The writer to the Hebrews writes:

“The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living.  It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguishes our ancestors, set them above the crowd.(11:1-3).

During the past years of the pandemic, I have been asked many times about faith as I have been holding the hands of injured and dying. I have questioned and continue to question my belief in the midst of the desolation around me on the streets, the continued attacks on faith on social media, and everywhere one turns.

I have remembered these years is in spite of my degrees, and ordination, I am simply a Grocer’s Son. My dad owned a grocery store, as did his before him. And I remember him as a man of strong faith, with which he lived and died. A simple faith, a childlike faith, which he bequeathed to his son.

My dad’s love of Jesus gave him a heart of compassion. No one ever came to our store, or house and went away without food or clothes.

From him, I learned the words of Henri Nouwen in practice:

“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, mourn with those who are lonely, and weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”

My dad taught me that nothing human is alien, as described by Fr. Henri Nouwen:

“Through compassion, it is possible to recognize that craving for love that people feel resides also in our own hearts., that the cruelty that the world knows all too well is also rooted in our own impulses. Through compassion, we also sense our hope for forgiveness in our friends’ eyes and our hatred in their bitter mouths. When they kill, we know that we could have done it; when they give life, we know that we can do the same. For a compassionate man or woman nothing human is alien; no joy and no sorrow, no way of living and no way of dying.”

This came from my dad’s strong faith, which he shared with me. I was raised in the church, remembering at four years old being taken to the communion rail to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion and told, “This Sacrament is for everyone, regardless of age, color, or belief.” I have never refused anyone Holy Communion.

I met the presence of the real Jesus of Nazareth and was called to ministry, through my dad’s faith.

His faith sustained him through lung cancer, and at his death, remembered telling others “My dad taught me by example to open my heart to love everyone, and meet them with an open heart, regardless of the pain. For each is a child of God.”

We all want to believe, to be loved, we join groups, spend hours on social media, and follow leaders when what we are seeking is to experience God’s love in all of the wholeness Christ gives.

Marianne Williams comments: All human behavior is love or is a call for love.”  Every aspect of our behavior is a desire for love.

My challenge to all of us is to look at our behavior and ask ourselves the question, “Aren’t we really looking for love?” And if we give care to one another daily, what would our world look like? If we call someone? If we invite someone to dinner? A young twenty-two-year-old college student told me, “I am going to be selfish until I make big money and then give it to the poor?” If we simply feed someone or talk to a person, it will amount to a great flower of giving.

For me, the answer is in Jesus of Nazareth, the one who challenges me every day to feed the hungry, and care for each person I come in contact with. To open my heart, and be hurt. I am only a “Grocers Son”, a grocer who shared his love of people each and every day!

I will always be the Grocer’s Son, regardless of degrees or titles, simply the son of a man who gave witness to his faith through his work, and whose witness still leads me forward!

I came to San Francisco, in the fall of 1994, and moved into 1618 Polk Street, one room, sharing a bathroom and shower room. I came remembering the words of Scripture,  trusting only in, “Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified. I Cor. 2:3)

At the time I could look out my window and see the “old Polk Street, filled with gay bars, and bookstores, not the gentrified street that it is now. Polk where young hustlers (sex workers) and transgender sex workers roamed at night. Polk where speed and heroine were cheap.

On October 1, a warm night I began my ministry simply by sitting down with young guys for pizza, and the rest is history.

There is a story about a Desert Father who asked his Abbot a question: “Tell me how to become a monk,” the response: “If you want to find rest in this life, and the next,  say at every moment “Who am I?, and judge no one. “  I work at never judging, always meeting people where they are, and being present in the moment.

Larry was one of the first young men(16) I met, he dressed nicely, and loved his pizza. This was the beginning of a long relationship that would extend for fifteen years.

He came from a very religious family, in a conservative area, struggling with his sexuality, and he ran away when his parents kept pushing Scripture down his throat. Homophobia runs deep in the Christian faith, and at the time only one or two denominations were open and affirming, believing Holy Scripture did not condemn LGBTQ. individuals.

Larry came to San Francisco, “the gay mecca”, and found his home. Larry, being a pretty boy, was popular, and to make a living, he was a “hustler” a prostitute. In the struggle to survive Larry became hooked on heroin and speed and found himself with AIDS.

As his illness progressed, his body broke down and becoming difficult of getting treatment, we began talking to his parents. They allowed him to come home.

For the next eight years, Larry continued to struggle with drugs, his parents, giving him a place to live, and the insurance for his treatment.

In the last two years of his life, Larry found a spirituality that allowed him to accept his sexual orientation, and find peace with his parents. He died at age thirty-one.

Larry’s story is the story of tragedy and triumph. The tragedy of homophobia, premature death, and our not having universal health care. Yet the triumph is his reconciliation with his parents and finding a faith that allowed him to be both gay and a believer.

Over the past twenty-eight years, there have been many Larrys.  In the last two years, I see Lary’s face in so many. Young guys die prematurely, and the question is always raised “How are you able to face death all the time?”

Reverend Henri Nouwen answers the question for me:

Those you have deeply loved become part of you. The longer you live, there will always be more people to be loved by you and to become part of your inner community.

The wider your inner community becomes, the more easily you will recognize your own brothers and sisters in the strangers around you. .The wider the community of your heart, the wider the community around you.” Deo Gratias! Thanks be to God!


Fr. River Damien Sims, sfw, D.Min., D.S.T.

P.O. Box 642656

San Francisco, CA 94164

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