Documentary Explores San Francisco Night Ministry's 53-Year Legacy

The Tenderloin Museum this week hosts the local premier of Even in Darkness, a documentary about San Francisco Night Ministry and its work in the city.

Launched in 1964, the ministry provides counseling and blessings to those who need comfort when no one else is awake. The Rev. Lyle Beckman told us that as the Night Minister, he walks the streets every night from 10:00pm to 4:00am, talking with anyone who needs to talk.

Rev. Beckman in the field. | Photo: San Francisco Night Ministry

Filmmaker and photographer James Hosking learned of the Night Ministry when he was doing a photo series about Tenderloin bar Aunt Charlie’s Lounge a few years ago. 

The Night Minister travels to where people gather, to reach them where they are, Hosking said. Aunt Charlie’s regularly hosts fundraisers for the ministry, he added. 

Beckman, who started as Night Minister in 2006, is the ministry's only full-time employee, but his work is augmented by “many dedicated, wonderful people willing to work part time or volunteer their time completely.”

Prior to moving to San Francisco, Beckman was a parish pastor for congregations largely in urban settings and made up of the poor, people with mental health issues, immigrants, and other people on the edge or in the minority.

He also volunteered as a chaplain in a local jail and in a psychiatric ward in a general hospital. 

“I’m comfortable around people on all ends of the spectrum,” Beckman said. 

Beyond walking the streets nightly to interact with people, the Night Ministry also offers a nightly crisis telephone line, staffed by a rotating crew of 55 volunteers.

The ministry also hosts "open cathedrals" twice weekly—on Sundays at 2:00pm at the corner of Leavenworth and McAllister streets in the Civic Center, and on Thursdays at 5:30pm at the 16th Street BART station.

An open cathedral at Civic Center. | Photo: San Francisco Night Ministry/Facebook

Holding outdoor services “ensure there are truly no barriers to going to church,” Beckman said. “You can bring your pet, your cart full of stuff… if you’re unable to sit for a full hour or need to smoke a cigarette, you can.” The ministry hosts a meal afterwards, donated by a Bay Area congregation or organization. 

The ministry also has partnerships with congregations and non-denominational organizations to conduct deliberate outreach to the LGBQTA communities and help people in poverty. But you don't have to be religious to benefit from a conversation with the Night Minister, Beckman emphasized.

Photo: San Francisco Interfaith Council

The ministry covers the entire city every two weeks or so, but Beckman said it focuses on neighborhoods where people are always on the street—the Tenderloin, Polk Gulch, Union Square, SoMa and most of Market Street.

It is clear that people get comfortable with Beckman over a period of time, and are grateful to have someone non-threatening that pops by regularly, said Hosking. 

“Many people didn’t care we were there with a camera, they just wanted to talk with Lyle,” he added. 

Olivia on Turk Street after talking with Rev. Beckman. | Photo: James Hosking

“It’s amazing to me how many people on the streets don’t take advantage of services available in the city,” Beckman told us.

Occasionally, people just don’t know where to go, but some have had negative experiences in shelters, or are paranoid that any information put into the system could be used against them, he said. 

People on the street are not sleeping well, not eating well, their brains are constantly operating in survival mode, and they are not able to think through options rationally, Beckman said. 

Photo: Carrie Sisto/Hoodline

“I can’t blame them for making the choices they make, but we want to make sure they understand all of the options available to them.”

While Hosking knew Beckman’s job was challenging, following him through the city streets gave him “a greater appreciation for outreach workers, who go to work every day with a sense of not knowing what they’re going to encounter,” he said. 

Hosking said he also appreciates Beckham’s willingness to let him and the camera crew tag along. 

“He made space for us and had faith it wouldn’t break up his routine too much.”

The 1966 KRON Assignment Four report shows the Night Ministry just two years after its launch.

The film was a “longer process than I thought it would be,” Beckham told us. But he is largely pleased with the outcome.

Hosking had already shot the whole film, but it was the 2016 San Francisco Neighborhood Arts Collaborative Grant, which the filmmaker received in conjunction with the Tenderloin Museum, that made post-production possible, he told us.

The film was first screened at the United Nations Association Film Festival in October, but the neighborhood premiere of Even in Darkness is on Thursday, November 30th at the Tenderloin Museum. The film will be screened with "Shepherd of the Streets," a 1966 KRON-TV Assignment Four report about the first night minister, Donald Stuart.

The event will conclude with a panel discussion featuring Beckman, Hosking, former night minister The Rev. Don Fox, and other community leaders. 

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Documentary explores san francisco night ministry s 53 year legacy