Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
A short documentary reveals how a spiritual leader walks his faith by night in a city gripped with homelessness.
For decades, the Tenderloin has been known as San Francisco’s primary harbor of destitution. More than 4,000 people sleep unsheltered around the area, far more than anywhere else in the city. It’s common to encounter open-air narcotic exchanges, human feces on the sidewalk, and desperate expressions of mental illness.
At night, the neighborhood also turns into a kind of parish. Since 1964, an ordained “night minister” has offered comfort and support to those in need around these streets. For 11 years, this was Reverend Lyle Beckman’s vocation: Every night between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., he’d stop and converse with people in the Tenderloin: the homeless, mentally ill, sex workers, addicts, and those down on their luck. Sometimes he’d offer crisis counseling, a pair of socks or a blanket, or a quiet prayer. Always, his job as director of the nonprofit San Francisco Night Ministry was to provide a human connection, in the hours when fear and isolation surface most.
“It’s a ministry of presence,” Beckman says in Even in Darkness, a short documentary that is now free to watch on Vimeo. Beckman, who retired in 2018, is its subject. The director, James Hosking, met him years ago at a drag bar where the reverend had stopped in during one nighttime saunter. (Sometimes night ministers enter bars, coffee shops, hotels, and anywhere else people gather after sunset.)
“I loved that Lyle came to different venues that you wouldn’t expect a minister to go to,” Hosking told CityLab. “I liked that he was open and able to relate to such a wide range of people.”
That is key to the job, which a new night minister—Reverend Valerie McIntee, the first woman in the role—has since taken on. In the documentary’s spare and moving 26 minutes, Beckman speaks with many types of people, including a young man who believes he is a prophet, a mother of three asking Jesus for a mansion, and a self-publishing writer who discusses his latest work. Most are happy to see him; others are angry. In each case, the reverend listens and affirms beneath the lamplight, sometimes pointing to a social service or offering an idea.
Night ministers have thousands of these interactions over the course of a year, and usually, there is a spiritual dimension to them. But contrary to what many assume, the goal is not to convert vulnerable souls or condemn sinful activity. “We meet people where they are,” Beckman told CityLab. “It just happens to be a priest in a collar.”
As the city has changed, so has the work. When the San Francisco Council of Churches launched the night ministry in the 1960s—inspired by similar services in Chicago, Sydney, and London—most conversations were with recent arrivals to the city, many of them young runaways, struggling with their new lives. Now, amid San Francisco’s historic housing crisis, the reverends tend largely to the growing population of unsheltered people, especially those dealing with mental illness and addiction.
People experiencing homelessness need to be seen as human beings, not liabilities, said Beckman, who has become a vocal advocate of a “housing-first” policies. “Once people are housed, then they are safe, and then you can begin to support their medical, emotional, and spiritual needs,” he said. “Once you’re not always afraid or being protective of your stuff, then you can begin to create healthy relationships on the inside.”
That is why he has a hard time relating to San Franciscans who oppose construction of homeless shelters and supportive housing. While some of their fears may be genuinely rooted in past encounters, he said, “mostly, it’s their property values. It’s greed.” Perhaps those community members need help understanding the roots of their fears, Beckman said. And perhaps he has found his next ministry.