Deacon Ven Garcia reflects on his week-long experience with Maryknoll on an immersion trip to the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. Visit the Maryknoll Immersion Trip page to learn more about our domestic and international immersion trips!
by Deacon Ven Garcia
Cellophane, Mr. Cellophane shoulda been my name
Mr. Cellophane 'cause you can look right through me
Walk right by me and never know I'm there.
This song played and replayed in my head throughout our Tenderloin mission immersion trip. Mr. Cellophane, the invisible, inconsequential man in the Broadway musical Chicago is everywhere and nowhere in the streets of San Francisco. He is panhandling on the sidewalks, sleeping in the public library and lounging on the grass at Civic Center Plaza. Most people look the other way, immune to their plight. But there is no ignoring Mr. Cellophane in his home turf, the thirty blocks shaped like a wedge triangle called the Tenderloin. He has stories to tell, scars to show, lessons to teach. So, off to the Tenderloin I went with my fellow pilgrims to experience mission and encounter Jesus in His many disguises.
And that is the first thing that becomes readily apparent about Mr. Cellophane. He is male, female and transgender, young, old and a baby in a stroller, different nationalities and mixed races, various religious faiths or none at all, in good health, poor health or poorer health. All ended up at the Tenderloin “and there but for fortune”, but for the grace of God “go you or I”.
This week, I had to overcome some fears and confront some subconscious prejudices that bubbled up to the surface. I expected Mr. Cellophane to behave badly at St. Anthony’s dining hall. I was proven wrong: they waited their turn in the lines, raised their hands and waited patiently to be served, smiled and said thank you when I handed them their food tray. I expected Mr. Cellophane to hit me up for money, but not one of them did. I was initially hesitant and insecure to initiate table conversations with complete strangers, but most responded graciously and even enthusiastically.
The two senior centers that we visited presented some communication challenges. Cantonese was the language of the day. And just like that, the roles reversed. I became Mr. Cellophane as I went around the room and received blank stares from many residents. However, the smiles, the Cantonese Good Morning “Jo san”, the dominoes, karaoke and the Macarena saved the day.
God was everywhere in the Tenderloin but I strongly felt His presence upon entering St. Boniface Church. Serenity descended on me, everything else receded into the background. I honored the sacredness of those sleeping on the church pews at the back – “to sleep, perchance to dream”, perchance to heal, perchance to hope, perchance to cope. I can’t imagine how anyone would want to deny them this sanctuary. My feeling was: This is right, this is as it should be - God is here! And silently, I asked our Father to lead our Tenderloin brothers and sisters to the “restful waters to revive their drooping spirits.”
God invited me to respond as part of a community of love, support and healing. We are, indeed, the people of God, called to love one another, especially those who are in need. The truth is, we all have great need for each other.