Friday, October 24, 2008

Day Seven: October 24, 2008- The Lord Be With You

"The Lord be with you," he said.

Then he continued to recite the communion liturgy as he swigged his beer, and smoked a hand rolled cigarette. He said he learned everything he knew about church from Phyllis, "you know, from St. Francis.". Then it hit me, I'm his pastor. Not only because I am a missionary to the poor, but because, as he says, "I was the first homeless person to ever become a member of St. Francis."

Phylis touched his heart.

We met while waiting for dinner at UN Plaza. We heard there would be food. Soon, the manna truck arrived. We wanted food, but we also saw they had socks and toiletries we could use as well. So we thought we wait and see what happened next. A jesus rock name changed a couple of songs to have words about stomping out the devil. Them the sermon came telling us about Jesus' dominion over everything, calling us to have dominion over everything... If we believed. They also said that if we had Jesus we wouldn't have addiction and that of we got saved, we would have power.

I appreciate the hope and the comfort they were bringing to people who had little to hope for. Four participated in the altar call. But after an hour it really felt like we were being held hostage and could only get food if we let them touch us and pray over us. We got food, the most disgusting of the trip to date (note in the picture on the left that they actually gave me a partially eaten cookie!). At least I got a pair of socks out of the deal. My feet really needed it!

Services like there are one of the biggest reasons why it is important for me to talk about faith with the homeless. When the only people ever talking to them about God(dess), are only out to shame them and tell them that everything bad that has ever happened to them is because of their lack of faith. It's a spiritual abuse of power!

After the service the sharing of goods and toiletries was out of control. Some homeless people got four bags each because the kids handing out the bags never bothered to look up, so they didn't even notice. Meanwhile most people didn't get anything. Maybe that was because of their lack of faith too.

So on this, the last night I sleep on the cold hard concrete, I remember Robert who created communion with me, without bread or wine or socks. I remember Phylis and the folks at St Francis, who called me, never knowing that the seed of faith they planted would minister to me tonight on these streets.

Blessings to all of you who have been following by journies on the streets and praying for me. And all you San Franciscans, please make a fuss when the city and the Chronicle try to tell you that the shelters emain empty and the homeless won't accept help. Don't let them close more shelters this year. Let's find out why seniors and disabled individuals don't have access to the shelters. And let's solve homelessness, one person, one sidewalk and one city at a time.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Day Six- Oct 23rd: No Male Priveledge on the Streets

Today my search for a shelter bed began early. At 9 am the homeless outreach team came (see above) and told me people are not allowed to lay down in front of city hall. They promised me a shelter bed and whisked me away in a van. They told me of I waited at a drop I center until 5 pm I would get a bed. Well, first they said I could have a bed if I would accept a female bed. I said "no," and when I came back at 4:30, they said they had no beds and I should go wait at the drop in shelter that I had been waiting at for the last couple of days, waiting for 6 hours and leaving with nothing.

It was one of the most degrading experiences of my life to hear them, with such good hearts, knowing the right thing, but processing it out loud in an unfortunate way: "she has to stay in that bed," "he the doesn't want a womans bed"... "No she doesn't because she is a man, and he doesn't have to stay there" and on and on for about an hour. The person who was the wortst at keeping pronouns straight took me over to the front desk of the shelter and told them not to disrespect my gender, that my name as Ryan and they should make sure to get me a bed in the men's side.

All of that and no bed.

Hours later at the library, I desperately needed to use the bathroom. In the mens room I am confined to using a stall, and there are very few of them. After waiting more than an hour for a stall, I was pretty sure no one was coming out of them anytime soon. I gave in, and used the womans room. I was followed in by a police officer who looked me up and down before muttering "well alright."

I just want shelter. But our system is designed to protect women and children. "Male priveledge" does not exist when you are homeless. And it is still strangely true that I am read as female more often when I'm packing and binding then in my normal life and I am not.

What a strangely gendered day!

Tonight I think of the tough choices my trans kin have to make in order to survive on the streets, may they all be warm tonight!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

DayFive- Oct 22: Waiting and Hoping

It's just after 10 pm and I've been waiting for a shelter bed for four hours. I had to again change my sex in the computer system, now the third time. While filling out the paper work they called me "she" and then asked if I wanted a women's shelter when I asked them to send me somewhere safe for transpeople.

It's hard to know if staying in the shelter or on the streets is safer. Last night the was almost a knife fight when a regular was upset when someone new was in his turf. Though I wasn't in real physical danger, it's east to see how the end of the month has created a higher need for support and a squeeze for shelter and sidewalk space.

Today the uncomfortableness caught up with me. I found my childhood trauma was triggered and I was remembering and connected to the feelings of the time I was homeless when I was five. Though all the details are fuzzy, I can feel vividly those feelings I felt so long ago, when my mother, brother and I fled the abuse of my father.

I'm not sure what the resolution will be to these feelings. For now I just sit with it and feel what I have felt be for- though in a situation of much less control and much less awareness of what was happening around me. Today I saw children on the streets for the first time on this trip. There were two watching as there older brother was shooting up. Hopefully they are safe tonight. They came in about an hour ago to use the bathroom. Knowing where I have come and how I am able to serve others out of some of the healthy baggage I gained in my childhood, I can only pray that they will survive the swirling chaos that surrounds them.

I'm also aware that the 83 year old women was back waiting for shelter. After four hours she stopped waiting. I hope she found a safe place to go to wait out the night.

In many ways, the binding and packing makes me no different from any other of the more than 3000 that are sleeping in San francisco shelters and the countless thousands of others who are out in the streets. I trust that the God(dess) that knows the number of hairs on our heads and thinks of us more times then there as grains of sand is moving us along the arch of justice to a time when pain and suffering will cease. Until then we are left to do what we can to lighten the load. I hope that people like you will support the Welcome Ministry, so I can spend more time demanding justice, helping the hungry feed their bellies, and take a step closer to homes, community and a health sense of self- rather than fundraising. I feel convicted by the things that I have seen, and called to be a part of the re-humanizing of this city.

It's now 10:32, and I still have no shelter. They just handed out chips, I think it is my parting gift. Guess I better think about where I'm going to sleep after they kick me out of here in twenty minutes. Back to the streets...

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Day four- October 21: Hunger and thirst for righteousness.

St. Francis Lutheran decided they would rather call me a missionary to the homeless in San Francisco than a pastor. Missionary sounds more like someone who is living with those they serve, seeking to work together for solutions. It also sounds like a missionary exists only until there are no more homeless.

I like to believe that this week on the streets is a part of my missionary work, part of listening for solutions to homelessness and being with rather than for.

I hunger and thirst for righteousness. These words have taken on a new meaning this week. There is the longing and unknowing about where my next meal with come from. There is the witnessing of unimaginable injustices. There is the weight that my call is to be the voice with and for those I sleep and eat with on this journey. And there is the sense in my mind that others are awake to homelessness in a new way because I am here on the streets.

So many have become numb to the homeless. As if we have to stop seeing them because it is too painful to admit what kind of society/humans we really are. We are letting our grandmothers sleep on the streets. We kick them out at 11pm telling them there are no shelter beds, only to learn later that there were empty beds in all the shelters that night (Ramu's shelter had four empty beds that night).

We are a society that crams hundreds of hunger souls into a dingy church basement. We are a society that is more focused on our own need for an iPhone (this is of course how I am able to blog and take photos on the street) when the Welcome Ministry's entire food budget for the year to feed more than 5,000 meals is the cost of 2 iPhones.

We are a society that expects hungry, tired, homeless people to sit still and behave so they can have a few crumbs during and after the service, only enough food to remind you that your hungry.

Jesus said "just as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me." (Matthew 25:40). So, I am on these streets to un-numb you. Perhaps you are thinking about the homeless in a new way. Perhaps you notice them for the first time in years, or see them for the first time through my photos.

I'm not trying to make you feel bad or to shame you, but to remind us all, to remind myself, that we can do so much better than this!

Today I learned unexpected lessons:
Why men are always adjusting themselves;
Why I would make surgery a top priority if I had to constantly bind and pack;
How to incorporate potstickers into a soup;
How to get free curry every Tuesday night;
The joy of an unexpectd cost from a loved one;
How volunteering can be a small haven for control, freedom and joy;
How a simple soy hot chocolate can make your whole day...

Okay I've known the last one for a while now.

I also learned how no matter how long you sleep, that if it's on concrete you'll be consistently tired.

Tonight I calibrate the small joys, time for dancing, laughing and how quickly joy can turn to weeping and gnashing of teeth... Then back to joy with a wine and chip party in front of the church.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Day three- oct 20: justice, justice

כ צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ. {ס} 20

Justice, justice shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee. {S} (Deuteronomy 16:20)

After waiting for five hours in chairs we weren't allowed to stand up from, forty of us (including a man with no legs and and 83 year old woman) were told at 11 pm that we wouldn't be getting a room in the inn. It was freezing out, despite my three layers, a hat and a scarf. The night minister brought me another hat and a flannel.

Around midnight I finally got to rest. Tonight, I was able to avoid the constant numbness that kept waking me up to remind me of the dull ache of the sidewalk. At 6am I rose and headed off to Glide for breakfast.

After breakfast I joined a clergy gathering to encourage people to vote no on prop 8. Bishop Holmerud spoke. The rabbi who spoke reminded us all that Deuteronomy calls us to justice, justice. Stated twice so we will remember it is justice not only for ourselves but also for others.

It reminds me that part of my journey is to call you, others anld politicians to wake up to the way we are abandoning the poor and our elders, trampling the disabled and consuming our earth.

Justice, justice!

"Are you a drag queen?" I was asked as I waited for a shelter. Proof that I have indeed only taken one step on the gender scale. I am now being read as a man dressing as a woman. He invited others over to guess my gender before he finally concluded that whatever I was, he liked it. Clearly a sexual advance, I noticed that this was somehow a type of sexual harassment I had yet to experience on the streets. As a female sexual harassment was demeaning and designed to put me in a lower position as the man in the bathroom had also tried to do.

But this gave me power, sexual power. For the first time I could see how sex work could be liberating. And at the same time I continued to note how much acceptance of trans folk becomes a fetish.

I think I have much more to think about around these issues, but tonight I remember that Jesus said that the sex workers would go ahead of us in heaven. I remember, Ruth, Tamar, Deborah and all the other ferocious women of scripture. And I remember the woman who was older than my grandmother who may still be waiting for shelter.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Day Two - Oct 19:

It's amazing today how much the permission to be male has allowed me to express my feminine side. My longing for "male privilege" is less about abandoning a feminist ideal for the sake of gaining a power over others, than it is a deep desire to be seen as the self I would like to self identify as. It is a consciousness to avoid the stereotypes of gender and to be be outwardly intentional about my expression.

This is of course one of the ways that my gender queerness, my sense of being simultaneously dual gendered, departs from the experience and expression of my transsexual kin. I never grew up thinking that my body ought to look physically male, rather that I want to be seen that way "as is."

So it should be noted, that I am not working to "pass" or living "stealth" ... To the contrary, I am living on the streets these 7 days one step on the other side of gender queerness.

Before I was a masculine woman. Today I am an effeminate boy (I cleary don't bear the physical marks of male puberty.

I'm currently sitting in the waiting room to see if I will get a shelter bed. I had to change my gender in the computers twice in order to do so. Two workers were amazingly supportive. One even told me I could be any gender I want any night I want. Another worker started calling me "her" each time she talked to me.

In honesty, it is hard to know if I am getting a glimpse at the gender awareness of the San Francisco shelter system, or if this will serve more as a glimpse into the spaces of gender bias in myself that I have yet to explore. I imagine I'll find both.

I've already begun to notice that I fear physical violence from men more than women and that I expect men to be aggressive. I wonder how much of the talk about ganitalia that people are having with me is about the sexualization of trans folk or just a difference in the amount of sexualized conversations men have. Or, probably also my training that as a female born person, that men aren't allowed to have those conversations with me, despite the fact that those assumptions and negative comments are made about men all the time without comment.

I should say that I'm not trying to recreate any one trans experience. My goal is to learn more about myself, the gender spectrum and poverty in San Francisco.

So, tonight as I see my observations and wait for word of shelter to get out of the cold, I pray to the God(dess) that lives in the questions. That swirling chaos of wind that blows life into bones.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Day One - Saturday October 18: One Bread, One Body

"Hey lady, spare some change?"

Despite the places I've bound and packed, I still get called female as much as I used to be called male (which ironically when I wasn't packing, was more often).

My day started with leading bible study (on Isaiah 56) and worship at the synod's hunger workshop. It was great to be with them, to have a free meal and some to take with me to share with the other fools who are living on the streets with me this week.

If anyone noticed that I was packing, they didn't say anything to me. But, I'm not really sure how that would come up in the context of a communion service.

It was a great feeling to take the remaining communion bread to the streets with me to share with the homeless, as Luther used to do after his services.

One bread, one body.

My body, on the other hand is already upset. Not in the way I expect it will be after a week of sleeping on the streets and in the shelters, but it is certainly rebelling. My shoulders and neck are throbbing from the frogbra (or perhaps from wearing a stiff clergy collar), which binds my breasts tightly to my body. They are indeed closer than ever before, but they are not very well supported vertically.

My lips throb from the outbreak of coldsores (about 12) that sprouted on my lip from the stress of trying to get enough work to be able to have the privilege of being homeless.

So, I begin noticing my body, and noticing how others notice (or fail to) my body. Tonight as I brushed my teeth in the men's room at the church (which was open for a speed dating event), a man confronted me. It's funny because the use of the men's room is always a priviledge that I have wondered why I want. If you've never been in one before, I referring to the fact that men's rooms are usually smaller, smellier and very messy.

Tonight this man finished at the urinal and exclaimed "I didn't know this was a unisex bathroom!" to which I retorted, "actually in San Francisco anyone is allowed to use the bathroom of their choice despite their appearance and gender indentity." "Well, they should change the sign then, so it doesn't say Men's," he said with a scowl.

"Hi, my name is ryan, it's nice to meet you," I responded. With a huff he fled the bathroom.

One of the fools who witnessed the event asked "does that happen to you a lot?" I told her, that that was my experience almost every time I use a bathroom. Women tend to be more verbally aggressive, but the men can get physical.

It's true, regardless of where I have flat places or bulging spaces, I always have a sense of fear when I use the public bathroom. An act that most people get to consider private, tends to be discussed publically and confrontationally when I enter bathrooms. Recently, I had the staff of the Welcome Ministry and Old First watch the Toilet Training Video so they could learn more about bathroom discrimination. I recommend it to anyone who would like to learn more about how bathroom discrimination affects not only trans people, but also people with disabilities and women.

I always thought it was funny that bathrooms could become a big deal. If we actually believed that people in dresses should be in one room and people in pants in another, then perhaps we could spend less time trying to imagine how private flesh under those garments matched the hair length and voice pitch of people who are just trying to take care of a bodily function.

So, tonight I think about The Bible, that gets that since the time that there were bodies, that there were body image problems (nakedness, the garden, shame). I also remember the many saints that when on spiritual journeys who were born men, but lived, dressed and were named men.

Today I think how far the world has come since the time that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for wearing pants. They actually took her out of the fire half way through to reveil her breasts to the crowd, as an example of what the punishment for trans-gressing gender was.

Sister Susan told me that when she was wearing a habit (years ago) that they were told to bind their breasts to conceal their sex/uality, and thus enhance their faithfulness.

And I pray that no matter how our bodies fold or hang, whether we are proud or ashamed of our flesh that we love each other, not just how we see them but also how they choose to see, name and dress themselves.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Invitation to join me on the streets for a week, starting Saturday October 18

Greetings friends who have followed my street retreats in the past, or who are interested in learning about my retreat for the first time.

If you don't know me, my name is Rev. Megan Rohrer and I am the director of the Welcome Ministry in San Francisco, where I have been eating with and journeying with the chronically homeless (many who have been homeless for more than 25 years).

Each year for the past six years, I have been going on street retreats - to live in the Tenderloin. This is a journey I regularly take with a group called the Faithful Fools. I have had various motivations that have led me to the streets. Certainly, these retreats inform my work with the homeless throughout the rest of the year. But, because the retreat also includes twice daily reflection, it also becomes one of the most self revelatory times of my year.

Street retreat helps me to feel in my bones what it means to say "no" to guests requests, the ache of sleeping on the sidewalk, and the severe mental toll of my mere glimpse into what others are stuck in for far too long.

While I have entered my retreat with different expectations each year, I have found one thing is often the same: my retreat is an embodied living of all my stereotypes of the homeless I am living and working with.

When I thought homeless people were smelling and go to a lot of free meal sights, I became very smelling ate at a lot of different meal sites. When I thought the homeless panhandled a lot and ate out, I panhandled a lot and ate out at every meal. When I thought that homeless people stayed in one space and had a lot of freedom, I stayed in one place and had a lot of freedom.

As I listen to the stories of the homeless, I know that there are as many ways to be homeless as there are homeless people. I also know that the knowledge that I have a warm bed to come home to at the end of my week and a job waiting for me. It is not possible for me to escape these limitations of my power and privilege. Acknowledging this, here is how I seek to retreat to the streets this year...

Acknowledge my biases and with constant reflection on how I am holding myself apart and the ways I am choosing to connect to life on the streets, I seek to embrace vulnerability in my body to learn more about my truest self, and to work mightily to walk with each step moving me a step closer to God(dess).

In my past year working with our homeless guests, I have found that there is one aspect that I need to learn more about: my transgender brothers and sisters living on the streets. This is a journey to not only learn more about our guests, but also myself.

Before I was born my name was Ryan. A heart monitor told the doctor that I was a boy. When I was born the first words exclaimed were "oops" when the doctor saw that my body was female. For three days I was baby girl Rohrer, until I was named Megan.

I love my body and the life that I have lived, but I deeply believe that my gender queerness is not an "oops." I believe that both my heart and my body got it right. Yet in the world we live in, people tend to judge people's bodies without seeing their heart.

Today, I embrace both the male and female sides of my life.

So this year on street retreat I have decided to pass as male and go by Ryan. I hope this will be a way for me to expose my heart more fully to the streets. I ask you to join me in this journey, as I learn more about what it is like for my trans kin living on the streets and for my own personal gender expressions.

Each day I will be reflecting about my experiences on this blog at:

I hope you will pray with me, think about your own naming stories and share with me your experiences, fears and joys about my street retreat experience.


Rev. Megan Rohrer
The Welcome Ministry