Every weekday morning, St. Boniface Church in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco opens its doors to homeless people, giving them a place to sleep for eight hours.1 Founded in 2004, The Gubbio Project provides day shelter for up to 150 homeless and displaced brothers and sisters in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood.2
How the Gubbio Project Began
It was the simple act of questioning church policy that inspired Father Louie Vitale to start the project. In the video below, he remembered a time that he traveled through Denver on his way to committee meetings for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development in Washington, D.C. (a national anti-poverty and social justice program). He had an overnight layover and a modest travel budget, so he found a chapel and went there for the night. He knew the church had a policy that welcomed the public but prohibited them from sleeping in the pews. At 2:00 am with no one else in the chapel, Father Louie decided to address church policy directly, asking:
“Jesus, do you really mind if I lie down on the bench and get a little sleep, I need it to get ready for this big meeting in Washington to give money to the poor and I want to be sharp. Do you mind if I lie down and sleep?”2 Father Louie felt that Jesus gave him permission to sleep.
Saint Boniface has always served poor and homeless people. When he came to serve at Saint Boniface, Father Louie recalled how he found the same policy in the pastor’s office:
“So then when I came here and I saw this policy I thought what Jesus gave me permission to sleep in the church how can I deny it to other people who really belonged to this parish here? So, we did, and they came up with a name “Sacred Sleep.”2
The Gubbio Project takes its name from a town in Italy where, according to legend:
“St. Francis negotiated a peace agreement between frightened townsfolk and a hungry wolf. Francis brokered a deal between the two parties in conflict by recognizing that with communication they could find common ground.”3
The common ground for the Gubbio Project is between San Francisco’s Tenderloin and Mission neighborhoods where working poor people live next to desperately poor people and sometimes misunderstandings and conflicts occur.
“The Gubbio Project is a creative response to this situation—helping housed parishioners and visitors of the church connect with their unhoused neighbors. The Gubbio Project believes that by creating opportunities for these two groups to interact and care for each other’s needs, the Tenderloin and Mission neighborhoods will be strengthened.”3
Sanctuary and Sacred Sleep
According to the Gubbio Project:
“lack of sleep is one of the most critical health issues for the homeless. An average of 225 unhoused neighbors seek safety and rest on the pews in the sanctuary of St. Boniface church each weekday starting at 6 AM, and for an additional 100 guests at St. John’s the Evangelist in the Mission.
No questions are asked when our guests walk into the churches; in an effort to remove all barriers to entry, there are no sign-in sheets or intake forms.” 3
“The Gubbio Project uses the back 2/3 of the sanctuary; the church uses the front 1/3 to celebrate the daily mass at 12:15 PM. This sends a powerful message to our unhoused neighbors – they are, in essence, part of the community, not to be kicked out when those with homes come in to worship. It also sends a message to those attending mass – the community includes the tired, the poor, those with mental health issues and those who are wet, cold and dirty.” 3
The Mind Unleased reports that, “One of the main complaints that people often have about homeless shelters is that they can feel like prisons, and be extremely dangerous as well, but the Gubbio project seems different. 95% of those surveyed said they always or usually feel safe at The Gubbio Project, and those who pass through are not treated like prisoners as they are in many shelters.”4
Father Louie described the importance of the program as he learned it from a man when he went to the scene of a fire in the neighborhood:
A homeless man approached Father Louie and said, “Father, I really like your talks when you’re doing church, you know, and I really get a lot out of those,” Louie said he didn’t recognize the man, but the man offered, “I know you’d probably don’t ever notice because I’m lying down on the pew, but I’ve listened to all your talks and they mean a lot to me.” To that Father Louie said, “So it seems to me that sacred sleep works I think that’s something that comes from God. People need it. He wants us to do it.”2
The Gubbio Project has inspired a similar project in Cape Town, South Africa (St. George’s Cathedral). Another church in San Francisco, St. John the Evangelist has started a similar, though more limited program. Though it’s wonderful to see these churches opening their hearts and doors to the homeless, the big question on our minds is, why don’t more or even all churches do this? It seems that we live in a different time especially when pastors of megachurches seem more interested in wealth than helping the needy. When tropical storm Harvey ripped through Houston for example, megachurch multi-millionnaire Joel Osteen claimed that his warm and cozy church “was flooded” so he was unable to open its doors to people who had been temporarily displaced from their homes. Turns out… that was a big fat lie.
Tex Dworkin’s article on Care2 Causes asks a similar question and presses further, “Why Have Only Two U.S. Churches Opened Their Doors to the Homeless? And, “What do you think it will take to get more places of worship to open their doors to homeless people during the day?”5
We’d love to hear your thoughts! You can learn more about the Gubbio Project here or visit their Facebook page here where you can see recent photos and moving quotes like this one from their ministry:
“In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found.
Although many, we might even say most, strangers in this world become easily the victim of fearful hostility, it is possible for men and women and obligatory for Christians to offer an open and hospitable space where strangers can cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings.
The movement from hostility to hospitality is hard and full of difficulties. Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude and do harm. But still — that is our vocation: to convert…the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.” — Henri Nouwen
1Haptas J and Samuelson K. The Gubbio Project: The Days and the Hours. Video. 6 October 2011.
2Gubbio Project. Father Louie Talks About the Founding of Gubbio. Video. 15 September 2010.
3Gubbio Project. About Gubbio. https://www.thegubbioproject.org/about-gubbio/
4Vibes J. Church Allows Homeless to Sleep Overnight, Gives them Blankets. 20 March 2018. The Mind Unleashed.
5Dworkin T. Why Have Only Two U.S. Churches Opened Their Doors to the Homeless? Care2 Causes. 15 December 2015.
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