Thursday, January 31, 2013

In the News: SF Examiner

Increase in homelessness upsets Duboce merchants

Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
Homeless people might be heading to the Duboce Triangle area after being pushed out of nearby gathering spaces in the Castro, according to one outreach specialist. 
Merchants in the Duboce Triangle neighborhood are concerned about what they say is an increase of homeless people in the area — enough to call for a meeting with police and elected officials.

Business owners say they worry that violence and theft are increasing in the area, too, due to the presence of people on the streets who are mentally ill or have substance-abuse problems.

“We’ve been scratching our heads trying to figure it out,” said Dennis Richards, president of the Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association. “There is additional activity at 14th, Market and Belcher. The question is what’s going on and why now? I wish I had the answers, then maybe we’d be able to curb the problems.”
Richards said the neighborhood association has held meetings with police and city leaders, but if a homeless person denies services, there’s not much that can be done. Since some business owners are not pleased with the progress, they are hosting a community meeting today and have invited police and elected officials, according to the Community Leadership Alliance, which will help host the meeting.

Diego Azevedo, owner of Cybelle’s Pizza on 14th Street at Church Street, said he was in court Jan. 23 dealing with a person who had stolen a prepared salad from the store.

“He was under the influence of something,” he said. “The same guy was doing it to other businesses too.”
Azevedo said he’s had his business in the area since 2007, but the increase in homeless people was noticeable after returning from a few months of vacation in November.

“They’ve always been around, but there has definitely been more,” he said.  The owner of Golden Produce on Church Street said the population comes and goes.

One possible cause for the increase is the removal of benches in the nearby Castro district, said Megan Rohrer, executive director of Welcome Ministry, a faith-based homeless outreach organization. The ministry is partnering with St. Francis Lutheran Church, located on Church Street, to do outreach and offer services.
Rohrer said gathering places such as staircases in the Duboce neighborhood are a draw for the crowds.

“As The City concentrates on removing them from one area, it’s normal to see them migrate to another,” she said.

Richards said the empty storefronts, such as the one at the former sight of Home restaurant where Church, Market and 14th streets intersect, could be a contributing factor.
“Without the extra eyes on the street, they’re hanging out and congregating,” he said.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Welcoming Presence

By Alex Darr

Welcome’s mission statement reads:
“Welcome seeks to provide a faithful response to poverty and to improve the quality of life for individuals in our community by providing: hospitality; education; food; and referrals for housing, health care and drug and alcohol treatment.”

Living out this mission in the context of the meals Welcome provides on Tuesday afternoons and Saturday evenings requires presence. In his book “Living Presence,” Sufi teacher Kabir Helminski calls presence “the quality of being there.” This means an attention to the food we prepare and serve: Is it healthy? Is it tasty? Would those serving it be pleased to eat it? Will there be enough for all the guests? It means an attention to ourselves, to continue our process of learning together: What do I notice about the volunteers? The guests? Which of my assumptions turn out to be wrong? How might I have done that better? In an ever-changing landscape of services, the ability to provide referrals requires ongoing attention to what is available, as well as attention to those we are referring: What are the new resources? What resources are gone? How do the referrals turn out? Which providers might be easy for which people to work with?

Hospitality, out of everything we attempt to provide at Welcome, requires the most presence. Real hospitality is presence, and is the core value that underlies all that we do. Our guests can taste the care the cooks put into the food we serve. Guests and volunteers return to our meals again and again – some can be counted on to be there almost every night – because the connections formed are real, and those connections are the reason, beyond the food, that we all are there. When we show up, no matter how we are feeling that day, we open the door to relationship and the mutual transformation it invites.

At a recent meal, a guest asked for a new garbage bag to replace the one he was carrying his things in, which was full of holes. These kinds of things are among what we attempt to provide – we do not have a “garbage bag program” and aren’t prepared to hand out bags to everyone who comes to our meals, but if an individual has a need, we attempt to meet it. A few minutes later, a volunteer came looking for a mop, as someone had lost control and made a huge mess in the bathroom. The guest who had just gotten a garbage bag quickly spoke up: “if you give me the mop and bucket, I’ll clean it.” This was an easy offer to accept. Once the mess was cleaned, our helpful guest said “hey man, you helped me out, so I helped you.” Sometimes it is that simple.

As it turned out, this story was not over yet. Three days later, this same guest came to Welcome again, this time to ask a difficult question: “I know drinking is bad for me, but I don’t want to stop drinking – how can I stop drinking?” My experience is that the transformative power of relationship comes through how we help each other see ourselves differently. By this guest asking me for help handling their addiction, I was invited to see myself as someone who can help another person in their struggle with addiction – and being asked made me feel good. Similarly, I imagine that the act of volunteering to help out with the cleaning might have given our guest a different view of himself – maybe only slightly different, but something changed enough that he chose that week to ask for help with his addiction.

These simple, but sometimes profound, actions and reactions don’t require great skill, knowledge, or training to bring about. You don’t have to be someone special, or at least not someone more special than yourself, to participate in personal transformation. You do have to be present. Fortunately, that is something all of us can do – right?

Saturday, January 26, 2013

FAQ's About Welcome's New Partnership with St. Francis Lutheran Church

Question: Is Welcome taking over the Hospitality Hour and Seniors Programs?
Answer: No. Welcome is working in partnership with St. Francis’ pastor and the St. Vincent de Paul and Seniors committees with recommendations from the personnel committee, and at the direction of the St. Francis council, to help St. Francis’ programs become more self-sufficient, to find more grant support, to become
better stewards of food, volunteer and financial resources, to become safer, and to help the whole congregation become better able to respond to the mental health needs and addiction issues confronting St. Francis and other congregations across San Francisco.

Question: Is there buy-in from both the St. Vincent de Paul and Seniors Committees?
Answer: Yes. The St. Vincent de Paul committee, the Senior Center director, and Prs. Pamela Griffith Pond of St. Francis and Megan Rohrer of Welcome met to flesh out the terms of the partnership and were unanimous in their recommendation to the council.

Question: How did this come about?
Answer: Initially the St. Vincent de Paul, Seniors, and Personnel committees met together with Pr. Pamela, assessed needs, and made a joint, unanimous recommendation to the council to create a new position to oversee food, kitchen and dining safety and to make appropriate referrals to other ministries and agencies. Budget constrains made creating a new position infeasible, and the council directed Pr. Pamela to explore opportunities for collaboration. Prs. Pamela and Megan explored ways that St. Francis and Welcome could partner to further the missions of both organizations, increase access to grants, and have Welcome assume responsibility for the duties originally envisioned for the new staff position. The St. Francis council authorized the partnership at an emergency meeting on Sunday, January 20th, and Prs. Pamela and Megan crafted a covenant in accordance with the council’s decision.

Question: Will there be changes to St. Francis’ long-established programs?
Answer: Yes and no. There will be some changes, but existing staff and volunteers will not be displaced. Changes involving food, kitchen and physical safety of guests and congregation members will be implemented quickly. Other changes will evolve over time through conversations between leaders of St. Francis and Welcome, and with volunteers and guests of Hospitality Hour, the Senior Center, and the Community Thanksgiving Dinner. As St. Francis and Welcome work together to help those programs obtain additional funding, it is likely that supplemental programs and new projects will be started by mutual agreement. Such projects will make a great deal more funding available to support the programs and mission of St. Francis and help St. Francis be a good neighbor to the surrounding community. Any additional programs or projects will be scheduled to avoid impacting the many groups that utilize church facilities throughout the week.

Question: How are things staying the same?
Answer: Both St. Francis and Welcome offer more than just food to hungry people. Like the St. Francis staff and volunteers, Welcome staff and volunteers eat with people, listen to their stories and offer resources that help them improve their quality of life. At the heart of our partnership is a desire to affirm that all individuals are children of God, worthy of care and equal in the eyes of God.

St. Francis’ staff and volunteers will continue to serve St. Francis’ programs. The current director will continue to direct the Senior Center’s program, but will not have to deal with shopping or safety responsibilities – responsibilities she never wanted and is happy to give up.

Question: What are the goals of the partnership?
Answer: The result of the partnership will be: 1) faithful care for local seniors and low income individuals; 2) stewardship of the resources and property of SFLC; 3) safety; and 4) resources and training to support ushers, worship leaders and others who support program participants who may choose to participate in Sunday worship.

Question: What is in it for Welcome?
Answer: Through its collaboration with St. Francis, Welcome will live into its mission more fully. As a faith-based organization, Welcome seeks respond faithfully to poverty and to improve the quality of life for individuals in our community through hospitality, education, food, housing referrals, health care, and drug and alcohol treatment. Welcome lives into its mission by feeding the homeless and hungry in the Polk Gultch district, growing and giving away free produce at its Free Farm in the Western Addition, preaching and teaching in communities of faith across the country and providing online educational opportunities for faith leaders. Increasingly, Welcome collaborates with congregations to maximize effectiveness.

St. Francis’ monthly contribution to Welcome of $1,500 will increase the scope of Welcome’s services while modeling collaboration to other congregations interested in feeding low income people of all ages, educating ushers and other urban congregation volunteers. The collaboration will also increase both Welcome’s and St. Francis’ ability to obtain grant support.

Question: How will the current volunteers and committee members be integrated into the collaborative model?
Answer: Current volunteers and committee members will continue to be the core of the programs. Welcome will be like a consultant to the programs, bring feedback from the congregation, neighbors, participants and information about best practices to the committees. Together, the committees,

St. Francis’ pastor and Welcome will decide on and have opportunity to evaluate changes each month. When there are disagreements or emergent safety issues that need to be addressed between committee meetings, the executive director of Welcome and the pastor of St. Francis will find interim solutions.

Question: How can the Welcome do all these things at St. Francis so inexpensively?
Answer: Caring for those on the margins is only part of the ministry to which congregations are called. In contrast, Welcome is able to focus all its resources on that work, and so benefits from an economy of scale. Welcome keeps costs down through community-building, partnerships with congregations and good stewardship. Welcome leverages the support of volunteers and donations from congregations around the Bay Area. For example, another congregation received more potatoes than it could use for its weekly community meal. St. Francis’ Hospitality Hour and others can make use of those potatoes. Meanwhile, several boxes of produce were left over from St. Francis’ Hospitality Hour. Pr. Megan delivered them to other programs, which made good use of them later on Sunday and early in the week.

With one paid staff person and more than 350 volunteers, Welcome has maintained, for over a decade, a weekly Tuesday meal that feeds about 45 individuals and a Saturday Community Dinner that feeds between 200 and 300 individuals every two weeks – all at a cost of about $600 in food costs and $1,500 in paper products and kitchen supplies each year. Now new collaborations are allowing Welcome to expand the services it provides.

Question: Will Welcome provide security only for certain programs, or will there also be security during worship?
Answer: Welcome will provide security for every one of St. Francis’ public program, event, meeting or worship service. (This applies to St. Francis’ own events only, and not to outside groups using St. Francis’ facilities.)

Question: How are the Welcome people qualified to oversee food safety? To provide security? Answer: Welcome’s Executive Director, the Rev. Megan Rohrer, is trained in the care of people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), alcohol and drug dependency, and nonviolent communication. She has created best practices for working with individuals with severe mental health issues for the Department of Public Health in San Francisco, is a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and has been working with the members of Old First Presbyterian Church to help ensure their worship and public meetings are safe and unexpected by the participants of Welcome program for over a decade. Outside facilitators will be utilized as necessary to ensure that cooks, volunteers and congregation leaders are trained in food and kitchen safety, understand common mental health and addiction issues, and receive other education helpful to their work at St. Francis.

Question: How will the Welcome assist the Senior Center, which is functioning well now?
Answer: Welcome will support the Senior Center program by providing additional kitchen volunteer support and by listening to the wisdom of the leaders who have created such an excellent program. Welcome will help the program obtain seek grant support and perhaps (if the participants and leaders of the program are interested) create supplemental programming to support the needs of the seniors who already participate or seniors new to St. Francis’ ministries, and obtain additional funding to support the existing ministry to seniors.

Question: When will the partnership begin?
Answer: The partnership officially began on Friday, January 25th. With those who have been overseeing Hospitality Hour away on vacation, it was imperative that the partnership be in place and Welcome staff and volunteers present for Food Runners and Hospitality Hour on January 26th and 27th.

Question: Will members of St. Francis have opportunities to ask questions?
Answer: Yes. Prs. Megan and Pamela will hold an informational meeting during adult forum on Sunday, February 3rd, in the St. Francis conference room. Additional questions may be sent to Pr. Pamela by email ( or left in her mailbox in the office. Answers will be published in the newsletter and sent out in the weekly e-announcements.

Friday, January 11, 2013

An Open Letter to Dying Congregations

Dear dying congregation-

I know that name is probably not one that you are proud of.  It might not even be something that your congregation talks about out loud.  I know you wonder what you can do to share the spirit and life that you experienced back in your glory days.  Perhaps you've even wondered if it was responsible to keep going as your resources dwindle.

Perhaps you've prayed for an evangelism miracle that would help save the space you have loved and the worship that has held you steady.

When I was in seminary, I thought about congregations like yours differently.  I thought dying congregations were failing to be relevant to the world around them and were spoiling their resources.  I was very arrogant in my thinking, I thought that doing mission work and serving the homeless was somehow meeting a more vibrant need in this changing world.

I was wrong. 

The difficulties you are experience are the same as those that are the hardest in my work.  Having enough funds coming in to pay the bills, for staff members and to keep the building from falling apart is as hard for non-profits and mission programs as it is for congregations.  We all fight for the opportunity for the communities and world around us notice what we are doing and to join us. 

In seminary, I thought that I was best suited for mission work.  I think the truth is that I am best suited for helping to sustain the heart Christian ritual and of what is most important to faithful people.  I love elping to create meaningful rituals and coming up with innovative ways support people in their saintly sinfulness. 

And most unexpectedly, I've found that I am gifted in evangelism.  Work with the homeless and hungry is attractive to individuals who haven't been a part of the church.  By listening and using the sacred stories of local individuals alongside biblical stories, a new generation has found faith and felt like the church is a space for them.  We have a vibrant congregation of volunteers, homeless folk and travelers.  We have more coming everyday.  What we don't have is the funds to support them.

Closing may seem like the most difficult thing you and your congregation could do.  But, what if instead of closing, you invested in a new generation of evangelism?  If you find yourself closing and selling your building, think of Welcome.  Remember that in the last year, six people (four adults) were baptized, an average of 52 people participated in our weekly bible studies, thousand of individuals served the homeless and hungry and more than 3,226 listened to online sermons (in addition to those who heard them in the pews). 

When was the last time your congregations had those kinds of numbers?

We are people who believe that out of death comes new life.  If you're selling your building, consider tithing a part or all of your proceeds to Welcome.  We'll share the history and legacy of your congregation and name our evangelical work after you.  Your funds will pay for ministry to those who can't afford to pay for a building or a pastor.

We're both dying in this economy.  You however, may be in the position to create life for our work and ensure that the homeless in San Francisco are supported for generations to come, or until we've finally ensured that all who are hungry have food and all who are without shelter have a home.

I know we're a part of a church that has avoided these kinds of conversations, but let me know if you or your congregation would be interested in talking more about how Welcome might be able to carry your legacy forward.  You can email me at

Lots of love to you,

Pastor Megan Rohrer
Executive Director
Welcome Ministry