Interview by Terry Messman
A Faith Leader’s Lifelong Work for Human Rights
Street Spirit: In full disclosure, I began organizing with Religious Witness with Homeless People shortly after you founded it in 1993. Back then, you said that the homelessness you witnessed in Berkeley during your sabbatical planted the seeds of Religious Witness. Can you describe how seeing that poverty affected you?
Sister Bernie Galvin: Yes. I was on sabbatical in the Bay Area in 1989 and 1990, and I had an apartment on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. Every morning at about five o’clock, I would hear this shopping cart being pushed down the sidewalk right in front of my apartment. It would actually wake me up and I would get up and watch that person go by, and I thought, “Why?” And I became more aware of so many homeless people in Berkeley.
One day, I actually left my home with one dollar in my pocket and spent three days on the street away from my apartment just to get more of a feeling and an understanding of the suffering of the people. I slept in a shelter for three nights. So that is the seed that was planted in my heart at that time. I almost cry when I talk about this.
Spirit: Many people may feel moved at the sight of people living on the street, but why did you leave your apartment to experience homelessness at first hand?
Sister Bernie: Because I was so touched by the suffering of the people. I kept asking the question of why so much homelessness has to exist in a nation that is so rich. I could not turn away from what I saw and what I felt.
Spirit: Religious Witness was unique in being one of the very first efforts in the country to systematically organize the religious community in defense of homeless people. Why did you call on clergy and religious leaders to take a stand?
Sister Bernie: What I noticed that was so absent in the whole picture of homelessness in San Francisco was that there was no united voice of religious leaders speaking out in any public way against what the city was doing to thousands of homeless people.
So I called together some clergy and religious leaders to a meeting to talk about this. We had Catholic priests and Protestant ministers and Jewish rabbis. Wilson Riles, the director of American Friends Service Committee, sent you to the meetings representing the AFSC.
What we did was draft a letter — actually you drafted it — that speaks out about the cruelty and injustice of mistreating poor and homeless people under the Matrix policy in San Francisco. It was titled “A Call for Justice and Compassion for Poor and Homeless People.”
We began getting the signatures of religious leaders all over the city of San Francisco, and then we read that letter out loud at a press conference inside City Hall. It was a public witness to this horrible injustice. Religious leaders came together and testified to the terrible injustice that the City and the police were doing to poor, defenseless homeless people — people so poor that they didn’t have a place to lay their head.
Burn Out and Renewal
Spirit: Why had you come to live in the Bay Area in the first place?
Sister Bernie: After all my years of organizing textile workers and sugar cane workers in the South, I was burned out; so I asked permission to take a sabbatical to renew my spirit. I had so much energy from taking this sabbatical and my spirit was so renewed. I was so eager to move onward and my heart was opened to any new direction.
Spirit: How did you find your new direction in life? What was the next step?
Sister Bernie: In late 1990, I spent six months at a homeless shelter for women and children in Chicago created by a very prominent religious leader, Sister Margaret Traxler. It was important for me to just be present there with the homeless people in the shelter. I visited with the women and listened to them and I witnessed tragedies in the lives of the homeless women and children. [Editor: Sister Margaret Traxler opened the Maria Shelter for abused women and Casa Notre Dame for older homeless women. She also created Sister House on the west side of Chicago to help women released from prison.]
Spirit: At that time, Chicago was one of three or four cities in the U.S. with the greatest concentrations of homeless people.
Sister Bernie: Yes, and that’s why Sister Margaret started her shelter there. That was the first time that I had been able to sit down day after day, with no other assignment, in her shelter. All I did for those six months was to sit down with the people and listen. It just tears out your heart to hear the diversity of stories as women and children told me how they became homeless, and how much they had to endure before they could finally even get into a shelter.
Then I also went to El Salvador and Nicaragua with faith-based groups during the anniversary of the murders of the Jesuits. [Editor: Six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter were murdered by Salvadoran Army soldiers on Nov. 16, 1989, at their university residence in San Salvador.]
Spirit: When I went to Central America, it was shocking to see the extent of poverty and repression.
Sister Bernie: Oh yes! It is so tragic to see an entire people so dominated by the unjust, cruel, vicious system and the people who run that system — with the support of our country.
Spirit: What impact did that have on your life?
Sister Bernie: I was able to hear the stories of the people from the people themselves. There was a dramatic anniversary service honoring the assassination of the Jesuits and the two women. It just moved my heart.
They had pictures of all the children that had been killed in that community in El Salvador where we first visited, and pictures of the murdered Jesuits.
It’s always the injustice of the whole situation that grabs me and I can’t turn away from it, whether it’s the homeless people in Berkeley or the poor people in Central America.
Founding Religious Witness
Spirit: So, after half a lifetime of union organizing in Louisiana, you took a sabbatical in Berkeley, and spent six months in a homeless shelter in Chicago. How did all those experiences lead you to form Religious Witness with Homeless People?
Sister Bernie: With my union background, Sal Roselli hired me to do healthcare union organizing with SEIU Local 250 in San Francisco. I worked with him there for two years. Well, Local 250’s office was in the Tenderloin. So all during that time that I was organizing healthcare workers, I was seeing homeless people at our doorstep on Golden Gate Avenue.
Finally, it pulled my heart so much that I quit my work with the union, without even knowing what I was going to do in responding to homelessness.
Spirit: That was quite a leap into the unknown. You’d been a union organizer most of your life.
Sister Bernie: It really was. Exactly! The way I started what became Religious Witness with Homeless People was on September 1, 1993, I started walking the streets of the Tenderloin, talking with — and even more, listening to — homeless people. What they were all talking about was this sudden crackdown by Mayor Frank Jordan called the Matrix Program.
Spirit: Matrix would soon become a pattern of police crackdowns on homeless people in scores of other cities. Can you describe how Matrix was carried out on the streets of San Francisco?
Sister Bernie: It was so horrible. People on the streets were not allowed to sit or sleep. They had to keep moving and they were not allowed to be in front of businesses. Well, where else are you going to be down in the Tenderloin? Thousands were cited, arrested and fined, and if they couldn’t pay their fines, they were put in jail. They had warrants out for them.
Spirit: People were also criminalized for sleeping, camping, covering up with a blanket, panhandling and public urination. What was the extent of Matrix under Mayor Jordan?
Sister Bernie: It was massive. To show what a massive crackdown Matrix really was, when Religious Witness later met with District Attorney Terence Hallinan to ask for amnesty for those cited and arrested under the Matrix program, Terence told us there were tens of thousands of citations for Matrix violations in San Francisco. After years of organizing, we were able to get the warrants lifted from all the homeless people who had citations for Matrix violations.
In January of 1996, we appealed to Hallinan and gained unconditional amnesty for 39,000 citations issued from August 1993 to December 1995. In January of 2001, we appealed again to Hallinan for, and won amnesty for, homeless people criminalized by more than 60,000 quality of life citations issued in the five years from 1996 to 2001.
The Sky-High Cost of Matrix
Spirit: Religious Witness also challenged the City for spending millions of dollars enforcing minor infractions, instead of building housing. What were the economic costs of Matrix?
Sister Bernie: We did a study of how much it cost San Francisco to enforce the quality of life ordinances targeting homeless people, and found that the City was spending millions of dollars every year.
I believe that our response to people living on the streets should be one of deep compassion. But that doesn’t always speak to some of the politicians. Their goal is to get rid of the homeless people.
In San Francisco, they chased them from Union Square into Civic Center and finally all the way out to Golden Gate Park and the neighborhoods, and even that wasn’t far enough for them. They chased them from one end of the city to another. It speaks to the lack of compassion by some politicians who do not understand about the suffering of poor people and the causes of homelessness.
We thought that what might speak to them would be how the City spends its tax money. So we did this very detailed study of how much it costs to enforce these inhumane ordinances against poor people. Every year it was between 5 to 10 million dollars per year.
We hoped that would influence the Board of Supervisors and the mayor to take another look at how we’re mistreating people and how futile it is to spend that much money on police persecution. Because none of it ever reduces homelessness.
Spirit: How did you try to demonstrate to the supervisors that it was a waste of city resources to spend millions of dollars on police raids and crackdowns?
Sister Bernie: We showed how the same money spent on those cruel laws could have been used for so many positive steps to treat homeless people humanely and with compassion. It could have built affordable housing and provided real solutions to homelessness.
Every action that we took from the very beginning was presented in a dramatic way to help raise the consciousness of the community, as you well know, Terry, because you were there as a major influence in how we planned our actions.
So as a visual way of showing them how many citations and misdemeanors homeless people were facing, we actually stacked up thousands of cardboard citations to represent the citations being given to homeless people. And we had a very dramatic presentation of that in City Hall. We did that two or three times. It takes that level of art and drama to present the facts to people.
Giving Citations to the Mayor
Spirit: We marched up to Mayor Jordan’s office and dumped those piles of citations right outside his office door as a statement of resistance. That was one of our very first acts of protest.
Sister Bernie: Yes, and soon afterwards we met with Mayor Frank Jordan because Matrix was his program — the former police chief’s approach to homelessness. And even though he sat there and listened to all the religious leaders speaking out, he did not budge an inch.
Spirit: The classic approach of nonviolent movements is to expose the injustice, then negotiate with political officials about the need for change. If they refuse to listen, it’s time to move into direct action.
Sister Bernie: Yes, you take public action. The first public action after meeting with Frank Jordan was a sleep-out for justice and compassion. We had 124 clergy and members of the religious community sleep out all night on the steps of City Hall to protest this unjust law. We held it on February 1, 1994.
We did the sleep-out to raise the consciousness of the people of San Francisco so they could join in the protests. In all of our years of protests, we always managed to get the media there. We got the TV news, radio, and newspapers, so our public actions were broadcast through all the media and that helped to raise the consciousness of the people.
Spirit: It’s pretty amazing that more than 100 religious leaders deliberately broke the laws that criminalized homelessness in San Francisco.
Sister Bernie: We deliberately slept on the steps of City Hall as a direct confrontation to the cruel and unjust actions that our elected officials were taking against the city’s own people.
Spirit: A few weeks later, Religious Witness held a big banquet for homeless people on March 20, 1994. Dozens of faith congregations served a meal in Civic Center Plaza. I thought it was an amazing act of resistance — kindness and lawbreaking at the same time.
Sister Bernie: It was a big deal in San Francisco. We contacted the various churches and synagogues and places of worship, and invited them to bring a beautiful meal for homeless people to the Civic Center. Providing that meal involved the congregations in a very direct action in solidarity with homeless people.
We all worked so hard on this. We borrowed long tables from one of the churches and we borrowed tablecloths from the union. The church community served a beautiful, home-cooked, full-course meal to hungry, homeless people. That got the individuals offering the meal right in immediate contact with homeless people.
Those are the kinds of actions that touch the heart of members of the religious community. They never forget that. So when we have another action, they’re ready.
A Crime to Help the Hungry
Spirit: The symbolism was powerful because there was a newly enacted law against sharing food that we were deliberately breaking.
Sister Bernie: Yes, it was civil disobedience. We chose pubic actions that directly confronted aspects of the law. It was against the law in San Francisco to serve people food in city parks. So by serving a public meal in Civic Center Plaza, we did exactly that.
Spirit: The City was actually forbidding people from feeding the hungry.
Sister Bernie: Yes, I was arrested many times with Food Not Bombs for doing exactly that.
Spirit: Religious Witness held such a diversity of actions, everything from civil disobedience to organizing hundreds to pressure City Hall. Can you describe the day of phone-ins to Mayor Jordan?
Sister Bernie: We decided to bombard Mayor Jordan on one day with phone calls and faxes from the faith community and from homeless people. It showed the mayor that he was under the microscope — we see him, we see what he’s doing to homeless people, and we don’t like it and we’re not going to let go until he stops it. We just kept doing one action on top of another, on top of still another.
Spirit: The next step in this campaign was the Prayer for Dignity and Justice in June 1994. That was a three-day event. We had actions every month. I can’t believe how hard we used to work (laughing).
Sister Bernie: I know! Can you believe it? Dozens and dozens of actions!
I remember that action so well when 62 religious leaders were arrested for resisting Matrix by sleeping overnight in Union Square. We were there right in the heart of the financial district. We slept out and passed out leaflets about what this wealthy city was doing — all in support of the wealthiest of the city and the total neglect of the poorest of the city.
Every action involved more people and a greater diversity of groups in the community. We kept building the campaign.
Many diverse faiths join Religious Witness
Spirit: You were able to organize such a broad diversity of religious congregations. You brought together priests, rabbis, ministers, nuns, even bishops and the presidents of entire denominations, and the heads of entire religious orders. How were you able to accomplish that?
Sister Bernie: I think it was the issues we were addressing. When you reach out to religious leaders and congregations and call attention to how their city is treating its poorest members, it is an issue at the heart of their faith. But you must do that in a dramatic way.
The most dramatic thing was that great statement you wrote that Religious Witness got endorsed with the signature of many, many religious leaders, our central statement: “A Call for Justice and Compassion for Poor and Homeless People.”
When people see that other religious leaders are already taking action and they are moved by what’s going on, it almost seems to me that people of faith cannot turn away. They cannot refuse to see.
Spirit: In the first days of Religious Witness, I remember you saying that you were shocked that there hadn’t been a greater response from the faith community to the persecution of homeless people.
Sister Bernie: That’s exactly why I started Religious Witness. I was shocked, really. I was acutely aware that everywhere you looked in San Francisco there were poor and homeless people, and there wasn’t a united voice from the religious community. That was the challenge.
This atrocity was happening in a major city, a geographically small city, a very, very wealthy city. This atrocity was happening right under our noses. It was very visible. And there was not the united voice of the faith community speaking out. That was the spark of Religious Witness. From that moment, I knew what I had to do. And I knew that I couldn’t do it alone. So you talk to a few people — a few religious leaders who get it, and who want to proceed. Just a few at first, and then it grows.
Sister Bernie’s personal path
Spirit: Many people saw the same persecution of poor people that you witnessed, but did not speak out. What was there in your history or your values that led you to speak out so forcefully?
Sister Bernie: I have been raised to speak out against injustices, especially to poor people and working people and the very elderly. My values in that regard come from two places. The major one is the family that I grew up in.
My dad was a plumber and belonged to a union, and both my mom and dad came from working-class families. We had 15 children. We were very Catholic. So it is something that I grew up with. Compassion for the poor and for working people and elderly people was instilled in me from a very young age.
I grew up poor and I knew what it meant to go hungry sometimes. I went to a Catholic school all of my life, through grade school and high school and college, and the sisters cared for the poor, just the same as at my home. So this just became a part of my bone marrow.
Spirit: Am I remembering correctly that you were born during the Great Depression in Oklahoma?
Sister Bernie: That’s right, right in the heart of the Depression in 1933. I was actually born in St. Charles, Missouri, and we lived there for my first six years. When I finished the first grade, my mom and dad moved to Oklahoma. My dad got a job there and we lived in a poor, rural area.
Spirit: How were you influenced by the values you found in the schools and churches you attended in your youth?
Sister Bernie: It was an affirmation of what was already in me. The encyclicals of the Catholic Church have strong support for working people and strong support for unions. The Catholic Church had a great commitment to helping poor people in this country and in other countries. Catholic Charities and so many different programs reached out to the poor and the marginalized and to the prisons.
I saw the Catholic Church as caring and strongly committed to the same kinds of things that were in my heart, the same kinds of things that were important to me and to my mom and dad.
Spirit: So you grew up in a family that was Democratic and union and Catholic.
Sister Bernie: That’s it. I was blessed from birth. (laughs)
Spirit: How would you describe the mission or focus of your religious order, the Congregation of Divine Providence?
Sister Bernie: As I said, all these values were already in my bone marrow. Then when I went to school, I went to the Sisters of Divine Providence, and I saw that they too cared about the poor kids.
Our congregation was founded in this country to care for the very poorest and for the sick. That’s always been our foundation. In later years, we expanded into social work and teaching and so forth. I started out as a school teacher for many years, then I became a union organizer and community organizer.
We’re getting ready to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Sisters of Divine Providence being in this country. That has always been who we are, throughout our existence. We are people who consecrate our lives to reach out to the people of God — namely, the very poorest, the most needy. So all through my life, at home and in my Catholic education and through the teachings of the church, I’ve been on this same track. I’ve never deviated from what I learned from my family and from the sisters and from the church.