On Friday, March 4th, some of us joined SF Night Ministry to walk the streets of San Francisco and offer a presence of listening and prayer for those in need. Here are some thoughts on the experience from Becca Rhodes:
(1) What was it like?
Before we walked with two night chaplains named Lyle and Tom, we spent about an hour talking through the experience of homelessness in San Francisco. Lyle described many of the social services offered to these folks by organizations and churches, and described that the role of the Night Ministry is to provide spiritual presence on the streets not only to people who are unhoused, but also to people who are out on the streets and to the many bartenders and restaurant owners that they have come to know over the years.
(2) Did you feel safe?
I felt incredibly safe! Lyle and Tom, the chaplains, are so well known by folks on the street. They are two middle-aged, 6 foot men who have a gentle presence, but because of the goodness of their spirits and reputation, no one is going to mess with them. Walking with Rev. Dawn, Lyle and Tom was fun because they were all wearing their “priest” collars- which got quite a lot of attention from locals who were out on the streets with their friends just talking and drinking on a regular Friday night. In general, clergy are respected in SF so it was quite safe!
(3) What surprised you?
I was surprised to realize how many preset patterns of interaction I have with people who are experiencing homelessness. You might call them biases. First, there is my gender which is oftentimes a disadvantage, while other times can be a blessing. Second, the Night Ministry does not provide handouts (i.e. money, meals, clothing, bedding, etc.), so I was surprised that when we were approached for a few dollars, my best response was, “I’m sorry I don’t have that.” Truth is, I do have the money. But that was not what we were on the streets to do- we were on the streets to provide a spiritual & human presence. My bias is to apologize and turn people away, but what I learned is that I should have responded, “Hey, I can’t offer you money, but I can offer you conversation if you would enjoy that! What’s your name?” And start a real conversation acknowledging the person’s humanity rather than just turning them away.
(4) When did you feel Christ’s presence?
I felt Christ’s presence when a woman came up to Lyle and told him news that she would be in the hospital in July for cancer treatments. The woman asked for prayers.
(5) What did you enjoy?
Homelessness seems like such a massive issue sometimes (and it is- Lyle said that a good estimate for people who don’t have their names on leases in the Bay Area is 30,000). I enjoyed realizing that I might not be able to change a person’s circumstances very much, but I do feel much more comfortable having a conversation with a person who is marginalized by their housing circumstance!
(6) What else do you want to share?
Just last night, my boyfriend and I were eating Smitten ice cream in Patricia’s Green. A man approached us and asked us if we would consider sparing a dollar on the condition that he was able to tell us a joke which made us laugh. We said, “Absolutely!” The man asked us if we would prefer a lawyer, politician or pirate joke. We picked the pirate joke. Then the man tells us a beautifully crafted, long linguistic joke about pirates (and it involved lawyers and politicians, too). I could tell he had worked and carefully crafted this joke and practiced delivering it many times. I laughed twice and was more than happy to give him the dollars in my wallet. After I upheld my end of the deal, I told him, “I really appreciated your joke- I can tell you put a lot of thought into it. I’m so happy we met you and I’m going to give you a couple extra dollars for using the word ‘guttural'” (I’m a language nerd). He then told us about his linguistic passions and about a New Yorker article which inspired his joke. Before he left, I asked him his name and thanked him by name. He also was so grateful that he gave us a couple things he had found (treasures he was carrying in his coat pocket). I don’t think I would have been able to have such a real conversation with this man had I not gone on the Night Ministry walk with Dawn. Walking with Lyle, Tom and Dawn really helped me realize my patterns and biases and let go of some of the stereotypes I have for interactions with people who are asking for money.