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San Francisco Night Ministry at 50

The San Francisco Night Ministry provides crisis intervention, counseling, referrals and pastoral care to anyone in any kind of distress, anxiety or difficulty from 10:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. every night of the year, as it has continuously since its inception in 1964.  We do this primarily through the presence and efforts of our ordained Night Ministers who literally walk the streets of San Francisco and of our trained volunteer Crisis Line Counselors who answer telephone callers. 

We are unique. We are the only San Francisco organization that provides person-to-person counseling and outreach in the middle of the night 365 nights a year.  We have never missed a single shift in fifty years.  There are other organizations that venture into the nighttime hours occasionally, but not every night. And we are the only organization anywhere that combines middle-of-the-night in-person help on the street with help over-the-phone every night.

When the Night Ministry began in 1964, we were one of only two organizations that had a crisis telephone line, the other being San Francisco Suicide Prevention.  Fifty years later there are several, but the Night Ministry continues to be unique among them all in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Some will talk with only certain people about certain issues; we are the only one whose counselors will talk to anyone about anything – there is no specialized group of persons or problems that we address. We are the only crisis telephone line whose counselors can offer a face-to-face visit in matters of crisis intervention, by arranging for a Night Minister to meet with the caller.

In addition, we are the longest continuously-operating Night Ministry in the country. While The Night Ministry in Chicago began in 1962, it ceased operation for a time in the mid-1960s.

And, we are unique also because we sponsor regular outdoor worship services that have a sacramental emphasis with weekly Eucharist (Holy Communion) and occasional baptisms, weddings, funerals and healing stations.  Our two weekly outdoor worship services are each followed by a meal and a time for private conversation. 

In addition, we offer complementary programs. We sponsor a gathering for Bible study and community building on Tuesday evenings.  As part of our Wellness Program, registered nurses walk the streets with Night Ministers to offer basic first aid and health screenings, information, education, and referrals.  The Night Ministry is also involved in a number of collaborations and partnerships with various organizations.

Recently we have added three additional programs. We sponsor the Annual Interfaith Memorial service for San Francisco’s Homeless Dead each December; we operate a Van Ministry to more easily reach people in need; and we offer a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) Program for the training of seminarians and clergy.

We are sometimes referred to as “The Church’s Night Shift” because of our valuable contribution to the ministries and programs of congregations and Church-related social ministry organizations that operate in San Francisco. 

Night Ministers on the Streets

On November 1, 1964 the Rev. Donald Stuart and the Rev. Charles Lewis walked out onto the streets of San Francisco for the first time as “Night Ministry” – a project of the Department of Pastoral Services of the San Francisco Council of Churches.  This walk followed a two-year-long pilot project modeled after The Night Ministry in Chicago and programs in Sydney, Australia and London, England to determine the need for such a program here.   The Pilot project also answered the National Council of Churches’s question of whether congregations in San Francisco were responding to the needs of the growing numbers of youth who were arriving in the City seeking a new life, but finding life difficult here.

Night Ministers, all ordained clergy from a wide variety of Christian denominations, still walk the streets of San Francisco in neighborhoods where people are outside.  They offer a listening ear, prayers and blessings, general information, and referrals to social services.  Night Ministers also provide crisis intervention when needed.  Often these walks lead them into bars, coffee shops, grocery stores, hotel lobbies, and other places where people gather in the night.  Crisis agencies, including WOMAN Inc. and La Casa de las Madres, sometimes ask Night Ministers to provide transportation to “safe houses.”  Night Ministers also respond to callers to our crisis telephone line who request a face-to-face conversation.

In the years leading up to 2014 our three full-time and eight part-time Night Ministers engaged in an average of 18,000 substantive conversations each year.