Monday morning I wake up in Marin County – or, as a friend who lives there jokes, “the home of the 1 percent.” I suspect I am hanging with the other 99 an hour later, when I strolled into Muir Woods.
Either way, the massive redwoods that stretched hundreds of feet above me aren’t caring – casting us and all our arbitrary divisions into deep shadow. Some trees here have reached a thousand years in age – it’s reassuring that they were here long before us, and will be here long after.
Of course, just as enduring, and less reassuring, is my next tourist sight of the day.
An hour after navigating the ups and downs, twists and roots of the Ocean View Trail in one of the more affluent counties on the West Coast, I’m veering past apparently homeless men in the Tenderloin, the toughest district in San Francisco. In a 2013 survey, District 6 was listed with 3,038 homeless men, almost half the total of 6,436 for the city. These figures come from yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle, which pronounced that a 10-year-old plan to end homeless had “failed.”
This conclusion comes despite the city housing 11,362 homeless individuals in the last decade. House one, another pops up. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom – who 10 years ago as mayor launched the current plan – concedes that homelessness will never be eradicated. “… There are new people coming in, suffering through the cycles of their lives. It’s the manifestation of complete, abject failure as a society.”
I tend to agree with that cynicism, especially as I edge past a few street folks – some with eyes dazed, disconnected. But my mood shifts when I approach the bright orange awnings of Glide Memorial Methodist Church, walk in the front door to the counter, and experience energy, industry, and laughter. One of the security team, someone whom I’d later learn had experienced homelessness, gave me advice on where to move my car to duck a ticket, then pointed me upstairs to the office of the volunteer coordinator, Eden Chan.
Behind Eden’s desk is a cartoon image of a tenderloin sporting a bandaid and bruises, with the caption, “The Tenderloin – ain’t so tender!” But around the cartoon are notes of appreciation, suggesting that, thanks to Glide, there are still pockets of kindness – and highly effective ones, at that.
“Some people might think it’s only a success story if a homeless person becomes a businessman,” she’ll tell me a couple of days later, when she has time to sit still. “I think a success is providing a place that’s safe.”
Sometimes even joyful. Glide rides the spiritual energy and inspired leadership of Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani, who have led the church down a path of “radical inclusiveness” since the 1960s. As a young pastor, Williams transformed the church into one that reached out to marginalized populations, assertively reaching out to the poor, to the gay and lesbian, to drug addicts. Back in the ‘60s, Williams even took down the sanctuary cross, declaring that “we all must be the cross.” The Sunday worship services are called “Celebrations,” and they are the stuff of legend. The day before my volunteer gig, I tried to attend the service, only to be thwarted by the gigantic Gay Rights Parade. But Williams would take that trade – in his ministry, he officiated same-sex unions decades before they were legally recognized.
That joyful spirit makes it easier for workers to rise to the challenge the rest of the week. After all, the key phrase is “Love Unconditionally,” and part of that love manifests itself as “telling your truth” – and hearing the truths people have to tell can be heartbreaking at times.
Even my wordless walk to and from Glide suggests stories that I don’t even want to imagine – and those stories are ongoing, happening again and again, night after night, in the streets and alleys.
“I heard someone else say that poverty is scary, even if it’s not happening to you,” Eden tells me. “It’s scary and it’s sad and people don’t want that and the way they cope is to avoid it or unplug or turn away. And Cecil has said that, too. People have asked us to have the line inside for meals and somehow hide the ugliness of the food line, and Cecil said, ‘No. Poverty shouldn’t be hidden. You should see this; you should have to think about it.’”
Naturally, some volunteers come to Glide in order to overcome the tendency to look away. “I had someone say to me when he came in for an interview that living in San Francisco, there’s a large homeless population. Just to cope, you tune them all out. Because if you don’t, it’s very hard to walk anywhere – and he didn’t want to do that anymore, so that’s why he came.”
Some come from farther away. Intern Marisa Sitz is from Pinson, Alabama – perhaps an hour from my hometown. An English major at Birmingham-Southern, she was drawn to the message of “Unconditional Love.” She feels that the interns are treated as “guests in the community.” Shortly after her arrival, she witnessed another intern seeming overwhelmed with the noise and the bustle of comingling with the clients.
“One of the clients noticed that she was standing with arms clasped in front of her and introverted and very closed-off looking, and he walked over and said, ‘Girl, why are you so tense? It’s all good!’ It got her laughing and it was very kind. That’s been the kind of experience that’s been repeated, They treat us as if this is their home and we are their guests, even if we’re guests who help.”
Of course, it’s easier to generate positive feelings all around when you’re helping so many people get through their days. Glide has a wide-ranging program addressing spirit, growth, leadership, and wellness – which starts with making sure people have something to eat. The website states that in fiscal year 2011-12, Glide served 835,036 meals.
One person who has put away a few of those meals is my floor supervisor for my shift in the dining hall. A short, stocky man of 46, with long black and grey hair flowing out of his Golden State Warriors cap, James first came here as a client with a meth-amphetamine addiction. But even then, he insisted on volunteering every time he had a meal, wanting to earn his food. Soon he was volunteering so much, he was given a staff position. He tells me that he’s been clean for six years, thanks “to Jesus and to Glide.”
“For me it was just that in this neighborhood, there’s a lot of negativity, and come here and it’s so positive and you want to be around positive people. It’s like the old saying that ‘if you run with dogs, you’re going to get fleas.’ If you’re around people doing positive things, some positive stuff is going to come out of it.”
The positivity kept multiplying when he was honored with a full-time staff position as an “expediter” – coordinating all the volunteers for three meals a day, five days a week. That meant people depending on him too much for him to fall back into old habits.
“You can actually see the difference you make for people. And me, since I live in the neighborhood, I’ve had a lot of people coming up, saying ‘it’s good to see one of us do this’ or ‘if you can do it, I can do it.’
“I don’t see myself as a role model, but when you work in a place like Glide, it kind of falls into place that you’re a role model. Because they see someone like me, who’s been on both sides of it, a guy who stopped putting needles in his arms and has been doing the job for the last seven years, and doing it well.”
During my shift, I can see why they call him the “expediter” – although the word that pops into my mind is “maestro.” Greeting each person with cheer and energy, he’s a whirlwind of motion; within 10 minutes, he has us all in our gloves, aprons and hairnets. Five or so folks are positioned behind the counter, their jobs being to place various food items onto each tray. Said tray then is handed over the counter to Maria, who places fruit on the tray, then slides it down to a guy to my right, whose job is to place the pepper and salt packets.
My initial job is to simply slide the full trays down to Joyce, who presents the tray to the client. That is, once the client has gotten the correct color ticket from yet another young volunteer.
As we wait, I sense folks starting to line up in the hallway. In the kitchen, one of the cooks pauses to windmill his arms several times, as if warming up for the big game. And it truly is an adrenaline rush. In the first half hour, I count 100 trays, and then lose track amid my new pepper packet duties. After perhaps 45 minutes, James comes marching by, shouting, “Good job! Only 572 to go!”
The food we’re serving is a patty of meat, rice or potatoes, watermelon or oranges, bread, and the salt and pepper. There’s a vegetarian stroganoff – James knows when those are coming and makes sure those trays are diverted. Amid the assembly line, it would be easy to disregard the vegetarians, or to ignore the fact that many people may be on low-salt diets. Providing the packets separately gives clients at least a little control over their food.
The clients, meanwhile, vary. I don’t notice any who overwhelm me with the stereotypical odor of some street folks. Most appear reasonably clean; some take the time to make eye contact and exchange greetings, while others shuffle off quietly to their tables. One person loudly thanks the volunteers as he walks by us in the line; he does this again when he comes back for seconds.
From my corner spot in the assembly line, I occasionally sneak looks at the tables – some sit and stare without speaking to one another, while others carry on loudly with one another.
Once the meals are served – all 727 of them – I talk with Chloe, the ticket taker, and Joyce, the person who handed the vast majority of the clients their trays.
Joyce has seen more daunting work environments; an incoming first-year biology student at UCLA, she got to the last day of a hospital internship before she fainted.
“But I didn’t faint because of what I saw, but what my partner was describing to me, which was a patient that couldn’t stop bleeding. She said it looked like a fountain of blood and imagining it in my head made it worse than seeing it, and then I smelled it. The next thing I know I woke up in a bed not too far from the patient.”
In this case, the reality for Chloe and Joyce was more positive than what they might have imagined. They were impressed by both the politeness of the clients and the organization of the operation: Chloe had to learn a ticket system that included special designations for people who had to rush off to jobs, as well as several other classifications. She tried to be friendly even amid the rush. “Many of them have been outside all day, so it’s nice to have someone say, ‘how are you doing?’”
They agree that the experience might change the way they walk down the street. I try it myself as I walk to my car, moving more slowly, taking the time for a nod of the head or a quick “hey.” But the buoyant mood from inside Glide’s walls seems to rise into the twilight air and dissipate; even two hours from sunset, four folks are sleeping on the sidewalk. I’m sure I just helped feed two of them. I should be glad they at least got some food in them – but there’s still the sadness of the rest of their stories, repeated day after day.
Then I think of that job interview candidate who came to Glide hoping to focus on the very people whom he’d previously worked so hard to push beyond his peripheral vision, beyond the blinders we put on every day. Only he finally chose to pay attention – and then to act.
And of course I think of Cecil Williams himself, who wrote in Beyond the Possible: “The key to living a full life is to affirm, affirm, affirm. … Notice what is happening to you every day and affirm your love whenever you can.”
At Glide, that affirmation isn’t reserved for Sunday morning – it’s what they do every day, and night, of the week.
And they give their clients the chance to do the same.
Which makes the Tenderloin, like Muir Woods, territory I plan to hike again.