Growing up outside of Los Angeles, Christian Duran and his family often visited El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument. They were tourists, soaking up the culture.
This summer, he has been spending his mornings in the same area, but with a different purpose. Instead of sightseeing, the 21-year-old is there to see the people, particularly the homeless who sleep or spend their days in the Plaza.
He typically greets them by saying, “Hi, my name is Christian, what’s your name?” He asks if he can sit down, and talks about whatever comes to mind — how their day is going, where they’re from.
“I had been here tons of times with my family as a tourist for the cultural sites, but I never encountered the homeless,” said Duran. “My parents were always like, ‘Scurry along, keep moving.’ But now I’m talking to them and it’s giving me a completely different view of, that’s a human, that’s a person who needs love and attention.”
Duran is part of a young adult Catholic missionary organization called Christ in the City. Along with eight others from across the country, they’ve spent the past three weeks walking the streets of Downtown Los Angeles, distributing food and bottled water, and, what they say is their prime objective, befriending the homeless — or, as the missionaries call them, “friends on the street.”
This summer missionaries are also in Denver — the organization’s home base — Oklahoma City, San Antonio, New York, and Philadelphia.
For Duran and the others, it’s this personal encounter with the poor that’s most important to their work. They acknowledge that other charities and social service agencies are better equipped to provide material support to the poor or advocate for policy change.
What they can provide, they say, is relief from the loneliness and isolation that homelessness often brings, particularly at a time when homelessness is on the rise in Los Angeles.
According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s 2019 homeless count, more than 36,000 homeless individuals now live in the city, a 16 percent increase from last year, and nearly 60,000 homeless people live in Los Angeles County.
“Jesus wanted to be with those on the streets in a very personal and loving way and manifest his love on the streets all the time,” said Matthew Flaherty, a 25-year-old from the San Gabriel Valley and a full-time missionary for Christ in the City. “There are so many people out there who know the name of Jesus, but don’t know the love of Jesus.”
Another part of the missionaries’ work is immersing themselves in prayer. In addition to providing spiritual formation to the young adults, Duran said it’s a critical part of their work with the poor — they can only give of the love they’ve received from God, he said.
Every morning the group wakes up at 6 a.m. for morning prayer and breakfast. They commute from the nearby convent where they’re staying to Our Lady Queen of Angels Church, where they spend an hour in adoration with the Blessed Sacrament, followed by a couple hours of street ministry.
At noon they attend Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, followed by lunch, free time, and a group social activity. At night, the group comes together again for evening prayer.
“You can’t give what you don’t have,” Duran said. “We give of the love we’ve received.”
Adrian Flores, associate director of parish and community leadership for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Office of Life, Justice and Peace, which invited Christ in the City to Los Angeles, said that one thing that sets the missionaries apart is their joy.
“Because the ministry’s foundation is Christ, and it’s their goal to share Christ with others, you can see the joy right off their faces from a mile away,” he said.
“For someone who’s homeless and sees someone who comes up to them smiling, instead of, ‘Hey, do you have an ID?’ and all those questions, but instead says, ‘How are you doing? My name is so-and-so. Do you need anything? Can I sit here for a bit?’ It’s way more inviting.”
Flores said that his office had been working for the past year to bring Christ in the City to Los Angeles, and that he even became a summer of service volunteer in Denver last year to learn more about how the organization works. This year was a pilot program for Los Angeles, and he expects the archdiocese to continue hosting summer missionaries.
Next year, Flores said he hopes to add a weekly lunch in the park — which the program in Denver features — that would invite local Catholics and parishes to receive training on how to encounter the homeless so that they can also participate in street ministry.
“The more we offer opportunities like this for our parishes to go out and serve, the outcome is transformation,” he said. “You’re going to be transformed by getting out of your comfort zone and speaking to this person you might not know — a stranger.”
Duran said that doing street ministry with Christ in the City — what he called “the most worthwhile” experience of his life — challenged his old stereotypes of homelessness. Like most people, he said that he had thought of the homeless as dangerous, and would tense up and walk quickly when he would see them in public.
But after hearing many of their stories, he knows that the conditions for homelessness are often out of a person’s control, and that living on the streets doesn’t take away from a person’s humanity.
Some people he’s met, Duran said, haven’t even heard their own name in months.
“Particularly as Catholics, if we take our faith seriously, and if we call each other children of God and them our brothers and sisters, that means something, and they’re worth more than our judgment and half-hearted assumptions,” he said.
Janise Williams, a 20-year-old from Pittsburgh, agreed.
“The first day I was on street ministry, I met a girl, and she was like me — I didn’t know she was homeless,” said Williams, who was born and raised as a Baptist and was confirmed in April of this year.
“She started crying to me, she said this was the first time she had a real conversation in months. And that just changed my perspective of how people are, and that’s why I’m here. I’m more appreciative of what I have.”
For 19-year-old Klaire Denny, a full-time Christ in the City missionary based in Denver, encountering the homeless is nothing new, but working in Los Angeles has still been instructive in seeing the different ways cities tackle homelessness.
Denver has a camping ban in place, she said, so the homeless are constantly forced to move their belongings and find new places to sleep. In Los Angeles, however, the homeless have set up tents on sidewalks and in other public places, so they’re often more comfortable, she said.
In addition to challenging perceptions of homelessness, in some ways Christ in the City has also upended homeless people’s views of Catholic missionaries, Duran said.
“We don’t go out with this Catholic agenda, we’re not there to specifically talk to them about the faith or about Jesus,” said Duran, who was dressed in a Star Wars T-shirt and jeans.
“Our friends on the street will expect us to come with some plug, or some come to [a] Jesus talking point, and once that moment doesn’t come, they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s just here to have a conversation,’ and that wall just comes down and they start to open up.”
One morning, Duran and two other missionaries wound their way from Our Lady Queen of Angels Church to Union Station and through Olvera Street, carrying backpacks full of bottled water and a black tote bag full of burritos they made the night before with the homeless service organization, The Burrito Project.
After all the provisions had been distributed, they introduced themselves to a man sitting on a park bench, and chatted with him about where they were each from, laughter punctuating the conversation.
Flaherty said that walking the same route every day — around City Hall and through Grand Park — and seeing the same people every day has also helped them connect.
“There’s a really quiet man who we talked to, and he barely talked to us, but over the past two weeks we consistently said hello to him,” he said. “Today we walked up and said, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ and he lit up and was so excited to see us and talk.”
Even after the three-week Christ in the City program ends on June 16, Duran said that he plans on continuing the street ministry, but this time alongside his friends from back home in Rancho Cucamonga. He hopes that other young people will follow their lead and connect with the poor in whatever way — and with any organization — they can.
“If you’re even slightly curious,” he said, “reach out and get out on the streets. It’s not as scary or crazy as it sounds. It’s just a human being meeting another human being.”
Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil is an award-winning reporter and graduate of Harvard Divinity School whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, NBCNews.com, Religion News Service, and other publications.
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