'Chaplains on the streets' -- Capuchin Mobile Ministries reaches out to homeless

BOSTON -- In August 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the San Lorenzo Capuchin Friary in Jamaica Plain began using a customized van to deliver food to places where homeless people congregate. Since then, the ministry has expanded in both the frequency of their trips and the depth of relationships they develop with those they meet.

The van seats up to five people, while the back opens up to become a sort of mobile kitchen. A refrigerator holds sandwiches assembled by volunteers, sometimes from a particular parish or school. A fold-out table creates their hospitality station, complete with barista supplies, where they serve coffee and hot chocolate in cold weather, or lemonade in the warmer seasons. The cabinets are filled with breakfast bars, care bags, and other items to give away.

But the purpose of Capuchin Mobile Ministries is not primarily to meet people's physical needs. At most, they can only give an individual enough to sustain them until the next time they meet. Besides that, there are many places around Boston and Cambridge where the hungry or homeless can get material assistance. Instead, the main focus of the friars and volunteers is providing spiritual resources and accompaniment, making people on the margins feel seen, recognized, and heard.

Capuchin Mobile Ministries has three chaplains. Brother Anthony Zuba coordinates volunteers and gives presentations to parishes and schools that are interested in helping the ministry. Brother Paul Fesefeldt, the operations manager, keeps the van stocked with supplies and interfaces with social service agencies. Father Samuel Fuller handles community engagement, getting to know the institutions in the areas they serve.

In a March 9 interview with The Pilot, Father Sam said the ministry is a witness to their fraternity. Hospitality, especially to the marginalized, is key to the Franciscan charism.

"This whole thing is really grounded in our prayer life and our fraternal life. Without that, we could just be any social worker driving around in a van," Father Sam said.

On Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, a small team of friars and volunteers takes the van around Boston and Cambridge from 2 to 7 p.m., stopping for about 20 minutes at eight different locations. Typically, one friar will scout the area on foot and let people know that the van is nearby, while another friar will stay at the van with volunteers, distributing food, engaging in conversations, and praying with those they meet.

Brother Anthony described the ministry as "a mobile church coffee hour," giving people a chance to not only obtain food but also check in and socialize. Going out several times a week enables them to see many of the same people on a regular basis and form deeper relationships with them over time.

"Just as pastors and pastoral leaders have a deep familiarity with the people of their parishes, we who are chaplains on the streets are getting familiar with our 'congregation' on the street," Brother Anthony said.

People then look forward to their arrival, and want to share news about their lives with the friars.

"They're anxious to share their lives with us. So we're glad to be there, to be part of that," Brother Paul said.

In addition to food and drink, they also offer tote bags containing bracelets with their contact information and a number of personal hygiene items and religious items, such as rosaries. Although they are not a clothing ministry, they keep a few winter garments and emergency items in the van in case they meet people in dire need of clothes.

When they return to the friary, they list the names of the people they met in a record book, so they can include these individuals in their community's prayers. Their Thursday morning Mass is dedicated to those they meet on the streets.

The friars have established "circles of care" at some of their stops, forming relationships with other nearby organizations and social services, such as those involved in harm reduction or addiction recovery.

"That's part of a natural extension of what we do, because to really engage homelessness, you have to work together, establish a fabric of relationship," Father Sam said.

Last November, the friars received a phone call from the city morgue. A man wearing a wristband with their contact information had been found outside the Harvard Coop, and the friars were asked to help identify him. They then worked with the Harvard Square community to hold a memorial for him.

One of their lay volunteers, Gary Riccio, met Brother Paul through Common Cathedral, an organization that holds outdoor church services and other programs for the homeless. When Riccio heard about the Capuchin Mobile Ministries, he immediately wanted to be involved.

Riccio said he sees the van as an extension of being out in the community, witnessing to people's existence. He thinks the most important thing is that people know the friars and volunteers know their names.

"That has a powerful effect, just being known," he said.

He recalled the way many people with housing behaved at the beginning of the pandemic. At that time, if people went outside at all, they went out of their way to avoid each other, not even meeting each other's eyes. Riccio said he thinks that was an experience of what it is like to be homeless, usually ignored and avoided.

The Mobile Ministries' volunteer base has grown as people emerged from the isolation of the pandemic.

"I think a lot of people are eager for more real-world opportunities to serve as their comfort level has been restored," Brother Anthony said.

He pointed out that theirs is an intergenerational ministry, with opportunities for people of any age to help. Although volunteers accompanying them in the van must be at least 16 years old, children and families can make sandwiches or write notes to recipients. Others who are unable to go out in person, such as the sick or the elderly, can contribute by purchasing supplies through an online wish list.

Brother Anthony said the ministry is a way of "reducing the distance" from people on the margins. Suburban residents, for example, may not see many homeless people where they live, but they can help those in Boston by preparing sandwiches for the friars to distribute.

"They're not in direct contact the way that we are, but they want to personalize their concern and express their care and compassion. This is one of the ways to do that," Brother Anthony said.

For the volunteers who go with them to the streets, the ministry is not just a service activity. They have their own gatherings, such as potluck meals, to cultivate community amongst themselves. They have also been holding virtual prayer meetings this Lent.

"We want them to feel that sense of community, and that's grown a lot in the last couple years," Brother Paul said.

Brother Anthony said that they consider everyone who works with them to be ministers of Christ, demonstrating the priesthood of all believers.

"Each of us in our own way is helping to exercise that healing ministry of Christ," he said.

Information about the Capuchin Mobile Ministries is available at www.capuchin.org/mobile-ministries. Those interested in volunteering, making donations, or receiving assistance can call (617) 413-9239 or email mobile@capuchin.org.