Many nights of the week, Rev. Diana Wheeler can be found in the Castro, talking with patrons of area bars and restaurants. Though she loves the people, itâ€™s not strictly for social purposes. As a Fellow â€“ and now Deacon â€“ of the San Francisco Night Ministry, itâ€™s all part of her job.
With a mission to serve the community where they congregate, often in late night hotspots, while providing lay counsel, support and resources to the Cityâ€™s most vulnerable, Night Ministry staff literally walk the streets each night of the year between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. Since joining the organization nearly two years ago, that has become Rev. Wheelerâ€™s life.
Tues., March 23, Diana was officially installed as the first Episcopal Deacon in the Night Ministryâ€™s near 50-year history. Hours before the emotional ceremony, which also saw Wheeler â€śSaintedâ€ť by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence as â€śSaint Night, Lady of the Night,â€ť she shared her spiritual journey, thoughts on working so closely with the LGBT community and the rewards of her lifeâ€™s calling in this weekâ€™s Bay Times â€śSpotlight.â€ť
At what point did you know you wanted to work in the spiritual or religious field?
I felt I had some kind of calling to the religious field when I was little, but I didnâ€™t do church. Our family was pissed off at the church, so we were never taken to church. Then my father converted to Judaism, which kind of put a kibosh on that for ten years. It wasnâ€™t until my children were â€” I think my youngest was two or three â€” that I came back to the church. I came back to the Episcopal Church. Immediately, I was pulled into doing things. Over time, I had more and more opportunities as my children grew, to do things in the church, especially ministry in the world. I had an opportunity to go back to school when I was 38. I had been a high school dropout, so I went to school. Then I went to the school for Deacons, which kind of changed my life. This is where it all led.
What drew you to working with San Francisco Night Ministry?
When I was in school, we used to have to go visit different ministries and then write the infamous â€śreflection papers.â€ť I went out with Don Fox one night, he was the Night Minister before Father Lyle [Beckman, now leading San Francisco Night Ministry]. We walked out in the Tenderloin in the middle of the night. When I was a young person, I lived in the Tenderloin, so there I was again in the middle of the night. I was very moved by how Father Don interacted with folks and the ministry Night Ministry was doing, but my kids were little, and it really wasnâ€™t an option for me. About two years ago, I was leading the after-school program at St. Aidanâ€™s â€“ Tommy Dillonâ€™s church â€“ and I got an email from the Diocese saying Night Ministry had these paid two year fellowships, and wouldnâ€™t it be nice if a Deacon did it. Well, the way he made it sound is like it was a part-time job, so I called Lyle, and it turned out to be a full-time job. I couldnâ€™t really leave where I was at the time. He was really interested in talking with me, and he basically started to mold the fellowship to what I needed. It took about six months of trying to figure out whether I was going to do that, because it was a stretch for me, so after a few months we decided it was going to be a go. And there I was!
What was it like for you as a heterosexual woman to immerse yourself in the LGBT community, where the Night Ministry has such as strong presence?
Well, Iâ€™m a native San Franciscan. I did most of my growing up here and grew up in the gay/lesbian culture as a teenager. In our church, here in this Diocese, weâ€™re very open and affirming and ordain gay, lesbian, transgender folks. So that wasnâ€™t an issue ever for me. One of my kids is LGBT. This is my city. These are all people I love. The interesting part for me, that was a stretch for me, is that I was never a night owl. I never did clubbing or went to the bars when I was young. That was the hard part for me: learning to sit on a bar stool!
What has been the most eye-opening experience youâ€™ve had as a Fellow of Night Ministry?
The thing that has impressed me the most is how hungry people are for somebody to listen to them. People donâ€™t have anybody to listen. To be with people and not press your own agenda, to be with people when they feel bad, when they sad, when they feel angry, when theyâ€™re crying, when theyâ€™re screaming, and just to be able to be there. People are so grateful for that, and it always blows me away, because I feel like I donâ€™t do anything.
Working in the faith-oriented field, what do you hope to accomplish?
I think at this point in my life, what I want to accomplish is service. I want to be part of a community and be able to be of service in some way. In my life, Iâ€™ve done all the things I was â€śsupposedâ€ť to do. I took care of my family. I had kids. I did all these things that are â€śtask-orientedâ€ť and tried to fit in. What Iâ€™ve learned is I think God is calling me just to be with people. If I have the health and opportunity to be there and do that, I think Iâ€™m doing good.
What is the most difficult thing youâ€™ve experienced as a Deacon?
The most difficult thing is getting used to people being angry with me or not liking me. I was somebody who thought it was really important for people to like me. Sometimes, I canâ€™t do what people want. Sometimes I donâ€™t think itâ€™s good for them or good for me, and just being OK with people not agreeing with me, yet Iâ€™m still going to keep on doing what Iâ€™m doing. Dealing with peopleâ€™s negative feelings about what I do have been a very hard experience for me.
What has been the most rewarding element of your career?
People have been willing to make me part of their lives. Theyâ€™ve been very welcoming and loving. To me, thatâ€™s justâ€¦ It boggles my mind, really. Itâ€™s such an honor that people will trust you with their feelings, their thoughts, their histories and their stories. Itâ€™s such an honor. To be so honored, thatâ€™s the most rewarding thing!
For More Information, Visit: www.SFNightMinistry.org