A Walk in the Tenderloin

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For some residents of San Francisco, the Tenderloin neighborhood has a bad reputation. But this is exactly where the University Ministry took students and faculty for the St. Francis in San Francisco retreat on Oct. 6 with the goal of engaging the community and acknowledging the hardships of others.

“We call it a street retreat,” Cara Annese said, who is the director of University Ministry outings.  “Yes, we are going out on a retreat, but it is a retreat that is right where we are. It is a time to be with yourself and be fully present to where you are.”

The excursion was organized in collaboration with Annese and Faithful Fools Street Ministry, a Tenderloin-based community organization. Students, faculty and staff from the USF community could attend the event for $10. The retreat was created with Jesuit values and intentions in mind, but people of any faith were welcomed.

Participants engaged in what Annese called “intentional walking” through the community for two hours, on their own, or in groups. Walkers were encouraged to use their time in their own way, whether it be be quiet reflection or active engagement with the neighborhood’s residents.

“[Faithful Fools] described to me that this is an experience of walking through the streets with a mirror to our faces,” Annese said. “We aren’t going to go to solve a problem or solve homelessness, it’s more about a way of framing how we walk around the city in that specific neighborhood.”

Participants were offered the option of utilizing service organizations for a meal, such as St. Anthony’s Foundation and Glide Memorial United Methodist Church.

When the walking finished, it was time for reflection.

Roughly 20 of the retreat’s participants sat in a circle in the Faithful Fools building, and each received a candle to light after they spoke. This practice represented “tikkun olam,” the Jewish practice of healing the world through kindness and unifying pieces of light.

“I was able to experience homeless life up close and personal,” freshman Valerie De León said in an email, who participated in the retreat. “This experience led me to realize that not one person alone can help the homeless in San Francisco, it will take a community.”

But De León said she wanted the retreat to cause change toward actual action. “I would not recommend for this retreat to be offered through the University Ministry next year because I think we should spend a day helping the homeless community in San Francisco (giving them food, blankets, volunteering at the St. Anthony’s, etc.) instead of observing them.”

Jack Weinrieb, first-year graduate student in the School of Education and resident minister, shared his experience of taking a meal from one of the food organizations. He said he was treated the same as any other person there, but felt the guilt of taking someone else’s space.

Annese created this retreat out of her own experiences and spiritual connection with St. Francis, an Italian-Catholic friar from the 12th century.

“I’ve always felt a deep connection with Franciscan spirituality, where it is about caring for the earth and the people around us and the main tenet of Franciscan spirituality is brotherhood and relationships with other people,” Annese said.

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