Christ in the City Serves Friends in Need on the Street
A formation program that is actively involved in homeless ministry in Denver marks 10 years as a Catholic apostolate.
DENVER — The summer before his senior year of college, Zach Meneses was living by himself and working in Omaha, Nebraska. He did not have a lot of human contact and struggled with loneliness. It was a pretty unhappy and dark spot in his life, he recalled. During work one day, he listened to a talk by Jonathan Reyes, founder of the Christ in the City apostolate, about reaching out to the homeless and later walked home, passing by a homeless man on a bench.
“I walked past him a couple feet and stopped in my tracks,” Meneses said. “I realized I can’t listen to a talk by Dr. Reyes and walk past this homeless man without saying ‘Hi’ or reaching out in some way.”
Meneses ended up saying, “Hello,” sat next to the man and talked for more than two hours.
“It was the moment I felt most seen and connected with someone the most all summer,” he said. “I really needed friendship, and, evidently, so did he.”
Six months later, Meneses applied for a year of service as a missionary with Christ in the City, a formation program that is actively involved in homeless ministry in Denver.
Rooted in Prayer and Service
Founded in 2011 by Reyes, Christ in the City is a Catholic apostolate open to young adults ages 18 to 28. Missionaries are invited to sign up for a year or summer of serving the poor. They live in community and follow a structured schedule, beginning each day with morning prayer and a Holy Hour.
“These are the years when people are shaping their identity for the rest of their lives,” Reyes, who is now the senior vice president of communications and strategic partnerships for the Knights of Columbus, told the Register. “This is a moment that is going to shape their lives forever — to be of service to the Church, not just in their years of service with Christ in the City, but in the world.”
Christ in the City grew from 15 volunteers in its first year to a robust 34 year-of-service missionaries today. They live in a refurbished middle school, with a men’s and women’s wing for sleeping, an industrial-size kitchen to prepare their meals, a chapel for use throughout the day, classrooms and a gym for recreation. Adult formators play an active role in supporting the missionaries as they encounter the homeless and navigate their experiences with Christ in the City.
“Personally, one of the huge things for me has been our morning prayer routine,” said Meneses, who is in his second year as a missionary. “There is something about having prayer built into my life every single day that is just absolutely transformative in how I see my day, in how I see my relationship with God. So much of the rest of our life flows from there.”
After morning prayer, the missionaries then head out in teams of three to encounter the homeless across the city for the next several hours. At noon, the missionaries attend Mass at the Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, located in downtown Denver, near where many of the homeless reside. The missionaries then return home to eat lunch as a community. In the afternoon, they take classes through the Augustine Institute, University of Mary or Denver Biblical School, engage in training opportunities or complete internships.
Christ in the City’s formation for young adults includes four aspects — intellectual, human, spiritual and apostolic.
“It is important that the missionaries understand the social teaching of the Catholic Church,” said Mark Bauman, president of the board of directors for Christ in the City. “Intellectual formation helps us because we can bring up something that really speaks to something the homeless are dealing with in their lives.”
Formators guide the missionaries in how to live in community (human formation) and how to encounter the homeless (apostolic formation). Having regular access to the sacraments and regular prayer provides the fourth aspect (spiritual formation) of the formation process.
“If you’ve been a missionary at Christ in City, living in community, being formed in the four aspects of formation, spending a year on the streets with the homeless, you are prepared to go out to do anything 10 times better,” Bauman said.
In the evening, the missionaries have some free time, eat dinner as a community, participate in formation groups or engage in a community night.
“The most difficult thing for me to adjust to was the schedule, which was so drastically different from college,” said Anya Hong, a second-year missionary from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “You sign up for basically a whole year to just say, ‘Yes’ to whatever you’re asked to do. You are called to be totally available.”
Gift of Presence
In addition to year-of-service missionaries, Christ in the City has a summer-of-service program with upwards of 75 young adults participating and more than 300 weeklong volunteers through college mission trips. Families and the greater community are also welcome to volunteer for lunch in the park.
Serving lunch on Wednesdays and the second Saturday of the month in Denver’s Civic Center Park provides the missionaries an opportunity to connect to and spend more time with the homeless in the community, with the ultimate goal of helping each person believe that they are known and loved.
“We go to the streets trying to know, love and serve the homeless, which means becoming their friends and being a consistent presence,” said Blake Brouillette, program director and former missionary with Christ in the City. “Because, like Mother Teresa talked about in her visit to the United States, one of the greatest poverties in the Western world is poverty of loneliness, being unwanted or uncared for.”
The core philosophy of Christ in the City is to encounter their friends on the streets. For many Christ in the City missionaries, there is a moment when the homeless are no longer strangers on the streets, but true friends.
“The ability to have the sense of otherness in my own head and heart disappear was huge,” Meneses said. “Having that line of distinction begin to be erased is a big part of what we’re trying to do. They aren’t projects or tasks. They are people who have the same needs and wants and desires as I do.”
Christ in the City also acts as a connector between local resources and the homeless. Missionaries will often accompany the homeless to shelters, housing opportunities and mental-health support, while assisting organizations also come to the lunch in the park to connect with those in need.
Catholic Charities of Denver is one organization that regularly partners with Christ in the City’s lunch in the park outreach.
“Christ in the City builds a new bridge of trust with someone that may feel alone and forgotten,” said Mark Hahn, volunteer and parish relations coordinator at Catholic Charities of Denver. “When a friend might be ready to move from street-living to receiving more direct services and support, Christ in the City is there to help listen and navigate. With Catholic Charities in a position to provide transitional housing, support and guidance, the groundwork provided by Christ in the City can really make the move from street to permanent housing seamless.”
Hahn shared that, for the homeless who struggle with services, Christ in the City provides a powerful connection and support, which can ease the challenges the homeless face as they work toward obtaining services.
“The thing the homeless are missing that Christ in the City really fulfills is the fact that the chronically homeless have no support,” said Carl Husmann, who served with Christ in the City during the second year of the program. “What’s missing in their lives is somebody who can look them in the eye and tell them that they matter. If somebody can give you meaning and purpose in your life, that’s what’s going to help you choose to try to better your life and hopefully get off the streets.”
One such example is Ron, a friend of many of the missionaries and alumni of Christ in the City. Ron used to be homeless and is now working at the St. Francis Center, ministering to the homeless.
“Ron came into the Church about five years ago,” Bauman said. “He loves helping other people, and he still comes to lunch in the park to hang out with us.”
While stability and material security for the people they are accompanying is a marker of success for Christ in the City, those involved are more concerned with helping the people they meet understand that they have worth.
“The homeless are not a problem to be solved,” Reyes said. “They are humans to be loved. Our goal is to help them know they are loved and that they are a gift to others.”
Over the past year, Christ in the City played a more active role in acquiring resources for the homeless and shifted course in how they provide meals because of the pandemic. They developed mobile units and drove around downtown feeding the homeless.
“During COVID we became a big resource in a big moment for the homeless, to meet the needs of our friends in a moment when everything changed,” Brouillette said.
The pandemic also changed how Christ in the City hoped to celebrate its 10th anniversary. Instead of an in-person fundraising event, they held a virtual annual celebration and provided small group or hosting kits to facilitate community and encounter, true to their mission.
In the summer of 2019, Christ in the City sent mission teams to five other cities to lead three-week service opportunities as a pilot program in new locations. They are considering expanding their apostolate to other cities on a more permanent basis. Wherever they are serving, their mission is always in mind.
“Our mission is to know, love and serve the poor,” Hong said. “Most people hear that and they think, ‘Oh, the homeless, the materially poor,’ and that is absolutely true. But, while we are here, we are being equipped to know, love and serve the poor — whether that means spiritually poor or materially poor — wherever they may be.”
Autumn Jones writes from Colorado.