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Lighten the Darkness, Rekindle the Hope
-- the Night Ministry motto

by The Rev. Lyle Beckman

Often people will ask, “Will there ever be a time when the services of the Night Ministry will not be needed?”  While our prayer is that all suffering disappear, and peace and joy reign for all of God’s children, the reality is that people will always face difficult times, particularly at night.  It is precisely for those who are in trouble, lonely, anxious, afraid, sick, or grieving at night that the Night Ministry was called into being, and why we continue our work today.  We serve a valuable role as the Church’s Night Shift, and have had a powerful impact on the lives of thousands of people each year.

We believe that our work helps to make San Francisco a city that is healthier, safer, and more stable for all who live and work here. We help to bridge the gap between the times when social services are available. We offer to build healthy life-affirming communities and neighborhoods. We offer companionship to those who are lonely and isolated. We attend to the mental and physical needs of those who are compromised. We provide harm reduction for those at risk to themselves and others. And we encounter and assist many of the most vulnerable, who fall between the cracks, among even of our City’s very fine social services.

All this is provided without receiving any public funds or charging for any services. 

So, as we look into the future, what are our challenges and opportunities? 

For fifty years, the Night Ministry has remained faithful to a simple mission statement: “Our aim is to help our neighbors in great need, when their needs will not be otherwise met in the nighttime hours.” 

Our approach remains compassionate and non-judgmental. As Roman Catholic priest and professor of pastoral theology Henri J.M. Nouwen espoused in his book A Spirituality of Caregiving:

Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely and broken.  But that is not our spontaneous response to suffering.  What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it, or finding a quick cure for it.

Yet, perhaps the greatest gift is an ability to enter into solidarity with those who suffer.  Compassion can never coexist with judgment because judgment creates distance and distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other.

While our purpose has changed little, and while the mild weather of the City continues to be conducive to our work, much has changed in San Francisco.  From the beat generation, to the summer of love, to anti-war rallies, to a growing LGBTQ presence in the 1960s through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, earthquakes, economic ups and downs, the dot com booms and busts and with a growing population of people who struggle with poverty, homelessness and mental illness in the 2000s, San Francisco has seen many changes in culture, politics, economics, and population.  One challenge for the Night Ministry will be to continue to meet the needs of the people at night in a city that is always changing.

Another challenge for us is finding the resources to maintain and grow the ministry.  In the early days we received funds that came directly from church bodies/judicatories. When that stopped, congregations and inpidual contributors belonging to churches stepped in to support us. So for most of our history, our support has come from the Christian religious community. A few private foundations have sometimes given grants.  We continue to sponsor fundraising events including galas, auctions, and concerts, featuring such performers as folk legend Joan Baez and jazz singer Wesla Whitfield. Other non-profit organizations make us a beneficiary.

Now, one of the great opportunities we have in the future is to continue to nurture that solid relationship with the Christian community but also to look for support from non-Christians, social organizations, foundations, and the corporate world. 

We would love to grow the number of people we have on staff.  From the early days of the Night Ministry through the early 2000s, on a typical night there would be one Night Minister and one Crisis Line Counselor on duty. Now, we draw from three full-time and eight part-time Night Ministers, and 45 Crisis Line Counselors. Simply put, if we can have more Night Ministers on the streets and more Crisis Line Counselors on the phones, we can serve more people each night.

Another challenge -- can we move comfortably from being a Christian-based ministry to one that also includes representatives from the interfaith community who are not Christian? We will continue to seek to find ways to have a stronger interfaith presence in the future, without compromising our mission statement or changing our focus to be with those in need.

As we look to the future we want to continue to serve as a place for learning, providing field work and internship opportunities for students seeking a unique model for ministry and service.  We would love to expand our Clinical Pastoral Education program, and will be open to enter into other partnerships and collaborations that will bring resources together from around the area to better serve the people of the night. 

Mostly, we look to remain faithful to our calling to those whom we serve and for those who support us and send us out each night.