Working the Night Shift for Jesus Clergy take Christ’s compassion into San Francisco’s darkest corners b y S onya S v o b oda
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Rev. Beckman often hears about the trials of these people’s lives and offers to pray with them. He reaffirms and encourages, reminding them of what they do have and can be grateful for while helping them outline a plan of action to turn their lives around. While most people are tucked into their warm beds sleeping soundly, Rev. Beckman makes his rounds of San Francisco streets, 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., five nights a week, a welcome sight for many who find their struggles and loneliness intensify at night. Rev. Beckman is the current director of the San Francisco Night Ministry, which got its start in 1962 when two clergy members, a Lutheran and a United Presbyterian, began to wonder what happened to people at night, when most social services were no longer available. Deciding that something needed to be done, they began walking the streets themselves, and since then have been bringing what they call compassionate, nonjudgmental services to those living on the streets of San Francisco.The Reverend Richard Park, an associate night minister, also serves five nights a week. An additional six associate night ministers serve one to two nights a month. Throughout its 46 years of existence, Night Ministries has stayed true to its founding vision. All night ministers are
images: the Golden Gate Bridge, the hippie movement, Lombard Street. But this city of natural beauty and material wealth is also among the top US cities in terms of the number of homeless inhabitants per capita. After dark, when the doors of social services are bolted shut and the city’s shelters are filled to capacity, the only opening for many is a rectangle of cold concrete pavement. The homeless share the nocturnal landscape with pushers and addicts, streetwalkers and johns, bar-hoppers and troubleseekers. Also moving among the city’s night cast of characters is a tall, snowy-haired man dressed in a black trench coat and wearing a clergy collar; he walks the streets, crouching down to speak to a woman snuggled in a blanket on the sidewalk, sharing a joke with a man who self-consciously slides his can of beer into his coat pocket, and praying with a teenager who struggles with addiction. The Reverend Lyle Beckman’s familiar face and clerical collar draw comments from the city’s night-dwellers: “Hail Mary,” someone calls out; “Father, can you pray for me?” asks another. Known for his dedication and compassionate listening skills,
required to be ordained and wear a clerical collar. “For most people, clergy are still considered trustworthy; we’re safe to talk to,” says Rev. Beckman. “Occasionally we are singled out; people will spit on us. But I don’t mind being pleasant with someone to let them know, ‘I acknowledge you, you don’t scare me, you don’t threaten me, I care for you.’” Each night minister approaches his ministry in a different way. While Rev. Beckman likes to spend his time in the neighborhood bars and on the streets, Rev. Park makes it a point to visit the Transbay Terminal each night, to meet new arrivals to the city and just-released prisoners as they are dropped off with one-way bus fare to their home cities. Rev. Park started with the night ministry part time in 2006 and went full time in 2007. “My secret is that you should follow the leading of the Holy Spirit,” he explains. While he was walking through the United Nations Plaza one night, a man approached him, asking, “Father, can I confess to you?” “He confessed his small, small sins, and he started crying,” Rev. Park remembers. “He was homeless here — no money, no friends — and he was sick. He came from New Orleans, his wife drowned in Hurricane Katrina. He told me he had tried to kill himself and asked me to take him to the mental unit in St. Mary’s hospital. I spent all night with him. The doctor asked him how he was going to kill himself, and he answered, ‘Heroin overdose. But just before I tried to kill myself, this priest found me and I confessed before I tried.’ Some nights I feel this guidance,” Rev. Park adds. While the ministry takes place on the streets, the backbone of the San Francisco Night Ministry is tucked away in an office where a rotation of 38 counselors staff a crisis line from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. People find the crisis number on the night ministers’ personal cards or through SFNM’s website. A daily average of 10 to 20 calls come in from people who need crisis counseling. When the caller needs direct intervention or requests to meet with a night minister, the counselor pages the minister on duty, who then calls in for further directions. “I think the world of our volunteers,” says Rev. Beckman, smiling broadly. “They are every age, social background, denomination, and so incredibly wonderful in the gifts they bring to the people who call.” Volunteer Gordon Schaeffer has faithfully answered the crisis line for the last 40 years, since the early days of Night Ministry. He has heard the trials and witnessed the transformation of many lives: a woman who went from naming herself with a swear word to leading a protest against a slum lord, an experience that changed her view of herself. Schaeffer has seen the night ministry through the Reagan era, when many mental hospitals were closed down, sending patients
out into the streets, to the birth of the hippie movement in the city, right up to today where easier phone access can result in calls coming in from virtually anywhere in the region. “What makes me remain is that people are not listened to in our society; people tend to have a hard time telling their stories to their families or friends,” says Schaeffer. Back on the streets, the night ministers provide comfort and encouragement. They may find themselves sitting on the pavement with a homeless person, seated on a bar stool chatting with those around them, or listening to the fantasy of a mentally ill person. “You have to meet them where they are,” says Rev. Beckman. “Sometimes they may be the Messiah, they may be a space alien, or they may be back in a Vietnam War scenario. I had one man who was telling me his story about being in Vietnam, and all of a sudden he saw me as being one of the Vietcongs and lunged at me. I’m bigger than he is, so I just hugged him and held him and said, ‘Come back to where we are on Polk Street, you’re not over there anymore.’” Where needed, the ministers are available to provide counseling for individuals, often developing longtime relationships with them by checking in regularly on their progress.“Pastoral counseling means I want to hear about your issues, but where, if at all, do your religious values and hope fit into the whole picture?” explains Rev. Beckman. “I will build you up, pray with you, support you, give you a foundation, but you also
Rev. Lyle Beckman, right, and Deacon Diana Wheeler listen to the story of a young man living on the streets. Photo by Matthew Sumner.
then need to keep seeing your physician, caseworker, and counselor. I want people to see us not as the ministry that will solve all problems, but as one piece of the solution.”The night ministers are familiar with the city’s social services and regularly refer people to them. As the leader of SFNM, Rev. Beckman has a vision for the homeless of his city, one that involves bringing the church firmly into the picture. By way of explanation, Rev. Beckman describes a conversation he had with a disabled man he met on the streets one night. The man had a wonderful personality, and it occurred to Rev. Beckman that he would make a very good greeter at the local theater. “He could be Mr. Hospitality, like a greeter at a church,” Rev. Beckman explains, “if just a couple of people were available to train and assist him.” Rev. Beckman suggests that this help could be recruited from a church, thus getting the church involved in restoring a homeless person to a valued place in society. Frustrated with the generally held attitude that social responsibility lies with the government “and as a result the church no longer tackles it,” Rev. Beckman believes that, on the contrary, the church has a unique role to play in effecting change in the lives of people on the streets. “Every night I have this wonderful opportunity for lovely, meaningful, and useful conversations with people about lifeand-death issues. We have this ability to really support and encourage and love and care for people who don’t always feel that love and encouragement.” Rev. Beckman’s smile brightens as his thoughts return to the friends he has met on
Rev. Richard Park lets the Holy Spirit guide him as he walks the streets in search of those who need Christ’s solace.
the streets. “If I can help them to have a little different attitude about their circumstances and situation, I am encouraged. I love this work. I’ve not yet any night felt like not going out.” Rev. Beckman’s passion for spending his nocturnal hours in the streets is matched by his eagerness to see other cities across the country apply the SFNM model. Night Ministry in Chicago and Operation Nightwatch in Seattle and Portland are a few that have already taken up the model.The Portland ministry hosts a hospitality center for the homeless that has been nicknamed the “poor person’s Starbucks.” Rev. Beckman stresses the importance of volunteers in this type of ministry, as much for what the volunteers get out of it as for what the people they serve receive. During Jesus’ ministry here on earth, he, too, walked the streets, mingling with society’s outcasts rather than restricting himself to the safe confines of the temple.Watching Rev. Beckman, Rev. Park, and the other night ministers make their rounds of San Francisco’s streets, it is easy to picture Christ walking alongside them as they squat down to get at eye level with a street sleeper, put their arms around someone battling addiction and abuse, and meet up with the regulars who drown their sorrows nightly in dark bars. These men present a sweet sacrifice to Jesus as they offer up their night hours to those who crave a listening ear, some simple compassion, the love of Christ. n Sonya Svoboda (sonyaswritings.com) is a freelance writer focusing on justice issues. Based in San Francisco, she is also the author of Footprints of Faith…Stories of YWAM in South Asia (YWAM Publishing Ltd, 2006).
Rev. Beckman’s congregation is on the streets, where he ministers to them five nights a week between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., sharing conversation, prayer, and hugs.
Want to start a night ministry in your city? Contact the San Francisco Night Ministry (nightministry.com; tel. 415-4410123). They would be more than happy to help!
Photo by Matthew Sumner.
Long after the sun goes down, San Francisco’s “night ministers” roam the city streets to bring comfort, encouragement, and Christ’s love to...