PSR alum brings the homeless nighttime solace, acceptance

April 28, 2010

So a priest walks into a bar…

What sounds like the beginning of a joke is actually part of the job for Thom Longino, associate night pastor at San Francisco Night Ministry. Five nights a week, he walks downtown, chatting with the men and women on the streets—and in the bars.

“I spend my nights in the Mission or the Tenderloin, being intentional to the call God has placed on my life, going where angels might fear to tread,” says Longino, who earned his Master of Divinity in 2004. “People ask, ‘Are you crazy?’ Well, yes, in a good way: I’m a fool for Christ.”

Between 10 pm and 4 am, Longino and his Night Ministry colleagues check in with familiar friends and forge relationships with new faces on their routes. The ministry also provides a listening ear on a crisis line and refers people to social services when they ask. Mostly, though, Longino is a loving and accepting touchstone in an existence that can be chaotic, shifting, and hostile.

One encounter particularly stands out in Longino’s mind. He bumped into a woman who referred to herself as Mary Magdalene, the biblical figure some scholars interpret as be a sex worker who was healed by Jesus. The Tenderloin Mary was walking down the street with a client but paused to greet Longino. “We held hands for a silent moment. The transference of energy and spirit was palpable, and then she went on her way,” Longino remembers. The woman has since begun to improve her life, moving to a safer neighborhood and reestablishing ties with her children. Longino is quick to point out that those few seconds didn’t cause her to make any drastic changes, but the ongoing relationships Longino builds are integral to those transformations. Longino sums up the message he hopes to convey with his discussions and presence: “People really do care about you regardless of what you do. You’re a child of God. People love you and God loves you.”

Working such unconventional hours in neighborhoods that others would not dare to venture does create some stress for Longino—not to mention a habit of drinking five cups coffee a day. But Longino feels called to venture into new streets and unfamiliar routes in order to meet more people, even though those he encounters may mock his actions or question his intentions. “Being uncomfortable is necessary to expand the people we may be able to provide ministry for,” he says.

Any hard feelings are overshadowed by the satisfaction Longino gleans from his work. “I feel honored to be involved in deep, personal conversations with the people I serve,” he says. “I’m blown away again and again.”

See video of an NBC Bay Area report on Thom Longino and the Bay Area Night Ministry.