The holiday season seems to open the flood gates of compassion, with volunteers and resources pouring in during the one time of the year the less fortunate are fed, clothed, and remembered. Meanwhile economists monitor the sales temperature, hoping feverish shoppers will exceed the boiling point and consumerism will bring balance to a system delicately suspended by a few coins in either direction.
A recent West Coast transplant, I decided to spend my first Thanksgiving away among people who would truly value their meal. I volunteered to serve with Father River, the self-titled punk priest who ministers to the drug addicts, sex workers, and punk youth in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.
Cheryl, a sociology grad student, posted an online ad looking for a place to volunteer for Thanksgiving. We met at BART at 4:30 to ride into the city. “Look for the girl with a red handbag,” she advised. I wondered if a girl with a red handbag would be prepared for the night ahead.
Father River lives on Polk Street in a one-room apartment. Thirteen years have overgrown the four walls with photos and memorabilia branching onto the ceiling. Pictures of Jesus peek out from among the photos of the transient youth that have ebbed and flowed through River’s life. The logo of a cross crafted from hypodermic needles hangs above the desk.
Roy, another volunteer, sits on the futon that slices the room in half. He’s brought two cans of baked beans. With nothing more than a microwave we decide to serve them cold from the can. Once Heidi and Jeff arrive with the turkey and dressing we’re off to Hemlock Alley, one of the dark, dank alleys that serves as home to drug addicts, sex workers, and other outcasts on the edge of the village.
River navigates the nooks and crannies amidst the bars and cafes, winding through alleyways and the familiar haunts responding to the chorus of his name sung by the regular street residents, reminding them of a warm meal at 7 p.m. in Hemlock Alley. An emaciated woman sits in her wheelchair waiting for a customer. Matt, a bright young man whose intelligence is distorted by mental illness and drugs, falls in step and joins us in this sort of Thanksgiving Parade. We pass several well-dressed couples whose innate fear response signal a reflexive withdraw. I feel like saying “Boo” but instead march on.
We serve Thanksgiving meal from the back of a pick-up truck. With our limited supplies we ration turkey and dressing, green bean casserole, baked beans, and a roll into Styrofoam bowls. For dessert and refreshment we have pumpkin pie, Capri Sun, and a pair of clean socks. One gentleman declines a serving of beans for his partner on account of her dialysis. I wish I’d brought yams.
My hands are numb from the cold. Cheryl is shivering as she cuts pie with a plastic spoon. Someone has nabbed a bed in front of a vent blowing warm air.
Bobby asks me if I believe in Jesus. He recalls the night he prayed for deliverance from his drug addiction and was saved by God’s grace. Still on the streets, he relapsed a month ago but that minor incident served as a reminder, he insists. Bobby was wondering how to stay warm tonight when River appeared with an offer of blankets, a beaming smile that affirms his newfound faith. He gives me a printed copy of his testimony warning, “It’s graphic.” River appears to take our picture and Bobby asks, “Do you mind if I stand next to you?”
After 9 p.m. River dons his robes and begins liturgy. I eat of Christ’s body and share in his blood from the cup that’s passed around the few who’ve chosen to stay. We send leftovers with some and set the rest on the street that smells like raw sewage. Cheryl insists on leaving the plastic spoons too, a sort of symbolic grant of full recognition of human civilization.
River seeks momentary respite in his room for what is still an early night where silence may crescendo in a cacophony before sunrise. At 10:30 p.m. Cheryl and I spot the neon warmth of the open sign at Bob’s Broiler and rush in to refuel. “I have to have a Thanksgiving meal,” Cheryl says. “I can’t go home and eat cereal.” She orders a turkey burger. I order an omelet and we both clean our plates.
When I finally crawl into bed at 1:30 a.m., my mind is still saturated with the evening’s images and interactions. I can’t put the experience on a trophy shelf of good deeds. What’s so phenomenal about dishing up some food and a smile?
We feel protected from the refuge of our homes and a steady paycheck, but what truly separates you from the person on the street? The eyes that glance at you are the very same you use to look away. An outstretched hand resembles your own.
I am washed in tears of real gratitude for the respect and courtesy I received in the street home of my hosts. Serving, I remembered my own humanity— where people lingered hungry for something more than food.
For more information about Father River Damien Sims and his ministry in the Polk Village area of San Francisco, visit www.temenos.org.
Erin Wolfe is an East Bay resident.