Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.—Bertolt Brecht
A young San Francisco woman finds a homeless man’s belongings inside some cardboard boxes that she had left outside of her house. She removes the mangled clothes, the empty bottles, the torn blanket and the boxes, putting them all in the street for recycling. Her Marxist friend chides her for her privilege and hardness of heart toward a person without resources. So to show her goodwill, she goes to work one day a month at a soup kitchen. There she meets someone from the Faithful Fools Street Ministry. He tells her that they call themselves fools “because they like to poke holes in the way we look at the world, and only fools do that.”
The young woman agrees to walk the streets of the Tenderloin on a daylong retreat led by the Faithful Fools. Resistant at first, and frightened by her own sense of separation from those who live on the street, she finally surrenders to the friendship of an old woman, who with grandmotherly kindness shields her from the rain under a raggedy old shawl and talks to her about the events in her life that brought her to homelessness. Then the old woman listens to the younger one’s sadness about breaking up with her boyfriend, and tenderly reaches out to touch her cheek. Profoundly affected, the young woman breaks through the enclosure of her own assumptions and realizes that there is really no difference between herself and this woman who lives such a hard life and yet has been so kind to her. It is an awakening, allowing the young woman to experience what it feels like to live without the veil that separates her from all other human beings.
This is the scenario of a play called The Witness, based on the ten ox-herding pictures of Zen Buddhism. I wrote, directed and toured this one-woman piece around the country to introduce people to the work of the Faithful Fools. It ends with these words:
Like the moon emerging from a cloud
The fool sees there is no separation
Between one sentient being and another
She goes onward no matter who
Wishes to call her back.
The Faithful Fools is a street ministry in the heart of the Tenderloin of San Francisco. I see the women and men who work there as true followers of the bodhisattva path. They struggle every day to bridge the gap between themselves and those who live in extreme poverty. As part of their ministry, they invite people from all walks of life to go on daylong or weeklong “street retreats,” to walk through the Tenderloin, encountering and interacting with those who are forced to live there, who hang out on street corners and in soup lines, who shoot up in doorways and beg on the sidewalk. The Fools invite retreatants to carefully note their reactions and see what happens, both mentally and emotionally. Men and women who go on these retreats often feel profoundly changed by the experience.
At the Fools Court the walls are filled with art by the local street people—poets gather to read their work aloud, actors come to rehearse, a local film director premieres his work. Believing that art can be a vehicle of transformation and an instrument of social change, the Fools insist on bringing the artist to the streets, with all his or her willingness to break open our hearts, remove the blinders from our eyes, and shatter the myths about what it means to live in poverty. They believe that artists will use their creative imagination to envision what kind of change is possible, so that there is no longer a cavernous gulf between the people who live in the streets of the Tenderloin and the corporate moneyed world of downtown San Francisco.
the main thing is
they kept on writing,
throughout it all
they kept on singing…
—Mike Niemczke, Tenderloin poet