by Sally Hindman
Frances Townes was 70 years old and had been a member of the First Congregational Church for 20 years when she founded the Berkeley Ecumenical Chaplaincy to the Homeless as a faith-based response to the challenges faced by homeless people in our community.
With support from fellow church member Moe Wright, she had started this ministry by doing radical, homeless-led outreach, empowering folks on the streets.
I first met Frances back in 1992 when she was helping to run the Chaplaincy, working closely with Rev. Bonnie Bloom, the Chaplaincy’s second chaplain/director. As a Quaker minister, I was working with homeless folks in Oakland at the time, and it was amazing to me that someone Frances’s age, even then in her mid-70s, was so actively engaged on the ground, helping to deal with homelessness.
I immediately admired her deep faith and passion. Frances had rolled her sleeves up and was committed to doing something. She couldn’t stand to see so many people sleeping out on the church grounds and not respond. She would spend many of her days there in the First Congregational Church ministering to more than 100 people engaged in the Chaplaincy’s work, working in her small office that had been converted from the old choir robing room.
The role of Frances at the Chaplaincy was particularly remarkable to me since I had learned she was the wife of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Charles Townes, a distinguished Cal faculty member. As the wife of the scientist who invented the precursor to the laser, Frances naturally was engaged in both town and gown.
She certainly did not need to also work with homeless people. She could have spent her days shopping and throwing tea parties! Yet at age 70, Frances had instead thrown herself into helping to nurture and support those most in need on our streets.
In 1995, by chance, I ended up taking a job working for the Chaplaincy, and suddenly found myself working alongside Frances. The relationship immediately became an absolute, utter pleasure. Frances was the most infectiously enthusiastic and fun person I had ever met. And to have Frances as a supporter and friend was the greatest privilege I could ever have imagined as a still recent seminary graduate involved in urban ministry.
In addition, I found it amazing to observe her ability to connect and empathize with everyone she met. Frances had dear, motherly relationships with all of the folks the Chaplaincy served. It seemed that everyone who met Frances considered her their confidant.
It wasn’t surprising, for example, that when Elizabeth went to have her baby, she asked to have Frances there at the hospital. Or that when Willie got married, he wanted Frances to read at his wedding. This was Frances, the most socially engaged person I have ever known. She always had her arms stretched around someone, with her warmth and affection!
There are so many stories I could tell from my four years working alongside Frances — stories of her visits to the Chaplaincy, her laughter, her enjoyment of people, her warmth and all-around enthusiasm. I particularly loved her beautiful, stately, long, long, silver-gray hair which she clipped in a beautiful bun, and the colorful earrings she would wear. When you asked, she would tell you that Charlie had brought her the earrings from some exotic country where he was receiving an award.
During those days, the City of Berkeley was just beginning its efforts to try to criminalize homeless people, and so Frances, myself and Zen Buddhist Maylie Scott worked on initiating three different letters signed by more than 70 clergy and interfaith leaders opposing the criminalization of homeless people and standing up for justice and compassion.
Despite having struggled with dyslexia as a child, Frances had become a wonderful writer, and she used her creative talents to express her strong views supporting faith-based love for ALL our neighbors, including our homeless neighbors, both in poetry and in prose.
At the age of 80, Frances decided it was appropriate to retire from her role as our Board President and when she did, the Chaplaincy held a wonderful party at the “Town and Gown” with proceeds benefiting the Chaplaincy, with many homeless people in attendance.
I remember her looking absolutely radiant at the party, wearing black, and then, returning to our office nearly immediately after retiring. It was clear to me that Frances was never going to retire from her deep concern and engagement in the lives of those less fortunate!
Years later, at the age of 90 and still again at 95, Frances has continued to be actively engaged in issues related to homelessness in our community. In 2012, she spoke at the Berkeley City Council opposing the proposed “no sitting” ordinance, which citizens ultimately defeated on the ballot. She has made multiple calls to City Council members and written numerous letters to the Mayor opposing unjust actions targeting homeless people in recent years.
She is turning 100 on February 13, and it comes as no surprise that once again, Frances has turned her birthday celebration into a benefit for homeless people, supporting Youth Spirit Artworks, one of the seedling homeless agencies planted by the Chaplaincy to the Homeless.
Frances Townes continues to be, at the age of 100, an infectiously indefatigable advocate for and with homeless people. She has been an absolutely giant influence and role model for me in how to live one’s deep faith through sustained and spirited actions seeking justice and loving kindness and compassion.
As the song sings, “You can’t stop the Spirit, she’s like a mountain. Old and strong, she goes on and on.”
Old and strong, may Frances Townes live on and on!
Celebrating the Life of Frances Townes and Youth Spirit Artworks
Saturday, February 13, Noon to 2: 30 p.m.
First Congregational Church of Berkeley
2345 Channing Way, Berkeley, CA 94704
On Saturday, February 13, 2016, from Noon to 2:30 p.m., family, friends and Youth Spirit Artworks supporters will gather at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley for a lunch benefiting Youth Spirit’s important community work and celebrating longtime homeless advocate Frances Townes’ 100th Birthday!
This wonderful event will support one of Frances Townes’ favorite charities, Youth Spirit Artworks, an interfaith “green” jobs and job training program in Berkeley, which is committed to empowering homeless and low-income young people, ages 16-25. Proceeds will benefit the Frances H. Townes Mural and Bench, being executed this year by artist Wesley Wright working with YSA youth artists.
Mediterranean cuisine prepared by the award-winning chef, India Joze, will be served and the celebration will feature a Silent Auction including art from participants of Youth Spirit Artworks.
Tickets to the celebration are $40.00 and can be purchased at the door or via Brown Paper Tickets at: www.Frances100th.brownpapertickets.com
If you are unable to attend and would like to make a donation in honor of Frances H. Townes 100th birthday, you may do so on the Youth Spirit Artworks website at:
www.youthspiritartworks.org. All donations will be matched 1:1 by a generous donor. We are encouraging gifts in denominations of $100. Proceeds will benefit the Frances H. Townes Mural and Bench at Youth Spirit Artworks.