" is needed, since most of what they do is simply having conversations, and some individuals may talk about trauma they have experienced.
Kelsey Cronin, the group's hospitality leader, got involved with Encounter about two years ago. She had done some homeless ministry in college and felt called to do more, though she was not sure how. Father Zimmerman told her about Encounter, but when she first joined, she felt unequipped and unconfident in what she was doing.
"But it became clear that, with this ministry in particular, there's no agenda. We're truly going out and trying to have real conversations and just build a genuine friendship with people experiencing homelessness. And that's something that you don't have to be qualified for," Cronin said.
She has learned that moments of "discomfort or awkwardness" are "a natural part of getting to know someone."
"There might be silences in the conversation or things you don't know how to deal with, but almost wading through that awkwardness, allowing them to be, has opened up the door for these deeper conversations and relationships," Cronin said.
She said she thinks one of the most beautiful things about the ministry is "getting to see Jesus in each of the people that we meet." She sees their work as a response to Jesus' admonition in Matthew 25:40, "whatever you did for the least of others you did for me."
"That has become so real to me, in doing this ministry," she said.
More information about Encounter is available on their website, www.encounterboston.org.