There’s a lot you cannot do easily in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district: catch a taxi (I waited a half-hour for Yellow Cab before giving up), shop at a supermarket (there aren’t any), and walk a block without seeing homeless or imbalanced people (sadly, there are many of both).
To me, it’s an island of intense blight in a sea of wealth and prosperity. Yet if the Rev. Glenda Hope had viewed it that way, she never would have landed on that island to start a ministry that’s deepened her faith, provided badly needed services and saved lives for more than four decades.
And now at age 77 she will “retire” — an improbable thing for such a driven woman — to focus on other causes and, in her words, “leave time to dance with God.”
Hope is proof that it’s safe to walk in the Tenderloin even if you’re a little old lady (“little” = 5 feet tall and 100 pounds). In all these years leading San Francisco Network Ministries, she said she’s had hands laid on her in anger only twice. Most people, even the drug dealers, will comply when she politely asks that they deal their drugs elsewhere.
A bigger guy like me, however, might give people a reason to be defensive, especially if I put off nervous energy. “If we walked down the street together,” Hope told me jokingly, “I might have to protect YOU!” What a blessed thing: to be protected by the woman known by some as the Patron Saint of the Tenderloin.
This long-running ministry has not just been about saving souls. It’s been about teaching computer skills, performing memorial services for otherwise anonymous street people and, especially close to Hope’s heart, operating a safe house to help women escape prostitution.
She will continue to work closely with that program, the San Francisco SafeHouse, after she retires. The other SFNM programs will go on through other nonprofits, but the umbrella organization will fold. Also continuing, of course, is the lovely multifamily housing complex her ministry built in the Tenderloin.
I was amazed to see 555 Ellis St. (and startled that it’s even nicer than the building I live in). I recorded our interview in the complex’s meditation garden, sitting on a bench next to a small fountain, surrounded by sage plants that attract hummingbirds.
It was clear from the very start of our interview that the Rev. Hope is not eager to retire. “I’m truly grieving,” she said, at the thought of losing constant contact with so many people whose lives she, her staff and volunteers have touched. SFNM began as a simple coffee shop and grew into an institution.
Nothing about Hope feels institutional or bureaucratic, so it’s easy to see how the organizational rigors might have lost their novelty. But she said this work has made her a better person by forcing her to open her heart, see the divinity in even the most diabolical people, and confront the many prejudices she brought with her to the Bay Area after growing up in the South.
Forget what you’ve heard about the Tenderloin: Most of the people there are good. Some are deeply troubled and, yes, far too many are strung out and mentally ill, but there aren’t as many truly bad people as you might think. The work of SFNM seeks to highlight the goodness in Tenderloin residents so they can have a better chance at life.
On Wednesday Sept. 25 a gala will take place to honor Hope’s continuing work and raise money for SafeHouse. It’s a way of making sure that more good things happen in the Tenderloin, even after she moves on to her next challenge.
And speaking of challenges, hopefully someday someone will address that taxi problem. After my interview I finally gave up trying to hail one and headed over to City Hall instead.
There, Yellow Cab came in four minutes.