Two drawings hang at the San Francisco Night Ministry's headquarters, where head minister Lyle Beckman led volunteers in prayer before the night's crisis line opened and before he hit the streets. (Natalie Yemenidjian/KQED)

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San Francisco Night Minister Lyle Beckman is sitting across from me at a saloon on Mission Street in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights. He sips on a club soda while we wait for drag king Kit Tapata to finish hosting the bar’s trivia night.

Tapata, who’s dressed like Westley from “The Princess Bride,” points out Beckman to the crowd.

“Behave,” Tapata orders. “There’s a father in the house.”

As the bar’s attention turns his way, a woman sitting nearby draws closer to Beckman and he leans in. They talk about her late husband, a topic that punctuates their conversation about baseball, the differences between the West Coast and East Coast, and her past as a devout Catholic.

“Oftentimes it’s under the influence of alcohol that I hear the stories of people that really want to share,” Beckman says.

10:30 p.m.: Pastor Lyle Beckman, the SF Night Minister waits for drag king, Kit Tapata, to finish her trivia hosting duties at the 3300 Club to talk about flyers for an upcoming fundraising. Helping others costs money and the Night Ministry relies on folks like Tapata. As Pastor Lyle Beckman waits, bar goers approach him with stories of their childhood trauma, grief and faith. "Some people are so lonely and isolated that it's usually under the influence that I hear the stories that people really want to share," Beckman said. Beckman orders club sodas, but enjoys the community in local bars. As more neighborhood bars are priced out, he says the only people who talk to him at the new "sterile" spots are the bartenders. More than 70 percent of San Francisco's homeless lived in the city before they were homeless, according to the 2015 Homeless Count.
10:30 p.m.: Pastor Lyle Beckman, the S.F. Night Minister, waits for drag king Kit Tapata to finish her trivia hosting duties to talk about fliers for an upcoming fundraising. Helping others costs money and the Night Ministry relies on folks like Tapata. Beckman orders club sodas, but enjoys the community in local bars. As more neighborhood bars are priced out, he says the only people who talk to him at the new ‘sterile’ spots are the bartenders. (Natalie Yemenidjian/KQED)

The Bay Area is one of the least churchgoing metro regions in the United States, according to a survey by the Barna Group, with 48 percent reporting they don’t attend church anymore and 14 percent saying they’ve never gone to church at all.

But Beckman, an ordained Lutheran minister, says church and religion aren’t about regular attendance at service.

The S.F. Night Ministry holds what it calls open cathedrals — outdoor services. Beckman says some of the people most in need of comfort are those who cannot stand in a room or be silent for an hour.

“The real work of the church isn’t about what comes out of the archbishop’s office,” Beckman says. “It’s about what the church does feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, giving access to social services.”

Minister Lyle Beckman points out where we are on an intricate mural depicting the ghosts of churches leaving the Tenderloin. With them often go services rendered to the poor and homeless in the area.
Minister Lyle Beckman points out where we are on an intricate mural depicting the ghosts of churches leaving the Tenderloin. With them often go services rendered to the poor and homeless in the area. (Natalie Yemenidjian/KQED)

In the Tenderloin, Beckman has noticed that at the beginning of each month, when folks get their Social Security or other assistance payments, there are fewer people on the streets than usual. But he is sure that he’s needed anyway. While other institutions may provide shelter, food and services, Beckman and the other night ministers may be out in the neighborhood all night, listening to, hugging and praying with the homeless and most vulnerable residents.

“We could change this,” Beckman says, pointing down Turk Street. “But everybody waits for the city to do something. If we put our heads and hearts together, we can do something for these people sleeping on the streets.”

Homelessness is part of the landscape, with a 2015 city count showing that 60 percent of those living without shelter in the city were found in the Tenderloin and South of Market.

Beckman ponders what change will bring to the neighborhood.

“I wonder often, what’s the future of the Tenderloin? Will it lose its character?” said Beckman.

There is no shortage of character in front of Aunt Charlie’s Lounge, a gay bar on Turk. Outside on the sidewalk, a local named Tim Haley has set up a grill and the aroma of barbecue permeates the air. He sells sausage links, ribs, chicken and other favorites to bar patrons and his Tenderloin regulars.

After popping in to the Tenderloin’s legendary Aunt Charlie’s on the corner of Turk Street and Taylor Street, a woman asks the pastor: “He has a purple aura, doesn’t he?” referring to Tim Haley (right) who barbecues and sells sausage links, ribs, chicken and other meats for bar patrons and Tenderloin regulars. For $6, Haley gave her enough meat for her and her friends to have a good dinner. (Natalie Yemenidjian/KQED)

‘He has a purple aura, doesn’t he?” a woman asks, referring to Haley.

Beckman stops to check out the aura and waves his hands in the air as if to outline the purple glow.

The woman looks at Beckman for a moment, realizing he’s a man of the cloth. She asks him if people who kill themselves go to hell. She explains her brother had taken his own life. Beckman softly explains that his God is one of forgiveness and compassion.

“No one is going to hell tonight,” he says.

A homeless woman asks the pastor to pray for her husband and dog, who she says had both been stabbed a few days earlier. He comforts her and says he’ll pray for all of them. For Pastor Beckman, this corner is ground zero.

 

Tim Haley says he’s a recovering addict who used to be homeless.

“I fell a long way back,” Haley says. He used to work at an apartment building around the corner. When they fired everyone, he went on a downward spiral, but found his way back.

“I thought I never would get out of that stuff,” he says.

Tim Haley who used to be homeless and addicted to drugs, but turned his life around and now hands out food to folks who needs it and takes donations to pay for more meat.
Tim Haley, who used to be homeless and addicted to drugs, turned his life around and now hands out food to folks who needs it and takes donations to pay for more meat. (Natalie Yemenidjian/KQED)

Beckman has a striking presence as he walks through the Tenderloin. While most of us, conditioned by “mean world syndrome” and a thousand other anxieties, might put on some kind of psychic armor, Beckman seems unguarded in his exchanges with people on the street. He’s affectionate, but not overbearing. His 6-foot-4-inch frame, draped in black, is somehow more comforting than intimidating.

As we walk down Turk Street, there is no one that Beckman will not stop for.

A man calls out to him from his seat on the pavement: “You’re the light in this unlit world. Thanks for being out here.”

On the Streets of the Tenderloin, ‘a Light in an Unlit World’ 30 June,2016Natalie Yemenidjian

  • TheMcheng

    Beautiful ending and I can’t believe the city isn’t more involved in church :/

Author

Natalie Yemenidjian

Natalie Yemenidjian is an on-call producer for KQED and multimedia reporter.  She studied journalism and urban planning and studies at San Francisco State University.