“John! Is that you, John?!”
After seeing the middle-aged man walk past and believing him to be an acquaintance, Kelsey and Emily sprinted to catch up with him, wanting to continue their conversation from the time before. But this was not John. This was Michael.
Michael stopped, looking confused and disoriented. His walk was staggered, his gaze was distant, and he had a difficult time focusing when the young women asked his name. He was, he admitted, “doped up”.
“Pray for me,” he said quietly after clarifying his name with the two women. “Please just pray for me.”
And with that, he turned around and walked away.
Michael is one of the many transients who live on or near “Mass and Cass” – the confluence of Boston’s Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. Often referred to as Methadone Mile or Recovery Road, this area is known locally as the epicenter of Boston’s opioid crisis.
Kelsey and Emily are two members of Encounter Ministry, a Catholic street ministry whose mission is to form disciples by encountering Jesus in the poor. Through fellowship and by being a loving, prayerful presence, Encounter missionaries bring the face of Christ to those experiencing homelessness throughout the Archdiocese.
Advised by Fr. Michael Zimmerman, the ministry cultivates friendships between young adults and the homeless. There is no agenda. The missionaries simply forge connections of love and trust with those who most crave it.
“We seek to befriend those experiencing homelessness on the streets of Boston,” remarked Kelsey after meeting with clients at Rosie’s Place in Roxbury. “Today was a joyful day for me. We met women who really love the Lord and I was inspired by their faith. I was able to dance and laugh with them. It was just a joyful day.”
Kelsey and Emily are two of a small but quickly growing number of young people who are engaging with Encounter. Several times a week and in small groups, the missionaries canvas different areas of Boston, including Government Center, the New England Center & Home for Veterans, and Boston Medical Center. The participants are enthusiastic not only about the ministry but about practicing their language skills (often Spanish and Mandarin) and sharing with each other a passion for their faith and Christ’s love.
“It was great to use my Spanish,” said Emily after speaking for nearly an hour with women outside of the food pantry. “We stumbled with our words, but they stumbled with their English, too. It was great to learn what is important to them.”
Steffi, an Encounter volunteer originally from Brazil, sees a real invitation to connect with Jesus through this ministry.
“Sometimes we think we’re the ones who are bringing the love to the poor, but their hearts are much closer to God. For [the younger] generation, we’re not used to what suffering is. We have a pretty easy life, and this ministry teaches me how to suffer better. I dedicate that suffering to God and appreciate how God can speak through these people to me, which puts me on God’s path and makes me stronger.”
Just as a central part of Christ’s ministry circled around serving the poor, so, too, do Encounter volunteers carry the Gospel through their weekly outreach.
“One of our goals in Encounter is not to treat people like problems to be fixed but rather people to be loved,” stated Fr. Zimmerman. “That’s really our mission. We have no other agenda other than to get to know and to love the person that is in front of us. And sometimes that’s challenging.”
“Oftentimes, there’s great suffering and we wonder what we can do. We take inspiration from calling to mind the image of Jesus upon the cross with Mary his mother and John the beloved disciple at the cross. Their mission at that time wasn’t to take Jesus down from the cross but rather to be with him in his suffering and to love him there. That is what we try to do as well. Love people and be with them in their suffering.”
This gift, as Fr. Zimmerman refers to it, has the power to reveal God’s love in action even when the reality appears to be one of despair.
“In this ministry, we see God in each other. We see the dignity of the other person. It is a gift of friendship, of relationship.”
As the Encounter Ministry continues to expand in number and in its reach, it serves as an important invitation to remember Christ’s love for the poor and in caring for them, we care for him.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous* will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ -Matthew 25:35-40
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