by Conference Minister Diane Weible
Earlier this week I was talking to the Rev. Tami Groves, pastor and teacher of First Congregational Church in San Francisco. She was telling me about Recovery Café, a ministry located at their church which opened its doors during a critical time: during the pandemic. This ministry makes such an impact on the Tenderloin neighborhood where their church is located and is in need of our help in order to continue. I will share more about this invitation for our support in a bit. First, I want to share a sacred experience I had in the Tenderloin neighborhood during my first year as Conference Minister: a day-long street retreat with Faithful Fools. This retreat was the invitation I needed to observe and reflect on both my own privilege and, as Valarie Kaur says, “the part of me I do not yet know”.
On the Faithful Fools website, questions that retreat participants are invited to ask ourselves is posted:
- What keeps us separated?
- As we walk the streets, what still connects us?
That day as I got off BART and walked to the Faithful Fools building, I was nervous. I kept my head down and was closed to everything—afraid of what I might see; afraid of who I might meet; afraid of the stories I was told about the people who live in the Tenderloin.
After the opening session, we all exited the building and started walking. I ate lunch at the church around the corner that offered a hot meal. I sat in the sanctuary of a Catholic church where it was dark and cool and while the priests were offering noon mass. Many individuals were sleeping or resting throughout the large space.
And then I stared walking. I found my body language was opening up. I noticed people looking at me and smiling. I smiled back. Before long, I was looking to make eye contact with people I passed so I could smile back. When I got too close to the edge of the Tenderloin that butted up to the Financial or Theater Districts, I noticed the difference. I suddenly felt cold and unwelcomed. Everyone was walking in their suits and dress shoes with their head down, holding their coffee and being careful to not look at anyone. I suddenly found myself wanting to go back from those edges to the place that felt more welcome.
At one point, as I was walking down the street, I saw someone coming towards me. He made eye contact with me, and I just knew that when he passed me, he was going to offer a big smile and a hello. I was anticipating it when someone from the other side of the street suddenly called out. He looked over, as did I, to see a friend holding a container of food, offering it to him. He looked at me and back at his friend and then motioned to his friend to wait a minute. He kept walking towards me and, as I expected, he offered me a big smile and a hello before darting across the street to meet his friend and receive some food.
I have never felt more seen than I did in that moment.
I realized that the only thing that kept me separated from those around me was the stories I had told myself and that I had been told by others—stories I believed because I never took the time to experience for myself what another person was going through.
The ministry that I witnessed at Faithful Fools came to mind as I talked to Rev. Groves because I could connect. As I listed to Tami, I felt so much pride in the ministry of First Congregational UCC and the Recovery Café because this is God’s work that is being done on behalf of all of us. I cannot be there every day the way some others can, and I can participate through donations, helping out when I can, and showing up. FCC and Recovery Café are offering us all an invitation to enter a space where we can hear stories of loss, harm and isolation caused by abuse, domestic violence, childhood in foster care, addiction, mental illness, homelessness, incarceration, health crises, targeted violence and all other kinds of trauma that destroy the fabric of someone’s life.
As Tami pointed out, relationships of support are often the first casualties of trauma so a ministry like Recovery Café offers that critical support.
“At Recovery Café SF we believe that everyone deserves to be accepted, supported, and celebrated throughout their recovery. Everyone. No exceptions. We are a community of support and a place to heal, belong and recover.”