My Presidio Graduate School course on Culture, Values and Ethics requires me to engage with a culture with which I’m uncomfortable or unfamiliar, and extract learning from the experience. When the course assignment was being described, the idea of walking out with a San Francisco Night Minister was one of the first things that came to me. Although I have learned to treat the homeless with dignity in some circumstances, I still find myself quite uncomfortable around them, especially after dark. Also, although I understand the concept of “ministering to the least of these”, I was profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of actually doing it myself. All in all, doing night ministry would mean drawing on abilities that do not play to my strengths. I contacted my friend David, an Assistant Night Minister, about going out with him, and we arranged a date.

We met shortly before 10 PM, and began our walk from the Cathedral Hill area. It was a chilly night, but thankfully not raining. David is an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church and wears a clerical collar and dark clothing. I wear dark clothing as well, to blend in with him. He set a course that rambled around the Tenderloin, Civic Center, South of Market and Central Market areas. On mapping what I recall of our route later, I estimate we walked nearly seven miles. We walked slowly, which was my first adjustment, as I normally walk fast, especially in less-salubrious areas. David acknowledged that he’d learned to adjust his pace during this ministry.

I asked David how he decided when to stop, or to speak, and when not to. He said that generally, he finds that people in groups are less likely to engage than those alone. He offers eye contact, and if eye contact is returned, a greeting. If the other person responds positively, he pauses, and sees what happens from there. Almost all the people we spoke with were standing, not sitting or lying on the ground. When we stopped to speak with someone, we introduced ourselves using first names, and shook hands. David always removed his glove to shake hands, which I noticed, but never managed to think of in time to emulate. David had a bag with some gloves, hats, scarves and socks, which he offered to people during our conversations until he ran out.

We had conversations with several people during our walk. Some recognized David from prior encounters. Multiple people asked if we were with the Night Ministry. A few asked for money. We declined but David offered to pray with them instead, although no one accepted the offer. Some saw David’s collar and simply called out “God bless!”

I met Brenda, Chris, James, Ron, Wesley and Willie: a man with a trumpet, a woman selling Street Sheets, a Vietnam veteran and poet, a man with a joke about the cold, and a woman who got edgy and anxious when others gathered as we spoke with her. Two people told us they had housing to go home to, and were out that night by choice. Another one had been staying overnight on Stevenson Street for 15 years. We only said a prayer with one man, a storyteller and philosopher. He shared parts of his life story and philosophy with us, and we held hands and David said a prayer before we continued on our way.

At one point, David said that he never felt unsafe while out on his walks, despite being alone. I was initially very aware of my surroundings, but as we met and spoke with people, I got more comfortable. Being with David helped, as we talked and laughed together on our walk. I was most uncomfortable in arguably the worst and best areas we walked in. Signs of drug use and sex for hire were prominent in the Central Market area, so I avoided looking too closely at clusters of people. In Polk Gulch, a truck cruised the streets with bikini-clad women dancing inside the glassed-in trailer, promoting a strip club. The objectification of sex made me slightly ill.

Stevenson Street, which usually seems to be the overnight home for many people as I walk to the parking lot there, was nearly empty for some reason. (I saw only four people on the block between 5th and 6th Streets.) We asked someone who stays there, but he didn’t know why it was so empty, just that he liked it quiet like that.

After a break at Bob’s Donuts to warm up, we made our way back to our starting point at 2 AM. I’m told it was a pretty quiet night. I headed home. David was going to pick up a heavy cardboard container he’d been saving to give to the friend who stays on Stevenson Street, and continue his ministry until 4 AM. I still need to translate these experiences into lessons for my leadership development, but the beauty of sharing the night with David and the people we met touched my heart.