Kay Jorgensen died on January 15, 2018. She was one of my earliest mentors in the ministry. I met her when I was a young adult living in San Francisco. I moved there in 1998 after I graduated from college to work as a software engineer. Kay and her longtime collaborator Carmen Barsody were just then starting the Faithful Fools, their street ministry in the city’s Tenderloin District.
I lived in the Bay Area through the spring of 2002. Kay consistently encouraged me throughout that time as I transitioned from active lay leader to budding seminarian. I participated in the street retreats she and Carmen led and spent a fair amount of time just hanging out at the Faithful Fools building.
The street retreats are a ministerial model inspired by liberation theology and the practice of accompaniment. They last somewhere between a few hours and several days. Participants spend their time on the street in the same spaces as homeless people: eating where the homeless eat and sleeping where they sleep.
The Fools use the street retreats to do two things. The first is to be present to and minister to the very poor and homeless without judging them. In other words, the Fools see the Tenderloin’s residents for what they are, human beings, and then treat them as human beings. Second, the retreats are opportunities to breakdown stereotypes that people with various kinds of economic privilege such as myself have about the very poor and homeless. By inviting participants into the same spaces as the residents of the Tenderloin we learn that despite whatever stereotypes we might carry in our heads, the people struggling on the streets are just as human as we are. We all need the same things: food, shelter, love, and a bit of work to call honest.
The street retreats are pedagogically structured around praxis. In their efforts to breakdown stereotypes, the Fools ask participants to reflect upon what they expect to see and encounter before they begin their time on the streets. At the end of the retreat the Fools again ask participants on the stereotypes they have about the Tenderloin’s residents. The transformation is often remarkable. I remember people in the first round of reflection focusing on words like shame, poverty, and sadness. My memories of the second round of reflection is that they frequently contained words such as hope, pride, and joy.
I didn’t just learn from the Fools practice of street retreats. I also learned from their generosity. For many years they served as the fiscal agent for and the mentors of the human rights and solidarity organization that Roxanne Rivas and I founded in 2001—the C.A.S.A. Collectives (Colectivos de Apoyo, Solidaridad y Accion).
Based on their own work in Nicaragua, they often gave us pointers on how to be authentically in solidarity with the communities we worked with in Mexico. They wanted us to understand that it wasn’t authentic solidarity unless we were willing to share the same risks that communities we were working with faced. I remember Kay and Carmen once discussing Ben Linder’s death at the hands of an assassination squad in Nicaragua with me at great length. We talked about what his death had meant to the people he worked with there, the solidarity community, and the United States government. Part of the lesson was that it had sparked international coverage of the atrocities that were then taking place in Nicaragua that the massacres of thousands of peasants had not. That was part of the legacy of white supremacy and colonialism, that a colonizer’s life always mattered more to the colonizers than the lives of any of the colonized. Even if the colonizer was in solidarity with the colonized.
I thought about that conversation a lot when a few years later C.A.S.A. had to evacuate our offices in Oaxaca City after death threats were made against our staff over paramilitary controlled radio. It was during the 2006 Oaxaca uprising and Brad Will, who sometimes worked with C.A.S.A. folks, had just been killed. I also talked with Kay a bit about that situation and remember her calm and steady presence.
Perhaps my fondest memories of Kay are from a fundraiser that the Fools held in the late 90s. It was a dinner at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Fransisco. After the dinner was over as we cleaned up the dishes Kay started to sing old Wobbly songs. She seemed to know all the words to “Hallelujah” and “Solidarity Forever.” So, perhaps it is best to close a tribute to one of the truly great ministers in my tradition with a few verses from “Hallelujah,” a song written and sung in skid rows of the early 20th century that spoke of the pride and defiance of an earlier generation in the face of the catastrophes of capitalism and the degradation of poverty.
O, why don’t you save
All the money you earn?
If I did not eat,
I’d have money to burn!
Hallelujah, I’m a bum!
Hallelujah, bum again!
Hallelujah, give us a handout–
To revive us again.
Rest in power, Rev. Kay Jorgensen, aka Oscard, you have blessed the world more than anyone will ever know.