Street level learning in holiday garb

The guy begging on the corner of Mason & O’Farrell was engulfed in Santas. He was sitting on his scooter, with his doggie in the basket – a scruffy terrier type, but cute. His sign, hand written on cardboard, said: “Please help so my dog can eat.”

Good line, I thought, and felt sad; probably more people are willing to give him money to feed his dog than to feed him. But today, nothing much was working. The guy was like a boulder mostly submerged in a river of red. It was SantaCon day, and Santas in search of a drink were pouring past him on either side. I’m sure that in that crowd of hundreds of Santas, somebody must have flipped a dollar into his cup – but it didn’t happen while I was watching.

It was a strange day for street level learning in San Francisco.

I was on a street retreat with 11 students and recent graduates from the Ignatian Center at Santa Clara University. So I was aware of these earnest, reflective young men and women, walking the streets of the Tenderloin for a day, eating at soup kitchens and pondering what it would be like to be out on the streets and standing in food lines every day. And I was aware of the Santas, most of them not much older than the students, out for a good time in San Francisco’s 20th annual SantaCon pub crawl.

“It’s a walk, until later in the day when we can’t walk anymore,” one of them told me. “Then it’s a pub crawl.”

In contrast to my group from Santa Clara U, these Santas seemed not to be interested in getting to know people they might meet on the street. In fact they seemed frankly annoyed, some of them, by anyone who got in the way of their travel from bar to bar — like the #BlackLivesMatter protestors in Union Square.

There were 30 or maybe 40 of them, standing there with signs, chanting “Black Lives Matter,” and “I Can’t Breathe.” Most of them were Black or Brown. Most of the Santas, need I say, were white.

God knows, as a Faithful Fool I’m all for dressing in funny clothes and going out to have fun in the street. But I’m also for stopping to talk; for helping when I can; for listening to some else’s cry from the heart. It was deeply discouraging to circulate among the Santas surrounding the protestors, and hear the occasional disparaging remark, see them look at each other and roll their eyes in the direction of the protestors. Fun is good. Standing up against police brutality is good. Asking for help when we need it is good. We don’t have to be so separate.

I stood for a while with the protestors, chanting, loud as I could, “Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!” Then I waded through the Santas, back toward the Tenderloin.


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