For the past 20+ years the interfaith community has organized a Vigil for the Homeless Dead each year during the Christmas season. Held last night, right across the street from San Francisco’s City Hall, this is a time for people together to give words and actions of dignity for those who have died homeless on the streets of San Francisco over the calendar year.

Each year leaders from different traditions offer readings, prayers and songs and the name of each individual is read.  As each name is read, a bell is rung and the community, in a very small way, reminds the world that each and every person has a name, a story and a life. While names are difficult to track, there have been years where the list was well over 100 and other years where there were 20-30 . . . but every year, there are too many.

The symbolism of the vigil being held during the frenzy of the Christmas season and with the backdrop of the City Hall Christmas tree is not subtle. As the Christian church remembers the birth Jesus Christ, the one we call “Emmanuel,” Hebrew [עִמָּנוּאֵל] for “God with us,” it is a powerful statement to remember the end of each person’s life, as it was begun, with the speaking of his or her name.

As I think about the care with which we chose our own children’s names, as each name was read, I was once again overcome with sadness around the circumstances of the death of each individual. Each person was someone’s child and I trust that living and dying on the street was never part of the dreams of the parents or how God intended for them to live and die. At the same time, while there was undoubtly struggle in each person’s life, I also reminded myself that each person’s life held stories of deep joy and great celebration. For myself and for most reading this blog, if our lives were to end today there would be some kind of memorial and people would come. Be it a community gathered at church, friends sharing a meal or  loved ones simple remembering our lives, our names would be spoken, our lives remembered and the end of our life would be given fullness and dignity.

Whatever the circumstance, every human being deserved to live AND to die with dignity.

Below is a quick 17 second glimpse of the reading of a few of the names.

The people gathered at the vigil will continue to fight the political and systemic causes of poverty and homelessness, but for this brief time we did not gather as activists, politicians or organizers . . . we gathered as a community to say good-bye and to remember each person who died on the streets of our city and to do so by name.

Much thanks to San Francisco Network Ministries, the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness and the Tom Waddell Clinic for their work and organizing.

SF Gate Article: S.F. vigil for National Homeless Memorial Day

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