Every Tuesday and Wednesday evening for the past 20 years, the Generic Ministry (GM) van has left Needham to hand-deliver food, water, clean clothes, blankets and toiletries to Boston’s homeless. The Needham-based organization distributes approximately 3,000 blankets and 4,000 meals to the unhoused each year.
On Tuesday nights the van is stationed on Boston Common, and on Wednesdays volunteers search for people in need in the Back Bay before parking in front of the Boston Public Library.
Conversation and respect are a critical part of the delivery, said GM President Emma Navales. “I really try to take the time to be friends with our clients and hear their story.”
Needham resident Bruce Revzin, a CFO for a venture capital firm, has been driving the van into Boston for the past four years. He said these evenings have given him a valuable perspective. “I have developed a relationship with a man who chooses to live outside all year,” he said. “You really see the resilience of these people and another side of life that you don’t see living in Needham.”
Julie Dain, an office designer by profession, often partners with Revzin. She said, “You develop an attachment to the point where if these people are not at their usual spot you begin to wonder if they’re okay.”
Navales said a small portion of their clients are in Needham. “We work with the Needham Police, and if we find that there are families sleeping on the streets or in the woods, or in Cutler Park, we try to provide support. But our biggest connection to Needham is through the volunteers.”
Last Saturday morning, Dain sorted donated sneakers with the Needham High School track team to stock the van. Every week in October, preschoolers at A to Z Preschool on Gould Street decorate bags and make sandwiches to distribute downtown. Elliott School students also make sandwiches, and GM participates in Pollard Middle School’s Students Take Action Day. At the high school there is a Generic Ministry club.
“We do a lot of work with community education at all levels,” Navales said. “With preschoolers, I talk about being kind to others and looking after one another.
With a high schooler you can touch on aspects of homelessness like income insecurity, food insecurity, mental illness and addiction.”
Although Needham-based volunteers play an important role, the team of two that rides into Boston each week is the most essential part of the program. Navales said there are about a dozen people who volunteer on the van.
“Any new driver has to ride the van a couple of times first,” she said. “If they’re slightly uncomfortable driving it, we do some joy riding around Needham.”
“The more you go out and the more you’re on the van, the more you want to go out,” Dain said. Generic Ministry was recently gifted a new van by an anonymous corporate sponsor.
The toughest situation volunteers have encountered downtown is when clients think someone has jumped the line. In those moments, Navales said she assures her clients that all will be served. Dain said she has also witnessed drug use and mental health problems.
“Our clients come to us because we treat them with dignity, respect and friendship,” Navales said. “We used to make sandwiches with mayo and mustard, but our clients complained about a lack of choice.” Now, the condiments are distributed separately.
Dain said she used to avoid homeless people when she was downtown. Now, she stops and chats with her friends on the street when she is there during a workday, and she has introduced her daughter to some of her clients.
“You care about these people, and they start to see you as someone who cares about them also,” she said. “You develop an alter ego in the van. You approach total strangers under a blanket and ask them if they need a sandwich or a coat.”
Although the idea for Generic Ministry began in the Unitarian congregation and quickly spread to other churches, the organization itself is not faith-based. “We’re a ministry in terms of a ministry meaning service,” said Navales.
Today, Generic Ministry is on much more solid ground than it was in its first decade, when it was searching for program space in Needham. Currently, the Carter Memorial Methodist Church on Highland Avenue provides parking for the van, and First Baptist Church provides storage.
Throughout the year, Generic Ministry asks for donations based on the imminent need. “The one thing we really need right now is clothing donations,” said Navales. ”We’re really seeing the number of our clients in the city beginning to go up.”
People interested in volunteering can become familiar with the organization by attending the 20th anniversary celebration at the Needham Historical Society on Nov. 12 from 4-7 p.m., or at genericministry.org.