The Tenderloin district of San Francisco can be intimidating because of its high concentration of homeless people, poverty, prostitution, and drug and alcohol abuse. Tourists are cautioned to avoid the area. But where some people saw danger, two women from different faiths saw an opportunity for ministry.
Sister Carmen Barsody a Franciscan Sister of Little Falls, Minnesota had spent several years living among the poor in the barrios of Managua, Nicaragua. The Reverend Kay Jorgensen was a Unitarian Universalist minister who felt called to work among the residents of the Tenderloin as a volunteer with the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco, then—with the help of a grant—as their community minister. The two met in 1997 and found that although they came from very different religious backgrounds, their theology about working with the poor and homeless was very similar. Together, they founded the Faithful Fools street ministry.
The "Fools" in their name refers to the "fool" of medieval times who was the truth teller in the king's court, the one on the edge of society who assists others in crossing the boundaries a society creates. The "fool" was also inspired by the street theater that Rev. Jorgensen and others in the organization use for creative public witness about issues that affect residents of the Tenderloin District and other impoverished areas of the world. Her clown persona, Oscard, once led a procession of homeless residents to City Hall to protest a ban on shopping carts on the city streets. St. Francis of Assisi often is referred to as a "Fool of God," one who challenged and changed the church and society in the feudal system of Italy by living and working with the lepers who were forced to live outside of the city walls.
The "Faithful" part of their name refers to their belief in the spiritual power of experienced relationship between those who are privileged and those who are impoverished. In order to dismantle the oppressions in our society, we need to break through our separateness—whether based on identity, belief, or economic situation—and then discern what connects us. They call their street ministry a "ministry of presence that acknowledges each human's incredible worth."
Rev. Jorgensen feels that Unitarian Universalism, with its living tradition and its openness of heart and mind, has a special role in this kind of outreach. In order to provide this kind of experience for people of many different faiths, the Faithful Fools offer one-day street retreats. They begin with the participant's personal journey and spiritual practice in direct relationship with social realities, such as homelessness and poverty. They give participants opportunities to relate with people of whom they may be afraid or whom they may hold in judgment or misunderstanding, and then provide a space for spiritual reflection afterward.
Alex Darr was a young adult member of the Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco who was also a key leader in Faithful Fools. He raised money and used his clown persona to bring visibility to the plight of Tenderloin residents. His leadership was instrumental in promoting participation in the street retreat program by youth and young adults when he suggested incorporating a street retreat into a local Coming of Age program. By addressing the fears of the participants and talking about the possibilities of personal transformation, he was able to convince a group of 60 area youth to participate the first year. Since then, thousands of youth and young adults from all over the country have participated in similar retreats.
Rev. Kay Jorgensen, Rev. Denis Paul, also a Unitarian Universalist and Fool, and other Faithful Fools have become Franciscan Lay Associates with the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, Minnesota.
The Faithful Fools are an example of interfaith collaboration based on Unitarian Universalist core values of creativity, respect, compassion and engagement.