Interview by Terry Messman
Consecrated to the poor
Spirit: You said that the mission of the Sisters of Divine Providence is to consecrate your life to the poor and needy and elderly. What does it mean to consecrate your life to the poor?
Sister Bernie: What’s forming in my mind is Jesus in the temple when he became angry at the unjust and very exclusive systems of society. That is the very reason that there are the poor and the marginalized. It is not enough just to provide food, clothing and housing.
It is essential that we address the causes of the suffering of all the people — and those are the unjust structures of society, and of our government and sometimes our churches. I mean, look at the suffering of so many children through the abuse by the priests. Those unjust structures exist in all segments of society.
One thing that has never been acceptable to me is the saying, “The poor will always be with you.” That is inexcusable. It forces you to address why people expect that the poor will always be with us. People use that as an excuse to say the poor are always going to be here and there’s nothing you can do about it. People say that even scripture says they’re always going to be here.
It’s unacceptable. It’s inexcusable.
Spirit: It’s also how people misuse scripture, because Jesus consistently proclaimed liberation for the oppressed and good news to the poor. Who has been an inspiration in your life? Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker?
Sister Bernie: Oh yes, I was inspired by Dorothy Day and Margaret Traxler. Anyone who is standing side by side with poor people is an inspiration to me. Eleanor Roosevelt was an inspiration and some of the good things that Franklin Roosevelt did. And Woody Guthrie, I still listen to his songs. They’re the words of the working people.
Sharing the Warmth
Spirit: On Oct. 23, 1994, Religious Witness protested the anti-homeless initiative Prop. M at City Hall. After a large prayer service, people walked through Civic Center Plaza giving hundreds and hundreds of blankets to homeless people. Why was it important for people to hand blankets to those without shelter?
Sister Bernie: We held a large demonstration and prayer service at City Hall with 300 people, and in the middle of the service we brought in a truckload of blankets. We also asked people attending to bring in their own blankets to give away.
I believe that the awareness of the community as to the deep, deep suffering of homeless people is best raised when there is direct contact of the community member with the homeless person. So at the end of this rally, the demonstrators walked through Civic Center Plaza with armloads of blankets, and gave them directly to people, hand to hand.
It involved looking that homeless person in the eyes and coming so close to the suffering of the people on the streets by handing them a blanket and by serving them a meal. Those are the kinds of things that raise the compassion in the hearts of people. That is one way. There are many ways but that is one very important way.
Spirit: That action really started something. Only a couple months later, in January 1995, members of Religious Witness had collected 5,000 warm, padded blankets to give to homeless people during the winter months.
Sister Bernie: Yes, that effort was called “Sharing the Warmth.” We wanted to respond with compassion to the poor people we saw every day. They suffered from lack of food and from lack of shelter and from lack of warmth in the cold and wet winter months.
So we held a number of events that affirmed the humanity of our sisters and brothers on the streets who were so dehumanized — and not only that, they were criminalized. By distributing blankets, we not only attempted to meet an immediate need of the homeless people, but it also engaged the community to come in contact with their homeless brothers and sisters and become conscious of the inhumanity of homelessness in this rich city.
Spirit: Didn’t you organize a big demonstration at City Hall to kick off this campaign?
Sister Bernie: Oh yes. We had put out a request to the community to gather all the blankets they could and bring them to City Hall on the day of a sleep-out we had organized. We held the event in front of City Hall — right in front of the government officials of our community who were not providing for homeless people, and were not treating them humanely.
That Sharing the Warmth event wasn’t a one-time thing. It was an ongoing thing, and we continued giving those blankets for several years. We were able to get 20,000 blankets a year through the Veteran’s Administration, and we would give them away to all the religious people and all the agencies working on housing and homelessness so they could distribute them to homeless people every winter. It was well organized and every year, those groups were so glad to give out the blankets.
Spirit: Dozens of protests, sleep-outs and hunger strikes that Religious Witness organized led to an amazing victory when the Board of Supervisors voted 9-1 to pass a resolution we had drafted condemning Matrix as inhumane and unconstitutional.
Sister Bernie: Through our mailings, we had informed our members about the importance of this resolution. We had over 100 of our members come to testify at that Board of Supervisors hearing in March 1995 and demonstrate their support for the resolution condemning Matrix.
The Religious Witness steering committee met with all the supervisors to convince them to support our resolution. Supervisor Angela Alioto was the key supervisor that we worked with on the resolution, and she publicly thanked us at the hearing for our work upholding the rights of homeless people.
Spirit: Religious Witness was able to get the entire Board of Supervisors to go on record opposing the mayor’s program as cruel and inhumane.
Sister Bernie: Yes, it was such a major victory. Every supervisor supported our resolution, and such a broad segment of the community showed up to support our resolution.
Fasting for Justice
Spirit: Religious Witness held several political fasts for human rights through the years. At the “Fast for Justice” in June 1995, more than 400 of our members fasted to protest the criminalization of homelessness in San Francisco. We held it during the celebration of the UN Declaration of Human Rights in San Francisco.
Sister Bernie: Actually, you were the one that really helped set up that whole thing.
Spirit: What was the purpose of the Fast for Justice? Why did you and hundreds of people choose to go without food?
Sister Bernie: It was a way of being in solidarity with our sisters and brothers whose human needs for food and warmth were not being met, to the point that they died on the streets from being cold and ill. It’s an act of solidarity.
In one of our fasts, homeless people were fasting with us! One homeless person told me, “I walked up to St. Anthony’s for a free meal in their dining room. I looked at the food and I turned around and decided I would fast in solidarity with religious leaders and with people on the streets.”
All our organizing and our events were ways of engaging the community, ways that raised the consciousness of the whole community about the extreme suffering — the unimaginable suffering — of our sisters and brothers on the streets. Everything we did was geared to that.
The fast was a way of exposing the ongoing violation of the human rights of homeless people under Matrix, so we held daily vigils by the fasters on the steps of City Hall.
Housing Takeovers at Presidio
Spirit: During our two years of resistance to the demolition of federal housing in the Presidio, we were arrested in several housing takeovers and then finally won a ballot initiative to preserve the housing. How did Religious Witness first get involved?
Sister Bernie: Well, we learned that the Department of the Interior wanted to demolish all the Presidio’s Wherry Housing to create more open space. One day as I was driving by the Presidio, I saw a company already tearing down the houses. Adding insult to injury, it was a non-union contractor that got that job.
Spirit: So a non-union contractor was tearing down beautiful homes in a city with a massive housing shortage?
Sister Bernie: Yes, in spite of all those people in San Francisco that didn’t even have a roof over their heads! I asked a contractor to go out to the Presidio with me to look over all that housing and tell us how much it was worth. He climbed under the houses, looked at the plumbing, and looked very closely at the condition of those houses, and told us it was immensely valuable, worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Yet the City of San Francisco had agreed with the Department of the Interior to tear down all that perfectly good housing that officers and their families had been living in right up to the time of the closing of the base.
It was something our conscience could not permit. We could not let them tear down this good housing when, at that time, we had 10,000 to 12,000 people so poor that they were living on the streets. We organized the religious community to defeat their intention to demolish.
Spirit: In our first act of civil disobedience at the Presidio, we were arrested in a nonviolent takeover of Wherry Housing on Feb. 22, 1996.
Sister Bernie: Yes, we held several major actions out there during the years that we were struggling with that issue. Hundreds of members of the interfaith community and the larger community gathered there for many public demonstrations to take a stand against the atrocity of tearing down good housing when so many poor people had no housing.
At every one of those events out at the Presidio, we engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience. We were arrested by the federal police because that was federal land and property.
Spirit: The housing takeovers were very dramatic. Often the federal police tried to block our entrance into the Wherry Housing units, but we always found ways to occupy the homes.
Sister Bernie: We would go out to the Presidio the day before the event and find a house that we could break into during the next day’s protest. Then we would march through the Presidio, enter the vacant house, and unfurl our Religious Witness banner. Then we would stay in the house until the federal police came and arrested us one by one.
We demonstrated in a nonviolent way our determination to prevent this senseless demolition of housing in the light of the massive increase in homelessness in San Francisco. Hundreds of people marched through the Presidio, and religious leaders and homeless people spoke at large events in front of the offices of the Park Service.
Spirit: After taking the houses over, we would also invite the media indoors so they could show the public the great condition of the houses.
Sister Bernie: That was a big part of every one of our actions out there, so the media saw for themselves the good condition of the houses. We wanted to show the public the insanity of tearing down such good houses. Everything at those housing takeovers was well publicized — which enabled us to raise the consciousness of the whole community as to what was really going on out at the Presidio.
Spirit: Looking back at those days of non-stop actions brings to mind that description of nonviolent resistance as “relentless perseverance.”
Sister Bernie: Yes. Hundreds of people demonstrated and scores of religious leaders were arrested in housing takeovers that we organized every other month throughout 1996 and 1997.
Just one example of all these actions is that on March 9 of 1996, more than 250 people gathered at Wherry Housing for a prayerful pilgrimage, and then 83 people were arrested for civil disobedience at our housing takeover.
Only 20 or so people had planned to be arrested, but when the police started making the first arrests, people who were gathered there kept coming forth one by one, entering the house and being arrested.
In the course of these protests, we met with Mayor Willie Brown and got him to declare his very strong support for the preservation of Wherry Housing. Another aspect of our campaign was that we met with the San Francisco supervisors to pass a resolution to support our Presidio campaign.
The Board of Supervisors did pass an almost unanimous resolution on April 28 calling for the preservation of Wherry Housing for poor and homeless people. It put the city of San Francisco on record as resisting the federal government’s plan to demolish Wherry Housing.
Spirit: It was incredible that we got the supervisors to take a stand against the federal government’s demolition.
Sister Bernie: Yes, but Nancy Pelosi and the Department of the Interior were still set on the demolition. So we met with John Garamendi, the deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior. He was very gracious but he was with Pelosi in terms of supporting the demolition.
Spirit: Federal officials refused to listen, even though hundreds of religious leaders, the mayor and supervisors all supported the preservation of Presidio housing. How did Religious Witness respond?
Sister Bernie: Since the federal officials would not listen at all to the people of San Francisco, we had to take the next step, and create a ballot initiative that would make it official that San Francisco opposed tearing down that housing.
Spirit: Religious Witness was a very small organization to take on a major ballot initiative, especially in the teeth of wealthy and powerful opponents.
Sister Bernie: This issue was the little folks against the big folks. You know, we were taking on the federal government. And we won the election with 53 percent of the vote for Proposition L to preserve the 1,900 units of Wherry Housing.
That was a big victory. We were able to win the support of more than 53 percent of the voters of San Francisco, including the mayor and the Board of Supervisors. We organized San Francisco against the federal government and we won.
The Betrayal of a Mayor
Spirit: It was a classic case of nonviolent resistance that began with educating the public about the need to preserve Wherry Housing; then organizing many acts of civil disobedience; lobbying the local officials; and finally winning a ballot initiative. We won against all the odds, but did they respect the will of the voters?
Sister Bernie: The one person who was absolutely, staunchly determined not to implement Prop L was Mayor Willie Brown. When this proposition was passed, Mayor Brown absolutely refused to enforce it. He just dropped it like a hot potato.
Two big-shot Democratic Party donors met with Willie Brown shortly after the passing of this proposition. One of the San Francisco supervisors told me that those two big Democratic donors met with Willie Brown one morning right after the election, and it was from that moment that Willie Brown dropped the whole thing.
Spirit: He had publicly supported our ballot measure to preserve Wherry Housing. But after we won the election, he betrayed everything he said he stood for.
Sister Bernie: Yes, Willie Brown betrayed us. After the election, we had to force him to meet with us. He just told us to take our “issue” to the supervisors. We told him that the “issue” was finished and the election had already settled it. Mayor Brown just hemmed and hawed around and then said he had to go to a meeting.
So the next event we held was a big event at the Civic Center. Rev. Jeff Johnson, a Lutheran minister who was our greatest orator, gave such a wonderful, rousing sermon about how Willie Brown betrayed us. It was something!
Spirit: It seems very important that Religious Witness didn’t let Willie Brown get away with this sell-out. Instead, you spoke out publicly against his deception.
Sister Bernie: Yes, we said publicly that he betrayed us. And of course, we had the media there and that is what was reported. Here is the public statement we released in response to his betrayal:
“Tragically, Mayor Willie Brown has singlehandedly betrayed the hopes and dreams of the people of San Francisco for a significant solution to the crises of homelessness and housing in this city by his adamant refusal to implement Prop L. He has refused to go against the wishes of his wealthy friends on the Presidio Trust, thereby abandoning the basic human needs of his own community. So be it forever remembered.”
Prop L was sabotaged
Spirit: Brown betrayed democracy itself. He betrayed the election and the public trust when he sabotaged the citywide vote for Prop L.
Sister Bernie: That’s right, because they didn’t let poor people live there. The housing was preserved due to Prop L, but the poor people couldn’t live there.
It was an extreme disappointment because we thought we had it wrapped up. And it was a great disappointment to the homeless people who had some hope, some of them, for housing.
So what can you say? Your heart just sinks to the bottom when the powerful ones of the political world turn their back on you and betray you. When we won the support of the political leaders of San Francisco, and when we won that ballot initiative after this great community effort, we were all united with great hope.
When Proposition L passed, we were sure there was a victory that was solid. Poor people and homeless people would have a chance to have a roof over their heads and would have a chance to get a job.
And then the politicians — the rich and the powerful — turned their backs once again. It’s what poor people experience over and over in their lives.
Memorial Wall at City Hall
Spirit: Religious Witness created an unforgettable memorial in the Civic Center for several years in a row, beginning in 2000. Hundreds visited the symbolic graveyard with 168 tombstones in remembrance of the 168 people who died homeless that year. What are your reflections on so many dying on the streets?
Sister Bernie: All those deaths were part of an official survey done by the Medical Examiner. It is unacceptable that so many people died. The fact that so many people died on the streets of San Francisco speaks to the callousness of city officials and their lack of caring.
When we see the numbers of people who died without a home, we reflect on what we see every day in the community, year after year, with poor people sitting on the streets and lying in the parks, cold and hungry. It’s a tragedy. It is heartbreaking.
The mass death of homeless people is the only possible outcome of social policies of neglect toward those most in need.
Spirit: Why did Religious Witness come up with the plan to create this public memorial at Civic Center Plaza?
Sister Bernie: We wanted to bring this tragedy to the awareness of the community in a very dramatic fashion. That three-day memorial with those tombstones out there did exactly that. You would see people walking through the memorial crying.
People said they couldn’t believe what they were seeing, even though they may have known that this man was found frozen to death sitting on the bench, and another man died in an alley in the middle of the night.
Even though they may have read about those deaths, it really hits home to become aware of the totality of that tragedy. We found that it doesn’t touch the heart unless there is a dramatic presentation of the reality.
Spirit: One year later, the memorial made an even more stunning impact. A long, long Memorial Wall was created in Civic Center with the names and ages of 1,767 people who died homeless in San Francisco in the past 14 years. I know that wall made a deep impact on people.
Sister Bernie: The Memorial Wall was incredible. People came to pay tribute to all the people who suffered from these inhumane practices in such a rich city as San Francisco.
People from the social service programs would come, and they had never known what happened to this man or that woman who was one of their clients. They would discover the names of those clients on the wall. There was such sadness.
Spirit: It became a really powerful place of remembrance and mourning and renewed commitment.
Sister Bernie: People were invited to join the efforts of Religious Witness to try to put a stop to this tragedy, and more and more people did join in the efforts. We gathered nearly 3,000 signatures in our postcard campaign calling on the Board of Supervisors to significantly increase funding for truly affordable housing for homeless people. As a result of this memorial service, there was more engagement throughout the community.
Spirit: More than 500 people and several members of the Board of Supervisors attended the opening-day service for human rights at the Memorial Wall. And weren’t constant vigils held at the wall all day long by scores of religious groups?
Sister Bernie: Yes, dozens and dozens of groups and religious congregations held vigils at the Memorial Wall for those three days. They planned and organized their own services throughout the entire day. And there were always a constant number of individuals throughout the day just wandering slowly through those tombstones and reading the names on the wall.
We opened the Memorial Wall services with a procession and we had a public reading of all the names of the people who died that year. It was to reach the heart and soul of people.
Spirit: How in the world did you get the approval of city officials to set up such a huge memorial wall right across the street from City Hall?
Sister Bernie: We had established some really good relationships with people in the city and the courts. That’s why we were able to calculate the human costs and the economic costs of the Matrix program. We had a friend in the city that would send me a list every month of all the citations and misdemeanors against homeless people.
So a woman in the department where they give permission for the use of the Civic Center was a friend and she was very sympathetic. We set up the first tombstone memorial early in the morning in late February of 2000, and Willie Brown was furious when he stepped out on his veranda and he saw it!
He called the woman on the carpet and blasted her for giving permission for our memorial. But we didn’t have to take down the tombstones. They probably were afraid we’d hold a big protest if they forced us to take it down!
Spirit: Despite Brown’s opposition, the next year you were able to get permission for a far bigger memorial wall in Civic Center. The Board of Supervisors passed a resolution called, “A Day of Love and Sorrow: Remembering Those 1,767 Men, Women and Children Who Have Died Homeless Since 1987.” That’s a pretty amazing turn of events.
Sister Bernie: We met with supervisors individually, including Mark Leno, Bevan Dufty, Chris Daly and others. We went to them individually and we gained their support. We established relationships and reached the hearts of people, so no matter who the mayor was, we had friends. Supervisor Mark Leno sponsored it.
Mark Leno had introduced the board resolution which was then co-sponsored by all the other supervisors. He read the resolution at the official event, describing the tragedy of so many deaths in one city, and drawing attention to the young age of so many of those who died.