As part of my Clinical Pastoral Education program with the San Francisco Night Ministry this summer, I’m learning about non-profit fundraising and effective storytelling. Want to support the work of the Night Ministry and help me reach my fundraising goal? Please click here to donate. Here are links to the first and second installment of this series on my experiences this summer.
This is a sermon about my work with the Night Ministry that I preached at Transfiguration Episcopal Church in San Mateo, CA on August 8, 2021. The readings that day were taken from the Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6); I chose to preach on Exodus 34:29-35.
In the text from Exodus that we just read, Moses is set apart from the rest of the Israelites. After his forty days with God, he is visibly different from the rest of humankind. His face is “shining,” the text tells us (verse 35), and must be veiled, suggesting not a subtle glowing but something “terrifyingly luminous,” a “divine radiance.”1 The Israelites are scared to come near him until he veils, until he protects them from the holy. And that’s what I want to talk about today: fear, veils, and the holy.
This summer, I’ve been working with San Francisco Night Ministry, an organization that for fifty years has been providing spiritual care to the vulnerable and marginalized in San Francisco. As part of the ordination process, our diocese requires postulants to take one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, and I chose to do mine with the Night Ministry. Since the beginning of June, I have been spending five nights a week taking calls on the care line, helping lead outdoor worship and community programs, and doing what we call night walks. From 10pm to 2am, night ministers and students slowly and deliberately walk through the city to talk with, pray with, and sometimes just sit with people who need it. We pass out blankets and socks, but mostly we offer presence to people usually overlooked and ignored, in the Haight, the Castro, the Mission, North Beach, and the Tenderloin, among others. I’ve talked with people shivering from the cold or covered in sores who aren’t quite sure they’re going to make it one more night, I’ve talked to strip club bouncers and bar owners who are trying to save their livelihoods after shelter in place, people who just got out of prison, an elderly couple who had lost their lease and were pushing all their belongings in two wheelchairs at 1am. I’ve learned to do suicide assessments on the phone, pray with people trying to hold onto enough hope to find their way back from addiction, and hold space for stories of trauma and abuse. Some of our callers are experiencing psychotic breaks and tell us about terrifying conspiracies they’ve uncovered, and for the length of the call, you are right there with them. In all these contexts, but especially on night walks, there is no closing your eyes to the daily reality of so many people in San Francisco. Not everyone we talk to is unhoused, but those are the stories that stay with me the most. It breaks my heart and makes me angry at the same time, every single time I go out. As it should, honestly. And I knew that going in, I knew I would see suffering. But what I didn’t know was how much joy I would see, too.
For every person who tells me they don’t want to live anymore, there’s also someone who calls in to read you their poetry or tell you what they made for dinner that day. I’ve been sung to, prayed for, shared stories about grocery delivery mix-ups, and learned Italian vocabulary. One of our regulars will ask us to pray for her, and then say a second prayer for her cat, so I do, and am sometimes rewarded with a meow as an amen. At our outdoor worship services, people pray for each other, sing, and share communion. They eat food lovingly prepared by strangers from churches throughout the city. Like our Faith Lab youth, who recently helped make some at a Peninsula Interfaith event. And on the streets, there is so much more than pain and suffering. There are dogs providing steady companionship and love to veterans with PTSD. There are public theologians and prophets who know the Bible better than I do and can preach much better than I can, too. There are the friends and cousins who surround the 21 year old man in a wheelchair, who was paralyzed after being shot by police by mistake. There are people looking out for each other, keeping watch so the other can sleep, or making sure their friends don’t OD and die without anyone noticing. There’s a lot of generosity on the streets, not in the least in how people invite us into their lives and let us be present with them and hear their stories. They’re survivors. They’re resilient. They’re funny and loving and have great stories to tell and wisdom to share. And in walking through the city at a snail’s pace, bearing witness to the big and small things that happen at night, I’ve learned that a dirty sidewalk can be sacred ground, a prayer from an older gentleman without teeth that you can’t even understand a beacon of God’s presence. But you wouldn’t know that if the Tenderloin was only ever a place you drove through. You have to work to see past the suffering to the humanity, joy, and holiness that is also there. Or at least I did.
On my first night walk, I kept seeing trans pride flags painted on light poles. Turns out the Tenderloin is also the Transgender District. Eight blocks in San Francisco, most of them in the Tenderloin, make up this district. The trans pride flags celebrate the queer history of this place—this is where the 1966 Compton Cafeteria Riots happened, the first documented uprising of trans and queer people in US history. San Francisco’s first LGBT bar was in the Tenderloin, and the trans community has been visibly present in this area since the 1920s. The flags are a poignant reminder of the resilience of trans people, who are statistically more likely to be economically marginalized and unhoused, and experience violence, abuse, and suicidal ideation at an alarming rate.
During that first night walk, I thought back to a couple years ago, when I was driving through the Tenderloin on my way to the freeway and I first noticed the flags. This was before I transitioned, while I was still working through my gender identity and hadn’t come out yet, and wasn’t sure if I was brave enough to transition. The presence of the flags in this neighborhood that I had been taught was dangerous was a sobering reminder of what coming out could mean: from that point on I would be one of those people, on the wrong side of an important line of us vs them that respectability politics draws. But it was also a kind of kick in the pants to just do it already, an acknowledgment of my own resilience, my own survival of those frightening statistics of violence and suicide. Most of all, it was a growing realization that there are far worse things than being a Them, that in some ways it’s a privilege, not a hardship, to belong to a marginalized group.
That’s what I was thinking about when I read this week’s readings and thought about what I wanted to say today. The ways in which we draw the lines of Us and Them, of deserving and undeserving, of Not in My Backyard and checks written to charities in lieu of real change. I was thinking about how Moses veiled himself to assuage the Israelites’ fear, and how there’s almost a veil over the life in the Tenderloin, a dividing line and segregation that makes us feel safe. It separates them the unhoused from us the affluent, keeps the noise and messiness of poverty contained. But it also keeps us from seeing how the city is sacred ground, how people you might usually only encounter as statistics are holy people, too. It keeps us from seeing God at work in all God’s glory.
It’s a veil we draw out of fear, I think, a divide we keep up because it lets us tell ourselves we have earned our comfortable lives and that could never happen to us. But that’s not true. The problems of the street, of substance abuse and addiction, financial problems, loneliness and grief, food insecurity, domestic violence, mental illness, none of us are immune to that. Maybe you’ve laid awake at night worrying about how you were going to pay the bills this month, or a loved one died by suicide, or you’ve had those thoughts yourself. Maybe there are things you don’t talk about because they are things that “just don’t happen here” in nice neighborhoods, to nice families, except they do. If so, you already know that the line between Us and Them is far more tenuous than it appears, how easy it is to find yourself on the other side without knowing how you got there. But maybe then you also know some of that holiness of the Tenderloin, the way God’s radiance, God’s light and love, will find you no matter where you are. Meeting God on the streets in this way has been the biggest blessing of this summer and exactly what I needed at this point in the pandemic, after a hard first year of seminary almost entirely on Zoom. And it started with acknowledging that despite the very real differences between us, that unhoused man and I have more in common than is comfortable.
And so I want to end this sermon with an invitation. I want you to try something simple. The next time you are approached by someone who asks you for money, when you might feel annoyance or maybe fear and be tempted to just ignore them, I want you to turn your body towards them. You don’t have to give them money, but I do want you to look at them and say, “Sorry, not tonight,” as a way of acknowledging their humanity. It’s something the senior night minister has heard over and over again from unhoused folks, a heartbreakingly small desired gesture of connection that illustrates the alienation of living outside. And maybe while you do so, maybe that will let you draw the veil back a little bit, and maybe you will catch a glimpse of God’s light.
1 Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. United States: W. W. Norton, 2019, 351-352.