I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a big fan of the Catholic church, but if I am going to be fair I am forced to admit that the Catholic church usually makes a moderate to good effort in giving aid to the houseless. In most cities, Catholic social services are some of the most accessible to marginalized populations with in a community. Sometimes this aid is given asking nothing in return and sometimes it requires sitting through a church service or sermon, but most of the time at least some sort of aid can be had if the proper hoops are jumped through. That’s one of the reasons that I was so surprised to see a headline reading “SF cathedral dousing homeless with water to keep them from sleeping in doorways” on Patheos this morning.
To summarize, for the past two years the Cathedral has been using a system of hoses from the roof of the building to spray water on members of the houseless community in order to deter them from seeking shelter in the doorways of the Cathedral. The hoses were timed to go off every 30 to 60 minutes for about 75 seconds, from sunset to sunrise, effectively soaking whoever had made the mistake of trying to sleep there and all of their belongings. The Archdiocese’s reasoning for this is that they wanted to prevent people from urinating and defecating in the doorways, and keep the area clean and safe for everyone, and I completely understand the need for that. I also am aware that the Archdiocese of San Francisco does make an effort to aid people in distress, and that the houseless problem is extreme in San Francisco for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the houseless themselves. What I find interesting about this case is both the strange and misguided choices that a Christian institution has taken to arrive at a solution as inhumane and cruel as this one, and how quickly the media, aided by social media, forced the Archdiocese to make amends for this and change their policy.
I first read about this story on Facebook this morning. I immediately reposted it and started researching the history behind it. After learning a little about it and the history of the Archdiocese and the Archbishop’s shaky relationship with the people of San Francisco, it quickly became clear that I was not dealing with a particularly progressive branch of Peter’s church. Ten days ago, hundreds of people stood outside the cathedral protesting a morality clause in their teacher’s contract. The clause, pushed by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, includes language against homosexuality, same-sex marriage, abortion and contraception. On top of this, Archbishop Cordileone recently helped push the drive for the canonization of Junipero Serra, a Spanish missionary that founded the first mission in California, helped establish the mission system, tortured and murdered the native population, and helped create the conditions that decimated the native population in California.
So after reading all of that, I decided that I was going to head down there today and try to talk to someone about their choice to drive the houseless away from their cathedral with hoses. I grabbed my things, hopped on the train, and headed to San Francisco with another Coru priest. As we hiked up the hill to the cathedral, I thought about what I wanted to say to a representative of the church. I was hoping to get a chance to talk to the Archbishop, but as a pagan priest I realized that it was unlikely to be an option, but I wanted to express to them the danger in and cruelty of soaking peoples belongings and clothes in an environment like San Francisco, where it is almost always cold and damp. I wanted to ask them find another way to prevent people from sleeping in these alcoves that doesn’t put them at risk of pneumonia or destroys what little bit of property that they own. To point out to them that as religious leaders in this community, people look to them for moral guidance and by taking an action as callous and heartless as this one, they are being a bad examples for others. By the time we got to the cathedral, there were already 3 news vans there and reporters. Because of the pressure that was put on them by the media and social media, the Archdiocese was forced to face this and take action. When we arrived, the church had issued a statement apologizing for the action and were already removing the hoses.
Now I could easily go through their statement and point out some pretty messed up aspects of the whole incident, like the fact that the Archdiocese made the decision to do this system “was installed approximately two years ago, after learning from city resources that this kind of system was being commonly used in the Financial District” meaning that the Catholic church was getting advice on how to deal with the homeless and poor by looking to the Financial District, or that they had violated permitting requirements to install this, or that California is in the middle of a serious drought and this is a huge waste of water. But I will also give them credit for helping the homeless in many other ways and for taking actions to address this issue as soon as they were confronted with it.
What I really want to point out here is that there is an immense power in social media and social media activism. Because regardless of complaints about hashtag activism and the criticisms of the “cause du jour” phenomena, social media is one of the most powerful tools that activists have to make change. In this case, within 6 hours after hitting the internet, this deplorable practice that has been going on for two years was ended. Since the mainstream media does such a poor job of giving us an unbiased version of the news, it’s up to us to learn to filter the lies from the facts and that’s not always an easy job. The benefit of having sites like Twitter and Facebook, as well as a seemingly infinite number of independent news sources, is that the amount of unfiltered, but completely biased information we receive is much greater than ever before in history. With a little work, one can get enough perspectives of an event to have a better idea of what actually happened, and with critical thinking, and taking into account one’s own biases, we are able to understand events better and make better decisions for our lives and the world around us. Social media also allows us to bring an issue to the public eye almost instantly, bringing public scrutiny to misdeeds and misconduct and forcing rapid change when needed. Without social media, this issue would have taken months to resolve, with social media, 6 hours.
So don’t criticize activist’s use of social media to bring awareness to issues, and stop complaining about the “cause du jour”. Social media is proving itself to be one of our most effective tools and one person’s “cause du jour” is another person’s lifetime struggle. Instead of turning away from an issue because it’s too “popular”, “trendy”, or you don’t want to “jump on a bandwagon”, take the time to use the tools that we have in social media and the internet and learn what the issues are. Learn the facts and listen to other people’s opinions about it, especially people’s opinions that have been involved with, or are directly affected by the issue. Take the time to share information with people who you know and help educate them about the issues. Take the time, educate yourself, and then make an informed decision about what you want to do about something, if anything at all. Become involved, and either help or get out-of-the-way of the people who are helping. Because changes are possible if we try, and fixing some problems just require people to know what is happening for the problems to improve.