Fools in Faith
by W I L L I A M F. W O O
The four of us were in the cavernous front room they call the Fools Court, on the second floor of an old building in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. We were sitting on metal folding chairs around a mirror laid across a purple cloth on the bare concrete floor. The mirror held an odd collection of objects a silver toy convertible, a little Quan Yin and some other figurines, a few votive candles, a vase, a slick Day-Glo yellow View-Master stereoscope, and a ball of purple yarn. It reminded me of an initiation rite, and perhaps that's what this was.
Across from me was Kay Jorgensen, the social justice community minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco and one of the co-directors of the Faithful Fools Street Ministry. To my left was Karen Day, a ministerial intern at the church, and to my right was Carmen Barsody, a Francisican nun and the street ministry's other co-director. When people return from a daylong Faithful Fools "street retreat," the mirror and the objects are set out to help focus their thoughts. The toy convertible might call to mind the disparity between wealth and the homeless people of the Tenderloin, Jorgensen suggested.
Tricksters of the Tenderloin: Carmen Barsody and Kay Jorgensen in fools regalia. Photo by Mimi Chakarova.
I had just come in from my retreat, walking the streets of the Tenderloin, and they were waiting to hear my reflections on the experience. One of San Francisco's most rundown districts, the Tenderloin has a high concentration of poverty and homelessness, of alcoholism and drug use. Guidebooks discourage readers from wandering around there.
I wondered where to start. Well, it was painful to walk. I felt dumb saying it. My foot had been hurt when a kid's snowboard fell on it a snowboard! I had been out there among people hobbling and shuffling around, among people in wheelchairs trying to manage shopping carts piled high with belongings, and I was limping because of a snowboard accident. But if the three women thought what I said was frivolous, they gave no indication, so I went on.
I also had this deep, settled-in cough, and as I made my way through an encampment of shopping carts and their owners in United Nations Square, I felt lousy. The day was cold, and I was grateful for the sunshine. I tried to walk on the sidewalks where there was sun. Those were small things in my life, I knew. My injured foot would heal. My cold would get better. I was only out for a little while and I was embarrassed to talk of these trifling problems, but in fact they had reminded me of conditions that are the daily lives of the homeless people there.
The connections I was describing with the people on the streets were thin and superficial. Yet there had been something else, something more unsettling, and if I was to be honest about the experience, I needed to say it.
Long ago, I said, I had been a child of two countries, two cultures, two families, two races. I had felt as someone apart, and this sense of not belonging anywhere had come back to me again that day as I walked through the Tenderloin. It also had come back to me on my retreat that for much of my life back in China where I was born, and after I had come as a boy to the United States with my American mother I had felt I was neither this nor that but someone with a nose pressed to the world's window, looking in. Very often I had felt spiritually homeless, and this morning, watching the men and women with their shopping carts, I had seen myself, inside out. I told them this. That was my retreat, I said.
"Well," said Kay Jorgensen. "I think that's probably worth a candle, isn't it?" and she put a match to one of them.
I had asked her to accompany me in the Tenderloin so I might see the place with the help of her eyes, but she put me off until I had been out there by myself and had reflected on it. What I had seen and felt turned out to be not very different from the experiences of some of the 700 or so people who have gone on Tenderloin retreats organized by the Faithful Fools Street Ministry. These people, too, have done their walking and have felt a failure at it have found themselves focused on the gulf that separates them from the people of the streets. And then, even as their thoughts were fixed on that chasm, they found a connection that suddenly illuminated a part of their own lives.
A THEOLOGICAL TENSION
The street retreats are central to the work of the Faithful Fools, and the experiences of those who have gone on them help to answer the question that Kay Jorgensen and Carmen Barsody are often asked: What is it, actually, that you do, and how do you know when you've done it?
What Jorgensen and Barsody and their volunteer assistants do in ministering to the street people of the Tenderloin is only half of their mission. The other half is touching and changing the lives of the mostly middle-class men and women (and many youth who go on "urban weekends" arranged by their churches) who are brought through street retreats to the connection between their lives and those of homeless people. About half of them, Jorgenson estimates, are UUs. As she likes to observe, if you cannot bring diversity to the church, you need to bring the church to diversity.
"Reflection is a big part of it," she says. "The reflection has to be as intense as the action. We try to keep the retreat from being just an intellectual experience. In the end it becomes theological and sociological. The congregation takes its life out into the world and puts its belief system into action and then through that brings justice and social action back into the church. We think of being a witness as being in a place without judging. And it's hard to judge when you've become part of the experience you've just witnessed."
Though Faithful Fools is affiliated with the First Unitarian Universalist Society, where Jorgensen is the social justice minister, the organization is autonomous. Jorgensen believes its work arises out of the UU tradition.
The Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor, a UU theologian and director of the Religion and Social Issues Forum at the Pendle Hill Center outside Philadelphia, agrees. He knows Jorgensen and her work, and he says it continues the Unitarian urban social ministries that go back to Joseph Tuckerman's work in the streets of Boston in the early 19th century. But, he notes, there's an important difference: "Kay's ministry is important theologically because it reveals a tension in our history."
Religious liberals, Rasor points out, have always been devoted to direct social action. Yet they often identify themselves with the dominant middle-class culture, the very establishment they seek to change.
"As a group," Rasor says, "we are reluctant to take radical action that might threaten our privilege. Kay's ministry is an exception. By crossing social boundaries, her work challenges us to class realities of the liberal theological tradition."
MINISTRIES BEYOND THE CHURCH
Jorgensen's ministry is but one new way Unitarian Universalist congregations are expanding their ministries beyond the walls of their churches to their communities
The Faithful Fools receives funding from many sources, but initial funding came through a grant from the UU Veatch Program at Shelter Rock, based in the congregation in Manhasset, New York. The grant was one of five totaling $150,000 that Veatch made in 1999 to UU congregations to build social justice programs that other congregations could replicate.
"I think the church has a civic responsibility," says Marilyn Sewell, senior minister of First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, recipient of another of the Veatch grants. "It is a civic institution."
More recently, 21 ministers from UU churches across the continent gathered in May in Riverdale, New York, for the UUA's first Public Ministry Conference. They traded stories of how their congregations' ministries work, attended presentations on subjects like building congregational support for public witness, and received training on working with reporters. The ministers were so pleased with the conference that planning for another one is underway.
The Rev. John A. Buehrens, who stepped down in June after eight years as UUA president, places so much value on the surge of interest in public ministry that this fall he will offer a course on the subject at the Starr King School for the Ministry, the UU seminary in Berkeley, California. It is his hope that new UU ministers will move into the parishes already attuned to public ministry.
Unitarian Universalist community ministries have a long history and UU congregations and institutions have long taken public stands on issues, but support now is strong. In the 1997 Needs and Aspirations survey sponsored by the UUA's Fulfilling the Promise committee, 63 percent of the more than 8,000 respondents supported the idea that the denomination should be "a visible and influence force for good in the world."
"More and more congregations are trying to find ways to live out that dream, trying to see what it would look like if we took those words seriously," says the Rev. William G. Sinkford, the incoming UUA president. In the month after General Assembly, he says, he heard more than 20 stories of congregations working to find new ways to become engaged in their communities, but stories as compelling as Jorgensen's ministry are rare indeed.
JOKERS ARE WILD
Kay Jorgensen and Carmen Barsody call themselves fools because the jester or fool is someone who lives without boundaries, someone of no social standing whatsoever but who can go anywhere and say anything. When a new member joins the board of their ministry, he or she is given a copy of Lewis Hyde's book, Trickster Makes This World. Writes Hyde: "The road that trickster travels is a spirit road as well as a road in fact . . . . Trickster is boundary crosser . . . the author of the great distance between heaven and earth."
Jorgensen, in fact, was trained in street theater and mime before she attended the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California. Her alter ego, a clown named Oscard, is never far from her work. Once, when a city official proposed eliminating shopping carts from the streets, Jorgensen qua Oscard led a procession of homeless people from their gathering place at United Nations Plaza to the nearby gilt-domed City Hall and there did his best to rouse the rabble.
Jorgensen, 5 foot 3 inches tall, looks younger than her 69 years. Her short, dark chestnut hair reinforces her youthful look. Whereas her Oscard is brash and confident, a creature very much of this world, Jorgensen herself is soft spoken, open in the quiet, slightly vulnerable way that the best listeners are.
She was born Kathryn Johnson in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her father was a surgeon and three of her grandparents came from Sweden. One was a minister. (When Oscard, who's named after one of her relatives, speaks, he does so with a thick Swedish accent.) It was a pietistic childhood in which the notion of fun had little place. Movies were forbidden, as were cards. "My church then was a church of noes," she said. "Our church, our ministry now, is one of yeses."
Her father, the doctor, made house calls in poor neighborhoods, and would take along Kathryn and her younger sister. She remembers being locked in the family sedan with her sister while her father visited a patient, and black children stared at them from outside the windows. She noticed Cadillacs parked outside the shanties and wondered at the seeming incongruity, only later understanding that the owners of the fancy cars could get no better housing. These were among her first observances of the world beyond, her church, and they stayed with her.
She majored in religion and theater at St. Olaf College in Minnesota and married a young man named Jorgensen who was studying to become a clinical psychologist. When the couple was living in Indiana where he was attending Purdue, the great French mime Marcel Marceau came to town. Watching him perform was life-changing. "It was a conversion experience," Jorgensen says. "I was never the same afterward."
MIME AND REASON
In the years that followed, she studied mime and started a children's theater called Fantasia Folks in her home. She had three children by then and was living in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. "I was a supermom," she recalls. "I really worked at it." But the marriage was wrong for her, and in 1974, after 19 years in the role of housewife, she abruptly left her family and moved to Minneapolis, where for $15 a week she found a studio apartment. For $1.25 an hour and tips, she worked at the soda fountain in a drugstore across the street from the First Unitarian Society. In her spare time at the drugstore, she read Erich Fromm, Antoine Artuad, and Bertolt Brecht. Noticing what she was reading, the minister, the late Robert Lehman, began bringing Jorgensen his Sunday essays. Thus was she introduced to UU thought. She became a member of an outdoor theatrical group. Bit by bit Oscard began to emerge. "You don't create your clown," she says. "You find him."
A few years later she brought a street theater company to San Francisco, but the established groups had the venues sewn up so there was little work. Jorgensen cleaned houses to make ends meet. With her social conscience stirring uncomfortably, she enrolled at Starr King, where she received her master of divinity degree in 1987. Her thesis project was a performance by Oscard.
Graduated, she returned to Minneapolis and became minister of a new suburban congregation. She left after six years, when the financially strapped congregation had to choose between a minister and renovation of the building. Jorgensen moved in with a playwright friend, and a period of reflection followed. She was nearing 60 and realized her next parish was likely to be her last. By now her eldest daughter was living in San Francisco, so in 1995 she moved West again. She began attending the First UU Society.
"More and more, I was realizing that the streets were calling to me," she says. "This time they were calling me to do ministering, whereas last time it had been theater performances. I had a vision of ministering in the streets."
Jorgensen became chair of the church's social action committee, then started a social justice empowerment program based on advocacy, education, outreach, and community organizing. Her goal now was to create a social justice ministry and make it an integral part of congregational life. In 1996, the church board authorized an ad hoc committee for a social justice community ministry. A little grant money came in Then, in 1999, the Veatch program awarded the San Francisco church a grant to establish a permanent social justice minister within the congregation. "It's a fantastic project they have," says Deborah Holder, the program officer for Veatch who watches over the Faithful Fools.
On May 16, 1999, Kay Jorgensen was formally named the church's social justice minister. By then she already was working with Carmen Barsody, the Franciscan nun with whom she was to found the Faithful Fools. They had met in 1997 when Barsody, who had been working with a mission in Nicaragua, had come to Berkeley to consult with her spiritual adviser. Someone recommended the two women meet. Jorgensen was skeptical. She had worked on homelessness with other people, and the collaborations had never been successful. She was not interested in trying someone new. Against what she imagined was her better judgment, she agreed to meet Barsody for coffee. Coffee led to lunch and when lunch was over, they knew they could work together.
"We were speaking exactly the same language," Barsody says.
As it happened, Barsody's work in Managua was a kind of blueprint for the Faithful Fools and its "ministry of presence." She and the other nuns lived and worked in a poor neighborhood. They were there, every day, and though they did not provide many services or resources, their presence was their greatest gift and asset. "It was working with whatever came to you that day," she recalls, "and what it came down to was the fact that the greatest thing you did was whatever you could do with the person at that moment."
Indeed, Barsody had even thought of herself as a Fool in Nicaragua, for she worked with a North American interfaith group called the Cosmic Fools. After her first meeting with Kay Jorgensen, Barsody returned briefly to Nicaragua, but was back in San Francisco by early 1998. She and Jorgensen worked out of the UU church, which is in the Cathedral neighborhood, a 10-minute walk out of the Tenderloin. They plotted their plans on a white board in Jorgenson's office in the church and created a brochure for the Faithful Fools Street Ministry. All the while, they were out in the streets, working mainly out of a coffee and doughnut shop in the Tenderloin called the All Stars Café. That summer they began organizing the first street retreats.
Now that the Fools have their own building at 230-234 Hyde Street, Jorgensen and Barsody and their ministry of presence are in the neighborhood 24 hours a day.
Painted in big orange letters on the wall of a building across the street are the words "Want And You Shall Receive," and they took that as an omen as they raised money to buy their own place. The building was priced at $650,000. But with a 10-year, 1 percent loan for $100,000 from the Loretto Sisters of Kentucky, donations, bridge loans, and gifts of stock, they came up with $326,000, which was enough for the down payment.
The two women have an office and sleeping quarters behind the large, open meeting room area they call the Fools Court, and a steady stream of volunteers, workers, visitors, and street people move in and out constantly.
What exactly do they do? They counsel, accompany, comfort, assist, listen, talk to strangers, chauffeur, care, move in and out of the way, receding when their presence might be too much, intervening decisively when a life may be at stake. Most of these things they describe by using the verb "to walk." "Karen was walking with such-and-such yesterday," they might say to you, and what they means was that Karen Day was taking someone to a medical appointment, helping him get public assistance, watching his grocery cart while he was in a food line, filling out an application to get this or that service any of those things, perhaps all of them. That is the faithfulness of their name: always being there, every day. The Faithful Fools call it "daily accompaniment." If someone needs to be taken to the clinic seven days a week for medication, that means the Faithful Fools go, seven days a week.
They like to quote a line of Rainer Marie Rilke: "For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation."
"All that we do," Kay Jorgensen says, "is in preparation for meeting one other human being in a nonjudgmental way. You have to let go of expectations. You have to let go of what you think should happen."
"It is possible, faithfulness is possible, only if we don't have a determined outcome," says Carmen Barsody.
VINCENT'S NEW FRIENDS
Once they met a man who panhandled near the UU church. His name was Steven Vincent, and he was only in his 50s. But he looked old. He walked with a cane and he held a sign saying "Help an Old Man." They came to know Vincent and began to "walk" with him. Vincent had hit bottom. He was from New York but had worked many places, doing ranch work, driving bulldozers. He had been married with three daughters whom he hasn't seen or heard from in years, but the booze had wrecked him and what it didn't do, the heroin almost finished. Methadone was his last chance. Worse, Vincent also had tuberculosis and needed regular medication for that, too.
Jorgensen and Barsody took care that he never missed treatment. They made sure he had food. They got him signed up for public assistance and organized a network of people many of them people who had started helping the homeless after going on street retreats-to drive him to the clinics. One of these people, a fundraising executive from Burlingame, one of California's priciest suburbs, has become Vincent's friend. Vincent often becomes afraid, and when he does he calls the man from Burlingame and they talk until he is calm again.
Not long ago, the Faithful Fools helped Vincent find a subsidized apartment, and now for the first time in years, he no longer sleeps in the streets. But shortly after he moved in, he found himself agitated one night and frightened. He called and the two women took him to the hospital, where his methadone level was checked, and then they sat with him through the night. That is their ministry of presence. Just being there.
"If it hadn't been for them, I wouldn't have made it," Vincent told me.
His friend from Burlingame is Quentin Olwell, a Catholic who went on a Faithful Fools street retreat after he'd heard Carmen Barsody speak at his parish. At the time he thought his retreat was a failure he wasn't getting whatever it was that he should get from it. And yet, at the end, of the day, he remembers thinking that Burlingame was 2,000 miles away in another world.
So Olwell went back for more retreats and eventually became a member of the Faithful Fools board. He came to know Vincent and the odd rhythms of his life. He takes him to the methadone clinic every week. He has eaten Christmas dinner in Vincent's apartment. He is on the phone when Vincent calls, beset by night terrors.
I asked John Marsh, one of the co-ministers at the First UU Society, if he could assess the effect of the Kay Jorgensen's ministry on the congregation. She's made a big difference, he said. Having someone affiliated with the church out in the streets every day has greatly increased the effectiveness of the institution's community action.
"So much time is spent in meetings trying to achieve unanimity," March said. "So much time is spent talking. With someone out there full time, the situation changes radically.
"She's really bringing the Universalist message to the streets of San Francisco the Universalist message that all people have inherent worth and dignity. She's done marvelous things for the people of the streets but also for the people of the congregation as well."
I had asked Quentin Olwell, the fundraiser from Burlingame, much the same question: What effect had the Faithful Fools had on his life?
"When I see someone on the street corner now, I see Steven," Olwell said. "I see a person. And I'm no longer afraid of him."
William F. Woo, who attended Eliot Unitarian Chapel in Kirkwood, Missouri, when he was editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, now teaches journalism at Stanford University.
UU World XV:4 (September/October 2001): 16-20.