SAN FRANCISCO—The Rev. Glenda Hope stands in the lobby of an old residential hotel and says a prayer.“The Lord is my shepherd,” she begins softly, blue eyes closed in concentration.
She has recited the prayer countless times in situations just like this one. Despite their heavy wear, the words still carry a punch.
On this morning, she is holding services inside the Cadillac Hotel for a 46- year-old man named Marlon. A dozen people have gathered in the lobby, which has been temporarily set up with chairs and a table decorated with cut flowers and three white candles.
Hope asks the mourners if they would like to speak. One man begins in Spanish. “He was an alcoholic, and I’m an alcoholic, too,” he says, dressed in baggy shorts and a blue shirt. Next to speak is a woman who says she has come to pay her respects. She remembers running into Marlon in the hotel elevator.
Before the services come to a close, Hope calls on the group to form a circle and join hands. Following a prayer, people wish each other peace before scattering back to their rooms or out into the busy city streets.
They have had their moment of comfort, and Marlon has been given a proper send-off.
For more than three decades, Hope, 71, has been leading memorial services for the poor, the homeless, and the forgotten in San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin neighborhood. The memorials are held in the lobbies of single-room occupancy hotels and on the streets. Hope averages three services a week, a harsh reminder of how hard and fleeting life can be. Sometimes, she is the only one in attendance. Other times, it may be standing room only. And, on occasion, the name of the deceased is not even known.
“We do it because we think it is important to give final dignity to people,” says Hope, a Presbyterian whose services aim to be inclusive to all. “If we don’t do it, it might not get done.”
Hope and her organization, San Francisco Network Ministries, has gotten it done for decades in a neighborhood named for the days when policemen were paid more to work its rough streets, and as a result could afford choice cuts of meat. The group’s longevity—it is in its 35th year—is a feat in itself.
Like the ocean’s undertow, the area has pulled Hope in.
“Something about the Tenderloin hooks you,” she says. “The people are so real.” It’s a place where a man doesn’t think twice about telling you that he is an alcoholic and so was his friend.
Answering the need
The memorial services began in order to answer a need. That’s how much of Network Ministries’ work has come about—to fill voids. That includes providing housing, offering computer training, or merely listening to those often ignored.
Hope’s first memorial was in 1978 for a woman named Ruth, who jumped to her death from a fifth-floor hotel window in the Tenderloin. Hope led a service in the lobby for the building’s assorted residents, who came dressed in their finest clothes.
Now, people in need of help seek out the petite, soft-spoken minister who once studied ballet. “She is known. She is requested,” says Sherice Youngblood, social services manager at Tenderloin Health, a nonprofit that helps the homeless and poor. Hope holds quarterly memorials there for people who have died of AIDS. At the last one in August, 16 names were read in a room thick with mourners and the scent of burning sage.
“We’ve gathered here too many times before,” says Hope to begin the service.
Within the Tenderloin’s rough edges, there is a tight-knit community, so when there is a loss it trickles throughout the neighborhood and people feel it, Youngblood says.
Those who died may have been poor and invisible to others, but they existed, she says. “They mean a lot to us.”
Years ago, Hope performed memorials for three murdered prostitutes during a short period of time. That helped lead to the creation of one of San Francisco Network Ministries’ two housing developments.
With the idea of building a housing development for women leaving prostitution in mind, Hope called Sister Rosina Conrotto, a Catholic nun with the Sisters of the Presentation.
“She said, ‘Let’s have lunch,” recalls Conrotto. “That meant she had something up her sleeve.”
The timing was uncanny. Conrotto had just learned that one of her order’s early missions was to care for prostitutes. “About 200 years later, I’m getting a call from God through a Presbyterian minister,” Conrotto says.
The two women joined forces, called on their various contacts for support, and found an affordable building. About a year after getting started, SafeHouse opened in January 1998. One of only a handful of developments like it in the country, it serves 10 women at a time. It is a transitional housing development, so the women can stay for as long as 18 months. The residents have ranged in age from 18 to 60. There’s about a 90 percent chance that a woman here was abused as a child.
A combination of public and private money help support SafeHouse’s approximately $200,000 annual budget. Residents also pay 30 percent of any income they receive. One of the services that Hope provides is to teach the SafeHouse women how to manage their money.
In Hope’s world, not all of the stories have happy endings, but there are some, including the ones about the women who have moved on to new jobs or gone back to school.
“I am in awe of them,” Hope says. Network Ministries also developed a family housing community in 1995. The $7.2 million, five-story building is home to 38 families in the Tenderloin. It was developed in partnership with Asian Neighborhood Design, a local community development organization. In a neighborhood with few multiple-bedroom units, the building has mostly two- and threebedroom apartments, in a neighborhood with few multiple-bedroom units. It was financed with low-income housing tax credits, city funds, and dozens of foundations and private contributions. One of Hope’s dreams is to build a third project, a second-stage housing development that would extend the housing opportunities for the women at SafeHouse. “It will happen because it is the right thing,” she says. Hope usually knows when it is time to act, and her group is good at collaborations— two skills necessary for a small group like hers to develop housing. “She has a sense of when the moment comes,” says Penny Sarvis, who joined the organization as an intern and stayed for more than nine years before moving on.
“Glenda Hope is a force of nature,” says Sarvis. “She has a faith that is a force of nature. She is a person of complete faith. She has never wavered.”
Hope, who grew up in Georgia, was ordained in 1970 when the idea of women church leaders was still new. She vividly recalls a critic who scoffed that she “would upset the order of the universe.” She was the first Presbyterian clergywoman in Northern California.
She has worked in parishes and at colleges. Working in the Tenderloin, she says, is no harder.
There are no religious requirements to receive what Hope and her organization offer. “We are a Christian presence in the neighborhood,” she says. “We don’t force a religion.”
San Francisco Network Ministries began essentially as a house church started by Hope and her late husband. Today, the organization has a small staff of three and a team of volunteers.
“It’s very hands-on, empowering work,” says Anne Winslow, who relocated from the Chicago-area to work at the organization through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. After a one-year stint as a volunteer, she recently joined the staff as one of its associate directors.
Winslow’s work has included helping run a computer- training center, but the group’s small size means that she and the other staff members have a hand in everything that the organization does.
In addition to its own housing developments, San Francisco Network Ministries has close ties to several other affordable housing providers, including the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp. (TNDC), which owns and manages 25 buildings that provide homes to 2,500 low-income people in the area.
At one of TNDC’s developments, Network Ministries operates the “Listening Post.” It’s a place where people drop in and talk about what’s happening in their lives, says Hope, who pauses before adding “or how awful the Giants are playing.”
“Glenda holds a singular vision infused with values, and it’s these values that make her unique and are the source of her power,” says Don Falk, TNDC executive director. “They were honed from her years and years of experience of relating to Tenderloin people—learning the reality of their lives and marrying that to her spiritual roots.”
Those roots have taken hold in the hard streets of the Tenderloin and kept her here. “What else would I do?” she asks.