Had the opportunity to guest preach today at a Presbyterian church in San Francisco. Scripture text is Jeremiah 29: 7-9.
The prophet Jeremiah has some really strong words for the Israelites here. They’re upset about being sent into exile and cast out of their homes. Understandable perhaps. After all, who wants to be cast out of their home and forced to make a life elsewhere? My guess is, most of us wouldn’t willingly sign up to live in exile or to live without the comforts of home. It would make us feel very uncomfortable and perhaps even a bit unsafe.
I’ve been spending my summer doing a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education with the San Francisco Night Ministry. The Night Ministry has been in existence for 51 years and in that time has become a vital and important part of the night life of the city. The Night Ministry practices a ministry of presence and is there for people when they most need it. Our job is not to convert, proselytize, evangelize or condemn. We simply walk with people and engage with them wherever they might be on their spiritual or life journey. Our work causes us to spend time with prostitutes, drag queens, bartenders, doormen, drug addicts, drunks, alcoholics and people who are living on the streets for one reason or another.
We hear some rather interesting stories through walking the streets. Stories that can break your heart. Stories that can make you doubt your faith in God. Stories that can make you wonder why you continue to do this type of ministry.
They are the stories of people like Jimmy, a man I met on the streets. Jimmy is in his mid 20s. He’s living on the streets because his parents kicked him out of the house when he came out as gay. He had been staying in a local shelter but the living environment was really abusive and not healthy. Now, he’s living on the streets trying to make enough money to get something to eat, even just a donut from the local donut shop. His story is the story of so many young gay men.
There’s Mark, a young man I met who had recently overdosed on heroin for the third time. A man who is so addicted to heroin that not even the fear of death will stop him from seeking it out. He’s already died and come back three times. He is fully aware that the next time he overdoses, he may not come back. It may be too late. Yet, he’s an addict. He literally can’t stop. His story is the story of so many addicts.
There’s Thea, a trans woman of color I met. She’d been homeless for three days but still maintained a positive attitude. She was quoting Bible verses at me and kept telling me she was remaining optimistic. I’m sure Thea is aware, though, that her status as a trans woman of color makes her much more likely to face violence and sexual assault. Trans women of color are the most at risk, particularly those who are homeless. Her story is the story of so many trans men and women.
These stories are just a few of the many stories I’ve heard over the last two months of working with the Night Ministry. There are many, many more that I and my colleagues could share but I think those will suffice. What does one do with all these stories? How does one carry all of them and possibly continue on to do the work every night? Every single night we hear story after story after story. It can sometimes feel overwhelming. I’ve often questioned why I’m doing this work, particularly after a hard night full of tragic stories.
“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you”. What does this phrase actually mean? It is real tempting to read this phrase as meaning that I should see myself and my colleagues as the saviors of San Francisco and that thus we are called to bring salvation and save those on the streets from their plight. I do have a bit of a savior complex so you can understand why I might be tempted to read these words that way. However, I think that’s perhaps not the best approach to take with these verses.
How then should we read these verses? Let’s look at the word “welfare”. It means the good fortune, health or happiness of a person, group or organization. So, what Jeremiah is saying here is that we are supposed to seek out the happiness of the city where we have been sent. How does this apply to my work with the Night Ministry? When do we ever see any sort of happiness or good fortune in the work we are doing? I’ve made it sound pretty bleak and depressing.
The church doesn’t always have the best reputation. Christians and Christianity have a public relations problem. It is especially true here in the Bay Area. Marin County, where I currently live, is the most unchurched county in the entire country. People just don’t see the purpose of going to church anymore. It is easy to see why when all you hear from the media is all the ways that Christianity continues to persecute and hate others in Jesus’s name. This is the kind of Christianity that the Night Ministry works to counteract. Every time we walk into a gay bar or a drag show or talk to a trans person, we are sending the message that the church can and is a force for good.
Here’s where the welfare of the city idea comes in. By being present in those moments and those places, we are doing the work of Jesus Christ. Through this work, the church is given a new image, a better image. When people find out that we are with the Night Ministry, they tell us stories. Stories that they might not otherwise tell anyone else. Stories of deep pain and great joy. Stories that transform both the teller and the listener.
The Night Ministry does its work with little fanfare or press. We’re known but not well known. Yet, we are everywhere in this city every night. When the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide, I and one of my colleagues were in the Castro walking the streets and enjoying being a part of the celebration and festivities. Our presence there sent a message that not all Christians are bad. There are actually some that wanted to celebrate marriage equality right along with them.
“For in its welfare, you will find your welfare.” When the city celebrates, we celebrate. When the city mourns, we mourn. We walk alongside those like Jimmy & Mark & Thea but we also walk alongside those who are celebrating marriages, births, job promotions. In their good fortune is ours as well. In their joy is our joy.
It is through my work with the Night Ministry that I have learned something deep and profound about the nature of Christian community. Our joys and our sorrows are all wrapped up together. When one hurts, all hurt. When one celebrates, all celebrate.
This spirit of community is embedded in the city of St. Francis. It’s what built this city into the great place it is. This city had to band together in the 80s when the AIDS epidemic hit. When Harvey Milk was assassinated. When the People’s Temple cult killed themselves. When so many other historic and important things have happened here, the city has come together as one. We built this city not on rock and roll but on compassion. On caring for each other. On taking care of our own community members. On living with each other even when we disagree with each other.
For in its welfare, you will find your welfare. When we take care of each other, we take care of ourselves. God has called us to care for each other, the Jimmys and Marks and Theas of the world. This care can be as simple as a long conversation about their life or even just a hug. It can take many forms but whatever form it takes, it can and will bring about our own welfare and that of others. The whole purpose of the work the Night Ministry does is to humanize others. To make them feel like they have value and import. When we see others, really see them, we give them a sense of humanity. And in return, we feel more human too. We find our welfare wrapped up in their welfare. This is part of our calling as Christians. This is part of our calling as human beings. This is part of our calling as residents of the city of St. Francis. We can do no less nor no more with our lives. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you.” Indeed, Jeremiah, let us go forth and seek the welfare of this beautiful, amazing city we call home. Let us go forth and see the Jimmys, the Marks and the Theas in our communities. Let us go forth from this place prepared to discover the many ways that our own interests are tied up with those of others. Amen.