Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Forty years in San Francisco

I left New York last Tuesday, possibly one of the last flights to get out of JFK due to an ice storm. What a relief to arrive in nearly 60+ F weather!

Tuesday evening the brothers in the Bay area gathered with the retired Bishop of California, Bill Swing, and his wife Mary for Holy Eucharist and dinner. We began to tell stories about the early days of SSF in San Francisco. It is humbling to think of all the brothers who have lived at San Damiano, and the breadth of their ministries over the past 40 years. Bishop Swing spoke movingly of his perception of our contribution to the life of the diocese.

Wednesday evening, the Feast of the Presentation, we gathered again with the sisters of the Community of St. Francis. After dinner Br. Robert Hugh gave a brilliant talk about the early years. Arriving in San Francisco in February 1971, we originally lived in a apartment until the present location on Dolores Street was found--a "marginal" neighborhood in those days, he said. We moved in a floor at a time over the course of nearly a year.

In those days the men who came to us were like as not to be seeking a way to avoid the draft, something which our commitment to peace and non-violence made an obvious option. But, as Robert Hugh observed, the formation process became more about helping late adolescents mature into adulthood than an in-depth exploration of Franciscanism, though the two are by no means mutually exclusive efforts. I think Robert was being a bit modest as he was very involved with the formation program in those days.

One of our earliest ministries in the Bay Area was welcoming young people who came to San Francisco through the Haight Asbury help center. People needing a place to stay were given chits to present to the brothers who provided showers, beds and food. Later we offered the same resources to refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia.

San Damiano was a new kind of effort for SSF in those days, at least in the American Province, because it was not affiliated with a parish. Then, as now, the brothers were involved in different parishes and ministry initiatives.

Sister Ruth, one of our First Order Sisters of the Community of St. Francis has also lived in San Francisco almost the whole 40 years of our presence in the city. CSF came to San Francisco shortly after the brothers. She is justly famous for founding Family Link, a ministry to families of persons affected by AIDS. Now it is for families of people who are affected by illness of any kind and needing housing. But before that she was a contractor and also a nurse to the founder of the American Episcopal Franciscans, Fr. Joseph. She spoke after Robert Hugh finished, and told some poignant stories of the old man's last years. I wanted to laugh and weep at the same time.

Its a joy to hear such a generous assessment of life and ministry.

1971 was also the year the brothers moved into Patteson House in the Solomon Islands. We shared the house with the Sisters of the Church, another Anglican religious order. Initially the brothers and sisters shared the main house: kitchen, dining room, laundry and common room. But within a year or so, a wall was built so that each community could have it's privacy.

So the experiments in community living carry on. It is exciting to me to think of where we have been, and encouraging as we dream about where we can go. We've been out there, challenging culture, welcoming strangers, ministering to the sick and needy, experimenting with the forms and norms of religious life.

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