The Gubbio Project
Sleep in heavenly peace
Franciscan church is a haven for the homeless
BY TONI CASHNELLI
At midday, offices begin to empty as workers hit the sidewalk for their lunch break in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Some head to the nearest cafe; others walk to St. Boniface Church for the noontime Mass.
There they will find at least half the pews are occupied by people stretched out and covered with blankets of every description. If not for this Franciscan parish, they would be somewhere on the streets.
It’s like this every weekday, says Tina Christopher, Operations Manager for The Gubbio Project. Eucharist is celebrated at St. Boniface at 12:15 p.m. "with the folks right there sleeping." It makes perfect sense, she explains. During the day, homeless people – referred to here as "unhoused" – need a place to be. The church has plenty of room. "It’s empty all day," says Tina. "Why not open the doors?"
The Gubbio Project, co-founded in 2004 by St. Barbara friar Louis Vitale, an outspoken advocate for peace and justice issues, is named for a central story in the life of St. Francis. When Francis brokered peace between the townsfolk of Gubbio and a marauding wolf, he was seeking common ground. The Project aims to help "housed parishioners and visitors of the church connect with their unhoused neighbors," according to its website. "It’s a story of working together," Tina says, "a win-win situation." In a parish where Mass is celebrated in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, collaboration is second nature.
From 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., the sanctuary offers 200 or more guests what Tina calls "sacred sleep", away from the elements, safe from those who prey upon the homeless when they are most vulnerable. In parts of the Tenderloin, which routinely makes the news for shootings, robberies, drugs and prostitution, survival is a matter of vigilance. Ever-watchful on the streets, those who are homeless try to manage without sleep, the basic need that those with housing take for granted.
"They are in all different states of mental capacity," Tina says of her guests, and are welcome "as long as it doesn’t disturb the whole." Asked how she deals with the depression that surrounds her, she points to a statue of the crucified Christ. "He gave me everything I need to be here."
The Gubbio Project offers the homeless more than a place to rest. Volunteers dispense blankets, razors, toothbrushes, headache pills – simple necessities that boost self-esteem and take the edge off street life. Just as important is "giving them that listening ear," Tina says. On the street, "So many folks don’t want to see them or talk to them."
She encourages others "to look them in the eye and say ‘hi’. Then give them a minute to respond to you. One of the gifts we can give to people is ourselves."
Two years ago The Gubbio Project expanded to nearby St. John the Evangelist Church. Learn more.
'OPEN THE DOORS'
Years ago when friar composer Al Mascia heard about the Gubbio Project in San Francisco, he was inspired to write a song. One of the verses to Open the Doors begins: There’s a church in San Francisco where the pastor’s very brave. He lets the homeless in each day and they sleep within the nave.
You can hear the song and follow along with the lyrics at Song and Spirit Bandcamp.