"Sometimes home is in the relationships we hold.” Sister Carmen Barsody, OSF, cofounder of Faithful Fools Street Ministry, in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, appreciates that statement—made by one of the people who work with the ministry.
“Our first effort is to be in relationship, and then we move on from there,” she says.
Faithful Fools was founded in 1998 after Carmen, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, Minnesota, met Unitarian Universalist minister Reverend Kay Jorgensen while they were working among the residents in the Tenderloin.
“Fool is a call to ‘discover our common humanity,’” Carmen says, quoting the Faithful Fools mission statement. “In our Franciscan tradition,” she continues, “it would be working with the desire of Francis to not occupy a place, whether in position or attitude, that elevates us above another.”
Fools also refers to the medieval fool who was the truth teller in the king’s court, the one who stayed close to the ground. In addition, it alludes to Saint Francis, who has been characterized as God’s fool. To stay close to the ground, the Faithful Fools live and work in the Tenderloin district in a place they call the Fools’ Court, on Hyde Street.
The Faithful Fools’ approach is a bit different, however, from that of most ministries. “The way of Faithful Fools, like that of Saint Francis, is an invitation into relationship with people that we are advised to avoid,” explains Carmen. They seek to do this through the arts, education, advocacy, and accompaniment.
Carmen has always had a soft spot for those on the margins of society. “I knew at an early age that there was something within me that was drawn toward wanting to help others and change things that seemed unjust and unnecessary,” she recalls.
The human needs are complex in the Tenderloin: addiction, mental illness, and difficult histories that require long-term commitments and responses.
“There are more people being displaced than there are being placed in housing at this time,” she observes. “Also, drugs are available 24 hours a day, while food is available once or twice a day.”
In addition to the arts, education, advocacy, and accompaniment aspects of the ministry, Faithful Fools also conducts regularly scheduled street retreats, where participants walk the streets and become aware of the people, places, or situations they encounter.
“People who are homeless or who are economically poor often get acted upon. We forget that they are people with stories, and we all have our own stories. And we need to listen to each other first,” says Carmen.
In addition, Faithful Fools engages in seven-day Street Retreats and small group retreats to Nicaragua.
There is no hiding one’s humanity in the Tenderloin.
“As we often say, it is not that the people of the Tenderloin have problems that no one else does; it’s just that those problems are visible. In wealthier neighborhoods and homes, people have substanceabuse issues and mental-health struggles, families fight, and people work together, but it may not be as visible as it is in the Tenderloin,” Carmen points out.
“We participate in shattering the myths about those living in poverty.”