How these young people find Christ on the streets

12 mins read
Christ in the City
Missionaries pause for a moment of prayer with a friend on the streets. Courtesy of Christ in the City

“This kitchen doesn’t stand a chance!” Meaghan joyfully cheered. The young missionary rushed to the sink as a raucous distribution of chores galvanized the members of this remarkable community to action.

A cool morning breeze drifted in the open doors and windows. The quiet Saturday morning faded away. Mass was over. Brunch had passed. Visitors had departed.

Standing at the center of the two dozen young people gathered in the dining room, Erin, a Christ in the City missionary like Meaghan, enthusiastically doled out assignments.

TOP LEFT: Missionary Nancy Reichert gives a hug to a fellow missionary. BOTTOM LEFT: Missionaries perform for guests and friends at Lunch in the Park in February. FAR RIGHT: Zach and Emily witness the joy inherent in missionary life.

As names were called, the young men and women encouraged each other, shouting and clapping with every assignment. Laughter, teasing and jokes dominated the household draft. Not only the kitchen but also hallways, bathrooms, showers and even the gymnasium were assigned for cleaning. Among these young people, the drudgery of cleaning was drowned by happiness, as even the most menial tasks were shared with grins and merriment.

At the conclusion of the community-wide chore distribution, a raucous rendition of “Happy Birthday” was sung to celebrate Erin, who was responsible for divvying up the duties. (It was not her birthday.) She humbly smiled and received the playful affirmation.

Then, half-dancing, the energetic young men and women set about their work for their community.

A different kind of life

In the heart of Denver, Colorado, where the lives of the marginalized often intersect with those seeking to make a difference, Christ in the City missionaries live out a unique form of service to the poor.

During a recent trip out West, I was looking for a place to stay for a few days, and this community welcomed me with open arms.

Missionary talks to homeless man on the streets of Denver. Photos courtesy of Christ in the City

I entered the mission headquarters (a former Catholic school renovated for community living) through the dining room just as the 28 Denver-based missionaries sat down to lunch. To my surprise, I was greeted with applause. Missionaries bounded over to introduce themselves and then showed me to my room. Within minutes, I sat down at a table of new friends, all of whom were eager to hear my story and share their own.

These missionaries serve the homeless. But unlike other outreach efforts or agencies, which tend to material needs, this apostolate provides an authentic human connection to a community often overlooked.

Embracing the missionary spirit

Blake Brouillette, who has been with Christ in the City for eight years, recalls his own journey from a mission trip participant in college to a full-fledged missionary and now the managing director. His story reflects the transformative power of the organization, not just for those it serves but for those who serve.

“Family and friendship,” Blake says, summing up what Christ in the City means to him personally. “Christ in the City brings people together, to enter into a relationship, and then continue this Christian journey shoulder to shoulder, supporting and navigating all the realities that we have to face in today’s world.” Blake insisted it’s a place where relationships formed during service continue to grow and support individuals long after their program ends, highlighting the lasting impact of their mission.

“There is always a moment where they have to realize that their love, no matter how heroic, no matter how stalwart, is not enough, that they need a love that is bigger than them.”


Zachary Martin, a friendly and soft-spoken missionary from Rantoul, Illinois, shared his journey into this year of service. “I was inspired by a FOCUS missionary friend and a seminarian,” Martin explained. His motivation stemmed from a profound desire to serve the poor, a conviction deepened by his college experiences and reflections on the teachings of the Catholic Church. “I read in the catechism about St. John Chrysostom’s words: ‘If you don’t give to the poor, you steal from them.’ Realizing how seriously Jesus takes this, I was really inspired to live out my faith in a radical way,” he said.

Missionaries Evelyn and Zach with a friend at Lunch in the Park.

Nancy Reichert’s introduction to Christ in the City came during her youth, sparked by a presentation at her sixth-grade youth group. Despite her initial skepticism — “I remember thinking like these people sound super weird. … Well, I’m never doing that” — a seed was planted that would come to fruition in her junior year of college. Amidst a period of discernment about her future, Nancy felt a sudden pull toward the mission she had once doubted. “One morning, Christ in the City popped into my head, and I hadn’t thought about it in years,” Nancy recalls. This nudge led her to a summer service program with Christ in the City, igniting a passion for missionary work that she had never anticipated.

Christ in the City was founded by Dr. Jonathan Reyes, who was at that time the CEO of Catholic Charities in Denver. Reyes had a compelling vision: to bring young adults together to form a community centered around the service of the less fortunate. Through Christ in the City, this vision became a reality.

Missionaries (aged 18-28) apply to serve in the program for a year in Denver or Philadelphia. In both cities, they live in an intentional community, a household of their peers, prioritizing prayer, service and simplicity. The missionaries divide up into teams, walking regular routes to reach out to the homeless on the streets. They offer the people they meet food or toiletries. But the most important thing is to be present, to see Christ in them.

During my Denver stay, I joined in the missionaries’ morning recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours. I was deeply moved by their attentive participation in the liturgy, their reverence and their prayerful spirit. Christ is loved in the people they meet on the streets but also praised in their midst in their prayers.

Authentic Christian community

Erin Bennett’s journey into this life of service was propelled by a transformative experience during her undergraduate years, where she participated in a service project in Ohio. “I just felt very loved by everyone. It was this time when folks accepted me for who I was,” Erin recalled. This profound sense of acceptance and community sparked a desire in her to seek out a similar experience. She joined Christ in the City as a missionary after she graduated from St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana.

Upon arriving in Denver, Erin, a Martinsville, Indiana native, was struck by the depth of community and the authentic love she encountered. “I never experienced a love like that before, and I knew that by being here, I wouldn’t need to want for anything else,” she shared. This realization marked the beginning of a new movement of heart, a commitment that has challenged and deepened her understanding of service and compassion.

“Christ in the City brings people together to enter into a relationship, and then continue this Christian journey shoulder to shoulder, supporting and navigating all the realities that we have to face in today’s world.”

Blake Brouillette

“What brought me here was the ministry, the apostolate,” Zachary shared, “but what’s kept me here is honestly the community, the people.” This sense of belonging and mutual support is a cornerstone of Christ in the City. The missionaries have formed evidently strong bonds with each other.

The missionaries find strength in community, especially when faced with discouragement. “Talking about it with my team helps a lot,” Zachary said, emphasizing the importance of sharing and processing their experiences together. This camaraderie is vital, offering both a support network and a space for personal growth.

Missionaries perform during the Annual Celebration event on Nov. 4, 2023.

Despite the physical and emotional toll, the missionaries find solace and rejuvenation within their community. They engage in a variety of activities, from cooking and sharing meals to exercising and playing games, fostering an environment where each individual can find rest and companionship.

During my visit, an impromptu hallway jam session had missionaries singing and laughing for hours. Rousing choruses of “Country Roads” and other favorites, accompanied by guitar, were sung into the small hours of the night. This communal support system is crucial, enabling them to continue their work with renewed vigor and a sense of purpose.

A team of formators accompanies the missionaries. It’s their role to help the missionaries find the resources they need to face the suffering they encounter. “There is always a moment where they have to realize that their love, no matter how heroic, no matter how stalwart, is not enough, that they need a love that is bigger than them,” Phil, a formator for Christ in the City, shared on a recent podcast.

Meaghan and Nancy pause at Lunch in the Park in February.

Part mentor, part friend, the formators are present to walk with the missionaries, to support, guide and encourage them. Blake described the formators as “leading the missionaries to grow in their Christian identity.” They also provide practical training to teach missionaries to navigate the realities of the streets.

Living in a community of missionaries, Nancy has found a family in Christ in the City. “The availability that these people offer and the love that they show and the patience they have for each other has been one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life,” she shared. This community has become a crucible for growth, teaching her the value of dependence, patience, and the joy that comes from serving alongside others who are equally committed to the mission.

A philosophy of encounter

At the heart of Christ in the City’s mission is the concept of encounter, a philosophy that looks beyond material aid to address the root causes of poverty and homelessness. Blake Brouillette, the managing director of Christ in the City, elaborated, “The root cause of homelessness, the root cause of poverty is a rupture of relationships.” The organization seeks to mend these ruptures through a “culture of encounter,” fostering relationships that transcend the momentary interactions on the streets and blossom into lifelong commitments to service.

One encounter that stands out for Zachary involves a man known as Oscar. For Oscar’s 71st birthday, the missionaries baked him cookies and celebrated with him, an act of kindness that moved him to tears. “He felt incredibly loved,” Zachary recounted. “It’s the connection that matters. That’s been one of my favorite encounters.”

“You can’t save everyone. But sometimes, a simple hello can make a difference for those who’ve been hurt.”

Zachary Martin

One of Erin’s most memorable experiences involved a heart-wrenching encounter with Roxy, an older woman they found lying on the sidewalk during a bitterly cold winter day. Roxy, having just been discharged from the hospital, expressed her fear of dying on the streets. Erin and her teammate, holding Roxy’s hands and praying with her, were able to transport her to a women’s shelter, providing not just physical relief but also a moment of profound human connection. “It was one of the first experiences where my street route, a place where a lot of people go to use and drink, became a place of life and hope,” Erin reflected.

Father Patrick Briscoe offers Palm Sunday Mass for missionaries.

Every missionary is filled with stories of their friends on the streets. Nancy shared a poignant encounter that starkly underscores the mission’s impact. The man, confined to a wheelchair and ignored by passersby, was in despair, having lost both legs to diabetes and living in one of the city’s most dangerous areas. Nancy’s decision to sit and talk with him, to acknowledge his existence when so many others had not, brought him to tears. “Thank you for giving me someone to talk to,” he had said, highlighting the profound need for connection that many on the streets deeply crave.

‘Love until it hurts’

Yet, not all interactions end on a positive note. Zachary described attempts to help a gentleman in his 70s, crawling on the ground, refusing assistance. “You can’t save everyone,” Zachary mused, reflecting on the challenges they face. “But sometimes, a simple hello can make a difference for those who’ve been hurt.”

The dining room at Christ in the City features a large crucifix. Hanging above the coffee station (which features a motley assortment of well-loved mugs), the crucifix is surrounded by the words, “Love until it hurts.” Not simply masochism, the quote comes from Mother Teresa. A patron saint of Christ in the City, Mother Teresa knew that real love is not free. Nor is it easy. “Love until it hurts,” she said. “Real love is always painful and hurts: then it is real and pure.”

“Take a leap of faith. Be bold, be brave and come here. It’s a great opportunity to encounter yourself, figure out who you are as a child of God, and also help you love other people well.”

Erin Bennett

Living in a community of missionaries has also introduced Erin to the concept of shared vulnerability and trust. “The hardest thing for me has been to let myself be vulnerable and let people see me for who I am,” Erin confessed. This process of opening up has been transformative, not only in her relationships with her fellow missionaries but also in her relationship with God.

Building authentic relationships is a critical part of the mission of Christ in the City.

Erin’s prayer life has undergone a significant transformation as well. Moving beyond a routine of structured prayer, she has learned to see Christ in the ordinary moments and in the faces of those she serves. “Coming to Christ in the City, my prayer life has changed. I’ve learned to see Christ in things that are outside, in ordinary moments, and bring him into conversations,” Erin explained. This shift has allowed her to encounter God in new and unexpected ways, especially in her ministry at the women’s shelter, where she has been moved by the resilience and hope of the women she meets.

An incarnational approach

“What missionaries are going to face both here and hereafter is an approach to life; it’s a reverent vision, a vision of the essential, a patient vision, a listening vision,” Phil said. This young adult formation program has become a movement that embodies what it means to live a life of incarnational spirituality.

Blake explained, “Incarnational life and spirituality can really be boiled down to the spirituality of action.” This principle, animated by the teaching of Pope St. John Paul II, guides Christ in the City’s missionaries to see the face of Christ in those they serve and to become the face of Christ to others.

Missionaries Gabby and Jeff chat casually with friends on the street.

As for the future, Erin has decided to commit to a second year with Christ in the City, a decision she approached with intentionality and prayer. “I just felt a lot of peace with that decision. I know that this is good and it will help me,” she stated confidently.

Reflecting on her journey so far, Erin’s experience with Christ in the City is a testament to the power of community, the transformation that comes with genuine service, and the enduring impact of encountering Christ in the least of his people. For those considering a similar path, Erin’s advice is simple yet profound: “Take a leap of faith. Be bold, be brave and come here. It’s a great opportunity to encounter yourself, figure out who you are as a child of God, and also help you love other people well.”

You can serve at Christ in the City

Volunteer at Lunch in the Park
Every week, Christ in the City serves a hot meal to anyone in need and invites the greater community to join in. Volunteers are encouraged to sit down and talk with the men and women experiencing homelessness. All food is provided through donations from volunteers. You can join in Philadelphia and Denver.

Join missionaries on the streets
Join the Missionaries in street ministry downtown on Friday nights, both in Denver and Philadelphia! Friday night ministry is a great way to connect to Christ in the City’s mission of knowing, loving and serving the poor.

Host a presentation
Are you interested in having a representative from Christ in the City share the organization’s mission with your small group, class, or parish? Christ in the City will send missionaries to share their stories from the streets with you!

Find out more about these opportunities or discover ways to donate to the organization at

As Zachary contemplates his future beyond Christ in the City, he acknowledges the invaluable lessons and experiences he gained as a missionary. “I’m very thankful for this experience. I’ll be better off for it,” Zachary concluded.

Nancy’s experience challenges the conventional measures of success. Through events like Lunch in the Park, a weekly gathering that brings together volunteers, missionaries and the homeless, Nancy has witnessed the creation of a unique community within the city’s darkest parts. “It really shows that we have built a community. … People are happy there. People are virtuous,” she explains, emphasizing the importance of seeing beyond one’s circumstances to the humanity that unites us all.

“As far as I am concerned, the greatest suffering is to feel alone, unwanted, unloved. The greatest suffering is also having no one, forgetting what an intimate, truly human relationship is, not knowing what it means to be loved, not having a family or friends.”

Mother Teresa of Calcutta

As she reflects on her journey, Nancy is filled with gratitude. “This place has shown me that God never abandons his sheep. … To be a tool in his hand has shown me how weak I am, and how little I can do, but if I try and live in accordance with his will, he will use me to bring people back,” she muses.

Words scribbled on Post-It Notes and cardboard signs hung on the walls express similar affection. “Describe Christ in the City in one word,” one cardboard sign reads. Missionaries and guests posted around it the words “humble,” “life-giving” and “free.”

I’ve continued to pray with those words since my visit. After all, they are the aspirations not only of young volunteers serving those in need on the streets but of every Christian in search of something more.

Father Patrick Briscoe

Father Patrick Briscoe, OP, is a Dominican friar and the editor of Our Sunday Visitor. Along with his Dominican brothers, he is host of the podcast Godsplaining and a co-author of "Saint Dominic’s Way of Life: A Path to Knowing and Loving God." He is also the author of the OSV seasonal devotional, "My Daily Visitor."