Week 1: Soulful Encounters around San Francisco

by | Sep 10, 2018

Over these past few days, I have received such radical hospitality and been enriched by some profound soulful encounters.

I have been so inspired by Traci, Marie and Marian from Sidewalk Talk who are fostering human connection through listening. Now with over 2,500 volunteer listeners, with 58 city leaders, in 37 cities, across 10 countries. So simple, yet so profound!

I was hosted by a lovely soulful woman, Lynnda, with an amazing life story, at her Airbnb home in Sebastopol.

I have been grounded, literally! I was making my way to Diana’s home for a women’s meditation and dream sharing circle. Walking along the main street, of Sebastopol, I stopped to get some milk as my Airbnb host had none, crossed the road and tripped on the kerb, falling to the ground, flat on my side, the freshly purchased milk carton breaking open, soaking my 3 layers of clothing, grazing my knuckles and even my knee through my trousers. A woman came to my rescue as did a man driving by. After I composed myself and checked there significant injury I continued on my way, stopping once more along the way to buy some milk and arriving slightly late for the gathering. After a pleasant evening of sharing, one of the women dropped me home. Diana lent me a jacket for the evening and had my clothing washed and dried for me by this morning. When I return, I opened the front door of the Airbnb only to discover the inner door was locked and my key did not fit this door. I phoned Lynnda but it went through to the answering machine. I wondered if I would be dozing on the couch in her porch, however, she came and opened the door. Lynnda had assumed I was sound asleep in bed and so had shut, locked this other door! We sat for a while talking, reflecting on my experience of being grounded.

Anne Scott, was one of 3 pivotal connections that led to the unfolding of this sabbatical time. Back in August 2017 I read Anne’s book “Finding Home: Restoring the Sacred to Life – Stories of Women in Homelessness and Transition” and was so deeply moved. Anne says in her introduction “not only is there a growing homelessness problem here – and across the world – which is touching more and more people, but there is also a certain homelessness of the soul – of the inner, And so when we offer a place for women to meet and connect at this level, while their outer problems remain, they are able to find peace – home, even if just for an hour. Slowly something comes alive in the women through this process, Not for all, of course, because some wounds are so deep, and their issues can be complex. But there is usually a healing that takes place, even if it is just a felt experience of being welcomes, as they are having their sacredness reflected.” So we began corresponding. Once this sabbatical opportunity began to unfold I was keen to take the opportunity to meet Anne. This meeting, although too brief, was like the meeting of lifelong friends. It was a joy to be able to continue our conversations in Diana’s home and flowed into a nourishing lunch.

Back in San Francisco, I called by St Boniface Church, in Tenderloin, the site of the Gubbio Project. I had walked this area of town on several occasions over the past days. They tell me it has the highest density of rough sleepers and I have been overwhelmed by the shear numbers. Predominantly men, varying ages, many in wheelchairs or other visible signs of physical disabilities. Some with obvious mental health challenges. Some seem quite engaged with each other, while others seem so vacant. I enter the Church, a grand, yet dark Romanesque Catholic Parish Church, built in the early 1900’s and serving the poor, multicultural community in this inner-city area. But unlike many churches, it is not just a place for private prayer and worship but from 6am to 2pm each day provides a place of sanctuary for the homeless, with about 100 men and women, mainly men, sleeping on the pews in the back two thirds of the Church. Tina, supported by at least one volunteer, keeps a watchful eye over the people, their possessions and is attentive to their needs. In addition to a warm, in fact, very warm, place to rest or sleep, it is also a place to request blankets, socks and toiletries- donated by local communities. There are impeccably clean toilets just outside the Church. Despite a constant stream of seekers of rest, there is an incredible sense of quiet, calm and reverence. And all the while the front of the church remains available for those wishing to offer private prayer or take part in the two daily Masses. All this takes place under Robert Lentz Icon “Mother of Hope” (also known as “Mother of the Streets.”) To me, the Gubbio Project appears to be addressing a simple, yet vital need of many that I passed as I made my way through the streets of Tenderloin. And doing so with such gentle, non-judgmental compassion. If, and when someone asks for help with the challenges in their life, referrals are made, but always the initiative comes from the unhoused neighbour, for the Gubbio Project is about attending to the neighbour, not fixing them.

Not far away, although a steep climb up Nobbs Hill, is Grace Cathedral, a French Gothic style Cathedral built between 1927-1964. Large, imposing, open spaces, enriched with traditional stained glass and various modern religious artworks, invite all, regardless of their spiritual background to surrender to the sacred. For me, the call was to walk, not one, but two, labyrinths, one inlaid limestone in the centre back of the nave, the other outdoor terrazzo, both of the medieval eleven circuit design. Each walk different, each walk an opportunity to release, receive and return- changed!

Over the past two days I have had the opportunity to savour the rich and bountiful gifts of this week of radical hospitality as I wander around the Mercy Center at Burlingame, surrounded by ancient oak trees on 40 acres. Here I have space to rest, ramble and ponder, and the opportunity to experience community worship, explore a wonderful bookshop and wander their labyrinth set in a beautiful garden tended by Alice. And following Sunday Eucharist to share lunch with Sr Marguerite, who some 15 years ago together with the St Vincent de Paul Society established Catherine Center, a 12 month holistic residential program for women released from prison.

I have witnessed so many wonderful examples of ordinary people doing something, however small, “to be the change they want to see in the world.” And what a joy it has been!

“It is the threads of joy which burst forth when we are feeling liberated and in connection with our passions, ourselves, others, or our surroundings. There is no nobler goal than to be joyful.”

From a book at Lynnda’s home: “Welcome Home to Yourself: A therapist and photographer explore the meaning of life through individual lenses- a mother and her son’s journey” by Suzanne Kyra and Nathan Derksen

Some questions being pondered:

How do we respond to an idea that seems to have meet a need? Do we allow it to grow and expand or are there limits to growth? Is bigger better, or is small beautiful? Do we join a growing global movement or connect and collaborate globally yet organise and act locally?

With deep gratitude to those who have offered hospitality including Traci, Marie, Lynnda, Diana and her Meditation Dream group women- Lisa, Vicky and Jennifer, the man and the woman who came to my aid when I fell, Anne, Tina, Barbara, Marguerite, the staff and guests at the Mercy Center.

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