Wednesday, November 19, 2008

San Francisco: An Immersion Excursion

It's axiomatic. The only real way to meet the friars is to-- well-- meet the friars! That's exactly what Sam, Dirk, and Simon-- our guests the weekend of November 14-16-- did as part of their San Franciscan Bay Area Immersion Experience. The trio all arrived from southern California, both by air (Sam and Dirk) and Greyhound (Simon). They brought with them open and willing hearts as well as their own stories. Sam, originally from Indonesia, is an industrial engineer. Dirk, a native of Aachen, Germany, has worked in the LA area for more than ten years as a technician for theatre production work. And Simon works in human resources.

Just as our guest/inquirers shared parts of their faith journey and life experience with us, we Franciscans tried for our part to share our own stories as well, through our ministries and community life. The San Francisco Bay Area, with its tremendous diversity and wealth of resources, is the perfect place for an inquirer to jump in and explore Franciscan life up close. And that's just what we invited our guests to do.

The quick pace of the three-day weekend event provided our visitors with the chance to get a good overview of the Franciscan presence in the Bay Area and most significantly in the city of St. Francis itself. Our first stop was historic Dolores Mission, founded in 1776 and a poignant reminder that the histories of both the Franciscans and the city of San Francisco are closely intertwined. Next stop on the Grand Tour was a visit with our brother, Fr. Richard Purcell at the Aurora Dawn/ Marty's Place foundation in the city's Mission district. Richard, whose brother Marty died of AIDS, founded this hospice for homeless men with HIV/AIDS and has served as its resident director since its inception. Over the past two decades, hundreds of men have spent the last weeks and days of their lives at Marty's Place. Without exception, they have experienced respect, acceptance and loving care.

As our host, Richard received us with that same warm welcome and gracious hospitality. At the time of our visit, he was in his element and regaled us with wonderful stories about his life and work both at Aurora Dawn and earlier on among the Native American people of the Southwest. "They taught me everything," he told us, "Before I met the Indians, I didn't have a spirituality. They gave me my own and it has anchored my life." Richard held us spellbound and in stitches with his devilish humor, charm, and wisdom. We had to tear ourselves away after two hours. For his part, he was just getting warmed up.

Our other visits over the weekend followed a similar rhythm, juxtaposing the experience of formal institutions with encounters with real live people. Friday night, we had a great dinner as guests of the friars at St. Boniface in San Francisco's hardscrabble Tenderloin neighborhood. The next day, all four of us pitched in next door at the St. Anthony Dining Room. Joined by several dozen other volunteers, we helped to serve a hot, nutritious lunch to the nearly 2800 guests who queued in line from 10 to 2. For all of us, it was an extraordinary encounter, difficult to describe. Hope, despair, friendship, holiness. Interwoven with the shocking reality of deep poverty, disease, and homelessness just a few blocks from the one of the world's great upscale shopping districts-- Union Square and the San Francisco Centre close by.

We had little time to digest or process the intensity of our experience at St. Anthony's. Next stop: the East Bay, with brief calls at St. Elizabeth parish and friary in Oakland's primarily Latino Fruitvale neighborhood, followed by visits in turn to the new Oakland Cathedral of Christ the Light, then on to our Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley. At St. E's, we were greeted by the guardian, Fr. Ponchie Vasquez and several student friars. With more than a dozen friars, St. E's is the largest house in our province. The adjacent church is a magnet for Hispanic Catholics from throughout the East Bay.

The relative homeiness of St. E's gave way to the sophisticated elegance of the new cathedral, whose overall simplicity, nevertheless, clearly resonates with the Franciscan spirit. On to Berkeley's Holy Hill, north of the University campus, we were able to check out FST, our school of theology, which includes among its faculty some of the most respected names in Franciscan studies: Kenan Osborne, Joe Chinnici, Michael Guinan, and Bill Short among others. We also did a walk-through of nearby buildings which belong to the Graduate Theological Union, an ecumenical consortium of which FST is an integral part.

After pausing to savor the sunset from Holy Hill, we drove down to the Berkeley flatlands to our Brother Giles fraternity, where friars Adrian Peelo and Luis-Alberto Guzman had prepared a wonderful dinner of chicken and pasta casserole, with salad and not just one, but several outrageously sweet desserts. Armies move on their stomachs, but we friars are perfectly willing to sit still a good while to enjoy our dinner, which is exactly what we did on this occasion. Again, several student friars and other guests joined in.

Sunday morning there was just enough time for a quick breakfast before a wonderful Gospel Mass back at St. Boniface. Friar Vince Hughes presided over the liturgy, while the gospel choir had even the most timid souls among us up, clapping our hands and stamping our feet in praise and thanksgiving. That's what it's all about! After Mass, the four of us regrouped for a check in and wrap up session before lunch and departure.

This Immersion Weekend is not your typical retreat experience. In fact, it's not a retreat at all. But it really is an intense and fast-paced immersion into our life as we actually experience it, not as some sugary showcase that reveals nothing about who we really are: practicing human beings like everyone else. Our guests took it all in stride-- the magnificance of a Saturday sunset over the Golden Gate bridge right along with unscheduled delays, detours, and distractions: Fr. Jorge took sick so I had to jump in to take the Friday noon Mass.... A 4:30 am fire alarm in the neighborhood had everyone in the house up (not me, I slept through it all, thank you very much).... We caught friars as we could-- and they were frequently on the run to and from work, classes, funerals, and youth group meetings..... All of that mixed in with food, friendship, fun, punctuated by some periods of prayer and reflection. Welcome to us. Come and join us yourself on our next immersion experience. In the meantime, may the Lord give you peace!

1 comment:

SFbruiser said...

I'm delighted that you had a successful excursion to San Francisco and had time to visit St. Boniface where faith is put into action.
I look forward to your next visit.