A Life Consecrated to Compassion and Justice

On the bleak streets of the Tenderloin, a sister took a stand against inhumanity. Her solidarity was inspired by the beatitudes and consecrated to the poor.

Sister Bernie Galvin (center) speaks out for the human rights of homeless people at a large demonstration at S.F. City Hall.

by Terry Messman

When asked to name some of her key inspirations, Sister Bernie Galvin named Woody Guthrie, the populist voice of poor and working people from the hills of Oklahoma, and Sister Margaret Traxler, the dedicated religious leader who opened the Maria Shelter for abused women and Casa Notre Dame for older homeless women in Chicago.

These two sources of inspiration reveal much about Sister Bernie Galvin’s own roots as the daughter of poor, blue-collar, pro-union parents who raised her in a poor, rural area of Oklahoma; and the Irish Catholic daughter of the Church who began her lifelong calling as a young woman when she entered the Sisters of Divine Providence, a Catholic religious order consecrated to serving the poor and sick and elderly.

Sister Bernie laughingly said she was “blessed at birth” by being born to poor, working-class parents who were liberal Democrats rooted both in the Church and in the union. She learned from childhood to care about the hungry and needy, and to side with the poor against the rich.

Her father was a plumber and a union man; both parents came from a long line of blue-collar workers. More than anything, Sister Bernie is her parents’ daughter, loyal to her working-class heritage. She often expresses gratitude for her parents, and her deeply felt memories of her large, loving family are the cornerstone of everything she has become in life.

She also values her religious order, the Sisters of Divine Providence. “We are people who consecrate our lives to reach out to the people of God — namely, the very poorest, the most needy.”

Her life has been consecrated to acts of compassion in solidarity with low-wage workers and homeless people. Her acts of political resistance truly are a sacred calling. Yet there is nothing sentimental about this calling, for she is a tough-minded organizer who has challenged the injustices of the rich and powerful for her entire life.

I saw her dedication and grit and bravery on a daily basis while working with Sister Bernie for a few years when she formed Religious Witness with Homeless People in San Francisco in 1993. I thought of her as the “Sister of Solidarity” in those years when she worked ceaselessly to challenge the persecution of poor people, based in her drab and dismal, low-rent office in the Tenderloin.

Woody Guthrie and Sister Margaret Traxler really do call to mind the twin poles of Sister Bernie’s spiritual and political make-up. In this corner, the radical agitator and working-class, Oklahoma-born songwriter who inscribed on his guitar, “This machine kills fascists.” In the other corner, the spiritual acts of mercy and sanctuary offered by Margaret Traxler, the Catholic sister who devoted her life to sheltering the poor and homeless.

Working Class Politics and Spiritual Faith

Sister Bernie seems to have found her own calling somewhere in this intersection between Guthrie and Sister Margaret. Guthrie’s prophetic ballad, “Jesus Christ,” captured this intersection between working-class radicalism and spiritual faith.

“Jesus Christ was a man

who traveled through the land,

A hard-working man and brave.

He said to the rich,

“Give your money to the poor,”

But they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.”

In that spirit, Sister Bernie confronted the rich and defended the poor. She was ordained as a nun in 1953, and her life was consecrated to the cause of justice for the poor. After teaching junior high school in poor areas of the South for 17 years, she spent the next 20 years organizing sugar cane workers in Louisiana, and workers in South Carolina textile mills.

After a sabbatical in Berkeley, she spent the next 17 years of her life defending the rights of homeless people in San Francisco as the founder of Religious Witness with Homeless People.

Woody Guthrie’s song, “I Ain’t Got No Home,” captures what Sister Bernie saw and felt when she came to the Bay Area in the early 1990s and was staggered and broken-hearted at the numbers of homeless people she saw — and at the extent of police persecution they faced.

“I ain’t got no home,

I’m just roamin’ round,

Just a wandering worker,

I go from town to town.

The police make it hard

wherever I may go

And I ain’t got no home

in this world anymore.”

That’s exactly what Sister Bernie witnessed on the streets of San Francisco when she was stationed in the Tenderloin while organizing healthcare workers with SEIU Local 250. Walking down those streets, she was confronted with a level of poverty that cried out for a response from the religious community. The homeless people she talked to described how police persecution had been greatly escalated as a result of what they called the Matrix program.

Matrix was a massive police crackdown on homeless people orchestrated with a police-state mentality by a former police chief, Mayor Frank Jordan. Matrix enforcement soon escalated into an all-out attack that criminalized virtually every aspect of life on the streets. Now, it was a crime to sit down, rest, sleep, cover up with a blanket, engage in so-called “camping” and “illegal lodging,” or even ask for spare change. Even offering meals to hungry people often was criminalized.

Kafkaesque Nightmare

Matrix snowballed into a Kafkaesque nightmare in which homeless people who had done nothing except simply exist were hauled before courts to answer criminal charges that were crimes only when committed by those too poor to afford a home. Matrix buried the hopes and dignity of homeless people under a blizzard of tens of thousands of citations, each of which seemed to say: “You are banished from our city. You are a criminal, by virtue of poverty. Go away. Do not exist any longer.”

Matrix repression was carried out in public, in the full light of day. Just as homeless people in our midst are too often overlooked, the victims of police raids and repression were ignored.

It took one person of compassion, one nun, to resolve to fight this monumental injustice. It took exactly one Sister to form Religious Witness with Homeless People.

During the course of several long interview sessions about the nonviolent movements she has spent her life organizing, I realized again what a breath of fresh air Sister Bernie was in this work.

I was accustomed to working with religious leaders while organizing interfaith demonstrations for peace and justice. They were some of the best people I ever worked with, and yet Sister Bernie was the best of the best — the most dedicated and principled, the most willing to leap into action without hesitation or compromise.

Sister Bernie Galvin flashes the peace sign during a protest march in San Francisco.

 

Solidarity and Resistance

Many of the faith leaders I had worked with over the years were molded by elite academic institutions and led middle-class or affluent congregations. This hard-fighting nun was from a different world: down-to earth, brave, dedicated to the cause, and raised in the school of never-say-die union organizing she had learned working with textile and sugar cane workers in Louisiana and rural Appalachia.

In the years we worked together, Sister Bernie was always instantly ready to engage in the hardest forms of resistance — civil disobedience, sleep-outs, housing takeovers, political fasts, and acts of resistance at the very door of the City Hall office of the police-chief-turned-mayor who unleashed the police on the poor.

She did not hesitate or equivocate or compromise. She threw caution to the winds for the sake of solidarity with the poorest of the poor.

This was even more impressive considering that Sister Bernie was working at what might be called a high level of ecclesial responsibility. She had done the most successful job I had ever seen of systematically organizing religious leaders to stand up for the rights of homeless people at the very moment when they were most persecuted and reviled and under attack.

She convinced a large and diverse assembly of interfaith leaders in San Francisco to put their names and reputations on the line for the poor and oppressed.

Bernie not only convinced the typical activist clergy to join Religious Witness. She inspired prominent bishops and the heads of entire denominations to join our acts of resistance, side by side with rabbis, ministers, nuns, priests and temple leaders from Buddhist, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian and Catholic faiths.

Sister Bernie helped build a sense of community and common cause out of these diverse faiths. This faith-based movement for human rights included the president of the San Francisco Board of Rabbis, the Dean of the San Francisco Lutheran denomination, the head of the United Church of Christ, the Bishop of the S.F. Zen Center, and scores of Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Muslim, Unitarian, and Episcopal clergy. These diverse faith leaders took a stand together and were arrested repeatedly for their opposition to the persecution of the poor.

In fact, Sister Bernie was so successful at convincing the interfaith leaders to join Religious Witness that I grew concerned that her very success would make her more cautious, considering the formidable status of some of the high church officials she had called into action.

Yet, such considerations never slowed her down. She was steadfastly resolved to carry on the good fight against all odds. She demonstrated genuine leadership in encouraging the clergy and denominational heads to put their bodies on the line during sleep-outs in winter rainstorms and risk arrest in housing takeovers.

Justice Is the Essence of Faith

She always expected the religious leaders to respond to the call of Religious Witness, because it was very clear to her that acts of justice and social conscience are central to every faith tradition. Acts of solidarity and compassion are not optional. They are not a special focus for a handful of activist-types interested in such matters.

Rather, resistance to injustice is as central to every religious calling as prayer. Compassion for homeless and hungry people is as essential as worship.

Any faith leader proclaiming the love of God must also proclaim love for the people of God who are exploited and despised, deprived and destitute. Offering bread to the hungry is a sacrament.

Working for justice is a sacred calling. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.” “Blessed are the merciful.”

That is a key reason why Sister Bernie and the other faith-based activists working with Religious Witness were successful in asking clergy and church officials and congregations to take part in these unlikely acts of civil disobedience. Religious Witness was calling to them out of the heart and soul of their faith, calling them in the name of a God who is mercy and love.

Sister Bernie succeeded because she was more than just another hard-working political activist. She was a daughter of the church who spoke from the heart of the faith tradition. She was as plain-spoken as any plumber’s daughter from the hills of rural Oklahoma. Yet she spoke with a prophetic voice that stretched all the way back to Isaiah, who had described the Matrix program with deadly accuracy all those centuries ago.

“Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.” (Isaiah 10:1-2)

Another prophet, Woody Guthrie, her kindred spirit from the Oklahoma hills, wrote these lyrics about the staggering injustice of homelessness that are more timely and powerful than ever.

“My brothers and my sisters

are stranded on this road,

A hot and dusty road

that a million feet have trod.

Rich man took my home

and drove me from my door

And I ain’t got no home

in this world anymore.”

Prophets and Rebels

Sister Bernie Galvin spoke from a faith tradition filled with prophets and rebels who always sided with the poor and against the rich, and who always trusted in a God of love and justice, and instinctively distrusted and even despised the deceit and cruelty of the rich and powerful.

As Sister Bernie said in her interview with Street Spirit, “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.”

San Francisco is filled with towering and beautifully designed churches and temples, some of them marvels of sculpted architectural glory. Yet, holy ground often is found in unexpected places. A sacred space does not always depend on architectural majesty or glorious design or stained glass windows.

In a cramped and shabby office in a nondescript building on the bleak streets of the Tenderloin, a sister once took a stand against inhumanity and injustice. This political stand of solidarity was simultaneously a spiritual act inspired by the beatitudes and consecrated to the poor.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.

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