Catholic Worker walks out the Gospels in secular San Francisco
San Francisco’s Temenos Catholic Worker house, the ministry founded by the Rev. River Sims, takes the Worker mission to the city’s front lines.
Sims was ordained a priest in the Evangelical Anglican Church in America in 1995 and later consecrated bishop of the denomination’s Society of Franciscan Workers in 2007. Support for Temenos–Greek for “protected or sacred area”–comes from its Workers, volunteers, donations, and churches in the area, namely St. Luke’s Episcopal.
Temenos’ ministry works without institutional funding by reaching past San Francisco’s high-tech, moneyed facade, deep down into its cracks. At First glance, the Worker house’s location reflects a gentrified neighborhood. Broad daylight belies intersections that are teeming with drugs, prostitution and human trafficking after dark.
Accordingly, Temenos’ services include harm reduction, HIV and hepatitis prevention, and crisis intervention–measures sometimes considered controversial, or even condoning of illicit, illegal and immoral activities. The needle exchange program, “Points for Jesus,” is a case in point.
When questioned on this, Sims replies that Jesus’ command to Peter is “Feed my sheep.”
He then quotes Christian writer Madeleine L’Engle: “Whenever there’s a crisis, if you can get people to eating normally, things get better.”
Offering up these pieces of inspiration, he explains that he’s actually able to proclaim the Gospel by way of food, a clean needle, a fresh pair of socks, or a listening ear.
“Harm reduction is compassionate because it meets people where they are, on their terms, instead of confronting them from a moral high ground,” he said.
Sims–who lives in a one-room flat in a walk-up tenement with a bathroom down the hall–has kitchen privileges at St. Luke’s Episcopal, where he cooks a lunchtime meal for the homeless, whom he calls “his kids.” Filling takeout containers, he loads them onto a wagon and distributes lunch throughout the neighborhood on foot with only the aid of a walking stick, feeding up to 2,000 people each day.
Temenos, unlike other Bay Area Catholic Worker houses, doesn’t close or keep regular office hours. Sims’ mobile number is posted on the website. Sims’ pastoral care takes place in person rather than from behind a pulpit or by email or phone. He weekly celebrates the Eucharist and the sacraments, regularly responds to email, and always answers his phone.
As Sims walks his turf, shopkeepers, church people, transients and transgender people alike are on first-name basis with him. He greets each one like a long-lost friend; indeed, many of them are long lost, and Sims treats everyone as friend. Moreover, in the city famed for its eponymous Catholic patron saint, Sims long ago learned that hardline proselytizing has no place in his mission field.
After 20-plus years of street ministry, Sims has been held up at gunpoint, shot at, stuck with dirty needles, beaten and threatened, and yet he perseveres simply due to his devotion,to Jesus and vocation as a priest. All things considered, Sims seems to accept it as par for the course.
When asked if the city’s social problems are improving, he’s quick to pronounce that problems are worsening. Homelessness in what is notoriously one of the nation’s most expensive cities is increasingly more visible -6,686 is the most recent headcount. Sims’ perspective is that the city has become less compassionate and less understanding of the plight of the streets. A recent report in the San Francisco Chronicle illustrates a misunderstanding of the issues by the general public, such as that there is plenty of room at the shelters to house the homeless.
Sims’ long-term experience as a Catholic Worker in the Bay Area has both challenged and strengthened his resolve. Recently accused by one of “his kids” of being “addicted to Jesus,” he faces a variety of criticisms, such as the homeless who find him overly zealous, and some who find Temenos’ services–like needle exchange and condom distribution–to be too radical.
Commenting on the spiritual environs of San Francisco, Sims says that Christians are in the minority Pew Research Center’s studies between 2014-2016 help quantify his perspective. The study indicates that San Francisco has fewer Christians than many other U.S. cities. Thirty-five percent of the population claims to be “nothing in particular.” Another 10 percent identifies as agnostic and 5 percent atheist. Long known for counter culture, relativism, free love and reproductive rights, and the LGBT and same-sex marriage movements, San Francisco turns out to be among the nation’s top most secular cities.
Interpreting the Pew studies and a similar 2015 Gallup opinion poll, Dow Jones’s MarketWatch, a publication that tracks investment trends, calls out San Francisco (along with Portland, Ore., and Seattle) as being the “atheist capital of America.”
How does this affect Temenos’ mission? While Sims alludes to a general unfriendliness toward Christians in San Francisco, he brings the mission back to the essence of Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day, paraphrasing, “We can only love God when we love one other, and to love one another, we must know one another.”
“As much,” he continues, “that we must listen to one another and respect the perspectives of others, I’ve also come to learn one-pointed focus,” For Sims, this means that irrespective of popular culture, politics or public opinion, he stays on point with the mission and tasks of Temenos, as well as the one who he believes is behind it all, Jesus.
Catholic Workers “do not fix or change people, but offer love and respite in the midst of life, and in that love and respite lives are transformed,” he asserts.
Thus, Sims has found that walking out the teachings of Jesus and offering one-to-one care has the potential to encourage a person toward a different way of life.
This article first appeared on National Catholic Reporter