Interview: Night Ministry in San Francisco with Reverend Lyle Beckman by Peter Menkin

In a visit to an excellent show on Night Ministry in San Francisco this writer was introduced to the photo work of a young man named Malcolm Garland. Though Malcolm, once a student at The Cathedral School for Boys–(Grace Cathedral, San Francisco)–and now a college student, is a good photographer, it was more than the pictures themselves that were intriguing and genuine. It was Night Ministry in San Francisco itself that became a central focus of interest for this article-interview about the ministry itself and young photographer Malcolm Garland. 

The spokesman for Diocese of California, USA said this of the gallery: 

I’m not sure what information I can give you about Gallery 1055. Gallery 1055 was founded by the Diocesan Bishop, The Rt. Reverend Marc Handley Andrus–shortly after he arrived as Diocesan Bishop in 2006; it is ministry of the Diocese that attempts to share through fine art the diversity of the Diocese in ministry. That is a diversity that represents the diverse ethnicity, diverse spiritual expression, the diverse ministry and services provided by people of the Diocese  

  

It has had two Curators, Mel Albern, and The Reverend Bertie Pearson who has now moved onto Parochial Ministry. We are currently without a Curator, but hope to have one soon.   

During the photo show, held in the Gallery 1055 in San Francisco, and a Gallery created by The Rt. Reverend Marc Andrus for display of religious and spiritual work relevant to the Diocese and its ministry, I talked with The Night Minister himself. Later this writer interviewed The Reverend Lyle Beckman in November, 2010 by phone in the evening on two separate evenings. Total time taken in interviewing was about 2.5 hours. This intriguing interview that tells so much of his work, and the work of others in Night Ministry follows: 

INTERVIEW: THE REVEREND LYLE BECKMAN, NIGHT MINISTER 

  1. 1.      As the current Night Minister, you keep hours that are wee hours of the night. How many Night Ministers are there, what are their names, and like you, what hours do they keep? Are all of them ordained?

  

There are two of us who work fulltime, and we have a number of other ministers who work varying numbers of nights a month. The other fulltime minister is Thom Longino. We have Monique Ortiz, and she is just finishing up a two year long fellowship with us and will continue on working specifically with our outdoor worship service (Open Cathedral) by UN Plaza [San Francisco]. And also a few nights a week—We start at 9:45 p.m. and go until 4 a.m. 

For the Night Ministers…[they start by]… working [with the business that involves] meeting with our volunteers who work with the crisis line, spending a little time in prayer, getting ready for the night. Our telephone lines are switched on at ten o’clock. Then the Night Ministers are literally on the street. We have an Episcopal Deacon, Diana Wheeler. We have on staff, Brother Jude Hill who is a Franciscan Friar, and he coordinates our crisis line counselors and works occasionally on the streets. All of our Night Ministers are ordained clergy. 

We also have eight assistant Night Ministers, and they can work from one night a month to one night a week. On an average night, we can have from one to four Night Ministers scheduled on that night. 

   

  1. 2.      Are there certain routes assigned to the Ministers, and different purposes of action and activity on those routes? What would you say are the four prime objectives of the ministry? Is there an incident or time on the street in ministry that you recall that is an anecdote that will explain to readers something in the line of Night Ministry work?

  

Yes, we try to be in every one of the neighborhoods of San Francisco that have some night life, where people will be out. It varies from week to week. For example, we are probably in the Tenderloin area, and South of Market in San Francisco, I would say, five nights a week. The Tenderloin and South of Market would be one of the poorer neighborhoods with rooming hotels…and there are a lot of clubs and bars where people gather. And a lot of times there are places where people just gather…you know…on the street corners. 

Some of the other neighborhoods are Mission neighborhoods, North Beach, Castro neighborhood…but really, the idea is we walk the streets where people will be found. So we won’t walk residential neighborhoods. We want to be available to people who are out, and be visible. We all wear clerical collars. 

A sense of the variety of conversations we have [is this]: Sometimes we meet people who are involved in behaviors they are not necessarily proud of. There are drug dealers, [people who are] drinking too much, so sometimes when they see someone in a clerical collar they will engage us in telling us the way their life has gone. Looking at their options, they speak of their being the best person they can be. When people come to us, I do believe that is a moment of decision for them…sometimes. And maybe, yes, they will give some serious thought to where they are and their head is. 

I can give you [an example] …a man had a string of problems and his wife had left him. He’d lost his job, he was living on the street, and he was involved in a drug addiction that he wasn’t able to control at the moment. He was contemplating suicide at the time. We spent four hours together, sitting on a curb and after hearing his story, helped him come up with a plan of action that moved him from his despondency into the journey that was much more positive. 

A year later when I saw him again, he had reconciled with his wife, and was in a job training program, and was living in his own apartment and was drug free. He would say this was a miracle story. I think that is what we do. We want to be available to people who are in distress in the middle of the night. Sometimes the other stories I could tell might not be as exciting. 

We have conversations with people who work nights, but they don’t have time to be involved with their religious organizations as they would like. We can provide them with a prayer or connection with the sacred that they don’t have. We talk to people about faith, sometimes they are in a crisis of faith, and we can talk through those issues. Sometimes it’s just as simple as listening to people who are very lonely and disconnected… Particularly with people who have mental health issues. We’ll listen to them and stand with them and help them to realize they are not forgotten. 

When you think about it, we work with people who are awake in the middle of the night. Oftentimes they are awake because they are working, or they are troubled, lonely, or looking for some kind of connection. That’s the role we play in the middle of the night. We can have a religious conversation or not. 

  

  

Deacon Diana Wheeler, another of the Night Ministers.

  1. 3.      How long have you been involved in this ministry, and are there one or more persons you see most nights who stick in your mind? It is likely as a minister you’ve made some friends. Please tell us something of those one or more persons who are regulars? Do you consider them characters of the night, like something out of the pages of our morning newspaper, or a Damon Runyon novel? How do you consider them, and what is the attitude, the stance towards them? I suppose, too, some readers will be wondering if the job of a Night Minister is to Save Souls. This writer is unsure what it means to Save Souls, but is it part of a Night Minister’s work?

  

  

Some of our conversations are one time only conversations. We’ll meet someone in a street or a bar or coffee shop and we’ll see them only once. We have some callers to our crisis line who have been calling 30 years. I have been with Night Ministry 6 years and there are many people that I see regularly, both because I know where they work and I get to know them that way: bar tenders, donut makes, cab drivers, police officers, and so on. Sometimes people who live on the streets live in the same neighborhood, so we see them over and over again. 

I would say that so many of the people we talk to regularly have become friends of Night Ministry. We become for some people their primary support system, or their primary way of accessing spirituality. We pray with a lot of people; people know how to reach us when they are in crisis. They know us and trust us. 

I think that for most people who have some background in spiritual life, they’ve been raised in a Church or had some connection with a Church, Synagogue or 12 step program; people have a strong belief there is a divine presence in the world. They want to grow with that relationship; for most people it is a good thing… It gives them hope. 

…We think of Night Ministers as dispensers of hope. We look for something that will help them get through something, get them to move beyond that. So often, hope is found in the presence of God, in the peace and love that is God. Sometimes hope is found in their [own] strength. Sometimes it’s found within, their resilience, their strength, or even their stubbornness to overcome the challenges of life. Sometimes it’s found in community, or family and friends. Our goal is to help them find the place where hope can be found in their life. More than not, hope is found in some spiritual connection. 

I think sometimes that’s right, there is no typical night for us. but sometimes the variety of the types of conversations we have are just incredible. If we wanted to make up a typical night, on the one hand we’re talking with people who are living on the streets who are suffering from dual diagnosis, mental health issues: [They are] seeing visions of aliens, or living in a world that only they understand. So we have interactions with people like that. We also meet people who have very eccentric personalities, who believe they are aliens. 

We meet drag queens in a neighbor of the bars we visit. There are certainly some characters there. We meet people who are in rock bands. There are many people who are characters of the night. 

There are just plain interesting folks, too. I’ve met professors, doctors, lawyers, a bounty hunter or two. Clowns. As people talk about their lives, they can be characters. Sometimes I think we can be characters of the night, for here we are walking around in our clerical collars. I think people sometimes think of us as characters as well. In some cases we are a part of their community. 

  

  1. 4.      This is a special ministry, it appears. What does the San Francisco Episcopal Bishop, The Rt. Reverend Marc Andrus think of it, and does he support the ministry? Also, during the Cathedral of the Streets, do you have a collection?

  

We’ve been around for 46 years. And really in all that time, there have only been four Night Ministers in that 46 year period. The purpose really hasn’t changed in all that time. We have our crisis line, and ministers walking the street. What’s changed in all those years is the society and culture and the events that happen that make us different. So night ministry hasn’t changed, but we’ve lived through the turbulence of the 60s; the drug use [era], the anti Vietnam War era. We’ve lived through HIV and AIDs, the changes in the mental health system that have put so many people back on the streets. We’ve lived through the various assassinations and tearing down of various institutions around us and building up. 

Night ministry will always be there, doing what we do best: Offering a listening ear, a word of prayer or blessing, and will help people find hope in anything they might be facing in the moment. 

Bishop Andrus has walked out with, and has been on the streets with us at night. He is on the advisory board, and he is always appreciative of what we do and vocal in support of what we do. 

No, we don’t receive an offering from the people there. But occasionally someone is moved to make a donation. We have seen the people grow–live out a life of faith. We now see them volunteering in other programs. Some may begin to volunteer with Night Ministry as crisis line counselors and other ways. 

  

  1. 5.      More likely, many people seen by Night Ministers are ill. Have you given the Sacraments of healing, or even Last Rites to someone met on the streets? What is the general condition of the people you see, and how do you characterize their life (mostly homeless people?). Why would someone care about these people who may be invisible to most of us? Do you consider Night Ministry a particularly Christian work with a Christian message, and a Christian motivation for its existence?

  

We do see people who are ill on the streets, and that can be illness of body, mind or soul. I often carry an oil stock with me for anointing, [to]give a blessing and give a prayer of healing. 

Occasionally, we are called to come to a hospital and meet with family members or a person who is in need. [I say only occasionally, for]…Hospitals have chaplains. 

The general condition of the people we see, [and of those whom most people] imagine [as] what we do at night is spend a lot of time with people living on the streets. And we do spend a lot of time with people living on the street. And we do know plenty. But then there are people who are out who just want to get away from their apartment or house at night. 

It is so easy to walk the streets at night to think things through. We meet people in bars and diners. We meet people who are at work. We have a broad range of people that we serve. [If] we wanted to narrow it, it is people of the night, or people who are awake in the middle of the night. 

I hope that we all care about our brothers and sisters who are in trouble. That’s one of the primary messages that Jesus [is] telling us. That we are to love our neighbors as we are loved by God. 

Or to think about this question: Am I my brother or sister’s keeper. One way to think about that, not only are we our brother or sisters keeper, we are brothers and sisters together. It is also receiving from them what they have to offer. 

My answer might be odd. …I identify as a Christian. My motivation…Night Ministry is for me a Christian message. Night Ministry in its creation was a Christian Ministry. Can we serve others who are not Christian at night?…and yes we do. That point is, are we a Christian Ministry?…for those of us who are Christian and part of the ministry that [Christianity] becomes part of the ministry. We have people who are not Christian, and they have other motivations for helping. They want to help others. God’s love by Jesus Christ can be known by others who do not know Jesus Christ and it can be useful to them. 

  6.      Is there a formal set of goals or a formal statement defining the ministry; if so, what is it?

  

When we became…when Night Ministry started in 1962, we were under the umbrella of the San Francisco Council of Churches. Then we became an official program in 1964. Then shortly before the Council of Churches disbanded, Night Ministry organized as its own non-profit organization. The first Night Minister is Donald Stuart (Reverend, United Church of Christ). 

  

  

  1. 7.      To my mind this is a fascinating and unsung ministry, maybe even somewhat invisible to the average person. I know of one other ministry like it and that is in Chicago, Illinois. Can you tell us of other similar ministries, and can you tell us how they are the same or different. That’s like one of those college questions, Compare & Contrast, please.

  

A direct descendant of the San Francisco Night Ministry is Operation Night Watch in Seattle. And in the early years I think they followed the Night Ministry model fairly well. But now they focus on direct service. 

They have a building with low income housing, and a nightly feeding program. And they sponsor shelters around the city. 

Seattle is certainly taking care of many of the immediate needs. We try to in our referrals. If someone is sleeping on the streets, we’ll help them get off…. Our primary purpose is to find a way or hope to get through the night. It is that presence with them, that prayer…That support can move them in that direction. Our ministry is a more caring for the soul. I think of our ministry as a healing ministry. 

I don’t know of one in New York City, but I know of one in Portland, Oregon that is called Operation Night Watch Portland. I know the director of the program in Seattle. I do not know the director of the program in Portland. 

  
  
  
  
  
  
  8.      Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask, or something you’d like to add, Reverend Lyle? If you’ve a statement to make regarding your work, your ministry, or Night Ministry, let readers know what it may be. Thank you so much for your time, and the good work you and other Night Ministers do. As one friend remarked of Malcolm Garland’s photos, “…Wonderful photos! Very dramatic and compelling.” Many would say the same of Night Ministry, San Francisco

  

I thinkI’m so really honored to be part of this ministry. I take the work that we do every night very seriously. I look into the eyes of every person I meet, or hear in their voice every person on the phone, see them as my brother or sister. I never tire of meeting God in the person, places we meet, or the stories they tell. I am just delighted to be a part of this ministry. 

INTERVIEW: YOUNG PHOTOGRAPHER MALCOLM GARLAND 

During the reception at Gallery 1055 those who were at the event had the opportunity to meet its sponsor, The Rt. Reverend Marc Andrus. Bishop Marc invited those present into his office to meet the photographer, and ask questions. After the reception at the opening of this Gallery 1055 show, this writer corresponded by email with Malcolm and at one point posed a series of questions to him. The photographer replied to the questions in writing. This is that interview: 

  1. 1.      Your show at the Diocesan House, San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral held in Gallery 1055 had as host The Rt. Reverend Marc Andrus. In my conversation with him, he spoke of the Gallery’s genesis. If you can, tell us something of what the Bishop said of your photographic work, all taken in black and white? Will you also tell us how long the series took to shoot, how you came to the idea and job of shooting the Night Ministry of San Francisco as ministered by the Episcopal Church. And for those curious to know, why did you shoot in black and white, not color?

  

I honestly don’t remember too much of what Bishop Marc said about my work. I remember him being very complimentary and generous and I really appreciated the opportunity to talk with him. 

The project took about three weeks or so to complete. I went out with the night ministers maybe four or five times and I went to open cathedral twice. The opportunity to shoot the night ministry came from one of the night ministry board members, Ginny Spiegel, who wanted to include large format photographs of the night ministers in one of their fundraisers. 

The idea was to help people to see what the night ministers really do – to make people feel like they are out on the street with the ministers. I think it ended up being pretty successful. It seemed as though people were able to connect with the pictures and so connect with the night minister’s work. 

I wanted to shoot in black and white because I like black and white. It feels more provocative and engaging to me than color. Color reminds me of the same stuff I experience on a day to day basis. Black and white abstracts from reality and makes me face the emotions that are underlying that experience on a day to day basis. 

  

  

  1. 2.      When this writer met you in the Bishop’s office with others, as part of the host process, I was struck by how comfortable you were there. My understanding is you went to the Cathedral School for Boys. Was this your first time in the Bishop’s office to discuss the photo series? When did you begin seriously taking pictures, and do you take photography at the school you now attend? What is the name of the school?

  

The school I now attend is St. John’s College in Santa Fe, [New Mexico]. It’s a liberal arts school. It’s something of a unique school – every person in the school takes the same classes (there is only one major for all who attend). 

The classes trace the history of literature, philosophy, math, and science, beginning with the Greeks and ending in modern times. We read a lot. 

St. John’s doesn’t have a photo class, but I took a class at Urban School of San Francisco, where I went to high school. That is probably when I started taking pictures seriously, although I can’t say for sure. Early high school, I’d say, when I was 15 or so I began to be really interested in how things can visually fit into a rectangle, and I looked through a rectangle made of my fingers a lot. That was my initial interest in composition and balance. 

Eventually I got a camera and for a long time photographed things on the street – cracks on the sidewalk, a nice looking door, leaves on the ground that made pretty patterns. But none of that felt like I was taking it seriously. 

It was play and a meditation. It was a way of stepping outside myself and for a few hours every week being in contact with the beauty around me. Maybe I began to take photography seriously when I took that first class, when I was 17 or so. Then I had to turn in a photo project and really think about what I was taking pictures of. 

  

  

  

  1. 3.      Which of the photographs you took as shown at the Gallery 1055 was your favorite? Why is that? Is there one that has the better story behind it, and if the same one that is your favorite tell us something of the story. Some of the readers will want to know about the camera you used. Will you tell us something about it, and maybe discuss how you took the pictures at night so you wouldn’t intrude on a scene? Did you have to be kind of invisible, or did you introduce yourself and speak about your reasons for being with the Night Ministers of San Francisco?

  

I’m not sure which is my favorite. Trying to think of which is my favorite makes me feel like a mom asked to pick her favorite child. She probably does have one, but would never admit it because the love and time she gave to each. Photos are similar. 

I spent hours on each one of those photos, on the process of taking them and weeding out the initial crop I didn’t like. The editing then took hours more and in many ways that was the real act of creation. That was when I connected seriously with the emotion of the photos and tried to bring that out. 

The best story… there are a lot of great stories. I can’t get over the fact that so much of the light in these photos came from strip clubs – I like the idea that the harsh neon light from strip clubs cast a soft and luminescent glow on the priests. Also, in the picture, where a man is on the street with books around him and Monique, the priest, has her hand outstretched – I asked the homeless guy if I could take his picture and he told me I could, but only if I learned something from it. 

I or the priest I was with always asked if I could take their picture and be present while they talked. Some of the conversations were very personal and both the priests and the people on the street really exposed a lot of vulnerability to each other and to me. It was very courageous of them to let me listen, much less photograph. 

Can you imagine exposing your darkness and pain to someone completely, being in a place of tenderness that you will only share with a handful of people, and having a big camera in your face? 

I tried to be as considerate as possible, though I tend to get carried away in the world of photography and forget myself. I tried to stay as far out of the way as possible, and I think I was fairly successful. Nobody got mad at me.             

  

  1. 4.      Where else will this particular shoot be shown, and if someone wants to buy a print of one of the pictures, how may that be done? Do they contact the Gallery directly? Are you going to work on another project in the near future, and if so, will you tell us about it? Has your work played somewhere else, of a different set of photographs than those of Night Ministry, San Francisco? What was that show, and where?

  

The work will only be shown at the Diocesan House. If anyone is interested in purchasing a print or in asking any questions, I am free to be contacted at [email protected]

The Diocesan House ]Gallery 1055] is actually the only gallery [where] I have ever shown any of my work. I have taken pictures and sold them at horse shows, but other than that I haven’t really publically displayed any of my work. 

I am not currently working on anything and I doubt I will work on anything for a while. School as taken over my life and for now my priority is concentrating on my studies. 

  

  

  1. 5.      As a writer, I take some snapshots and sometimes I try to take something more spiritual or that reveals ministry or religion. These are for my interest, and I don’t consider myself a photographer. But I tell you this so to get to the next question: Have you a particular vision for your work? For example, what was your purpose in the shoot? Was it to capture people, say something of ministry, and show God’s work? Please let us know. And if you had a plan going in, what was it? If not, on reflection, what would you say of the work—either as artist or photographer? Did you find the darks and lights of the night more compelling than not, and did you feel the pictures were of a dramatic kind, as one person who saw your work remarked to me?

  

Photography has been given very violent words for what it does – capture and shoot. I don’t like the idea of capture. It makes me think of those tribes around the world that think photos capture their souls. 

I don’t want to capture souls or beauty or some meaning or anything with photography. Still less to I feel like a hunter trying to shoot down or conquer beauty. All I want to do is connect with beauty. Photography is one way of doing that. So there is no particular vision for my work. 

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