PSR Student Part of a Project Featured on Huffington Post

March 6, 2013
Daniel Borysewicz

Third year MDiv student Izabella (Bella) Sempari spoke of her call to ministry as a desire to meet the people where they are at and provide a ministry of presence for them. She sees the need to develop religious communities like first century Christianity—“people coming together to talk about God and theology” and forming communities that includes feeding the hungry. The ministry of presence that Bella speaks to refers to that of Chaplaincy. Connecting with the people as a non-judgmental listener is something that she has been able to achieve during her internship this academic year at The Gubbio Project in San Francisco's Tenderloin, which provides sanctuary for up to 150 homeless and displaced people every weekday from 6 AM to 1 PM, allowing them to sleep on the pews in St. Boniface Church.

It’s one of the only projects of its kind in the nation, and for many of the men and women who seek refuge here, it is the only safe place in the city where they can find rest for body and soul. Founded by Father Louis Vitale, OFM, the project also provides a system of outreach and compassionate support services, including clothing vouchers, referrals, blankets, toiletries, Friday morning breakfasts, and counseling. All services are open to anyone regardless of their religious affiliation and there are no barriers to entry. The project has gained national attention, including being featured on Huffington Post.

In San Francisco, a sit-lie ordinance was proposed in March, 2010 by Mayor Gavin Newsom, which generated strong opposition. It was placed on the November general election ballot as "Measure L", and was approved by voters on November 2, 2010. The ‘unhoused’ people of San Francisco are issued citations if they are found to be sitting, lying or sleeping on the sidewalks during the daytime hours. This has increased the need for services like those being offered by The Gubbio Project.

Bella chose this site for her field education internship because of the difference in how they are doing church—“church by sleeping, church by presence.” Being a member of United Church of Christ (UCC) and doing her internship for a non-profit working out of a Catholic Church does not seem unusual to Bella. Her primary task two days each week is being a chaplain to the people who utilize the Project’s services and other days she is doing outreach to area congregations to participate in various volunteer opportunities.

Bella transferred to PSR from United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in New Brighton, Minnesota with her partner Marianna Sempari, who is also an MDiv student, at the beginning of the fall 2012 semester. They were both drawn to the Bay Area, PSR and the GTU, during a visit in February 2012, because of the diversity of people, classes and field education opportunities.

As a transexual woman working for a project at a Catholic Church, it has been an extremely rewarding experience for her. “I’ve felt privileged, extremely privileged to go to an area of town that most people avoid and be able to meet folks, hear their stories, and be accepted, for the most part, by the people for who I am. I have found the generosity and openness of folks, even though there is dysfunction present in the Tenderloin, the realness of folks shines through.”

When asked about her experience at PSR, Bella spoke of the importance for her that queer theology is a large part of the discussion as well as a culture that encourages different theological opinions. The ecumenical nature of United Theological Seminary was very diverse and while appreciating the diversity, Bella stated that she enjoys the “more Christian” atmosphere she finds at PSR and the GTU.

After Bella graduates from PSR, she can see opportunities opening up for her. During her time working at The Gubbio Project, she has been exposed to the harsh reality that a disproportionately high number of the homeless people she has encountered are veterans, approximately 80% while counts show the number at 16%. Many of these homeless veterans have spoken with her. Some have fallen through the cracks, some do not wish to be found and some do not wish to engage with the government due to the negative experiences they had while in the military. Bella spoke of “moral injury” which comes from the tragedies of war, which is different from post-traumatic stress (PTS), but being studied and addressed in the care of our military service members. Through her experience at The Gubbio Project and her partner’s internship directly with veterans reintegrating into society, it is their hope to work in concert together to provide hope and support for marginalized people and veterans in need.