Religious Studies Alumna Provides ‘Ministry of Presence’
“…I would encourage people to soften their gaze when they can and try to see an unhoused person as a person in pain instead of a nuisance. And let the experience be big because it is big. You are humanizing people who are dehumanized and you’re allowing your own internal landscape to change.”Kelly Ann Nelson
In December 2016, the Ghost Ship warehouse fire devastated a community of Oakland artists that Kelly Ann Nelson was a part of. The loss left her reeling and searching for meaning in a time of great personal and collective grief. Through that experience, Nelson discerned a new path for herself—to be present with others in pain.
Today she is doing just that as the Director of Volunteer Experience at San Francisco Night Ministry and a chaplain at MarinHealth.
Nelson (BA, Religious Studies, ’20) considers her work a “ministry of presence.”
Nelson’s role at San Francisco Night Ministry is directing the volunteer counselor programming, including recruitment, outreach, education, and some daily operations of the line’s functionality. Anyone who wants someone to talk to can call between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m. to speak with a volunteer—who was likely trained in part by Nelson. Some callers may be suicidal or suffering from addiction, while others may simply want someone to celebrate some good news with.
“We’re not there to judge. We’re there to hear you,” Nelson explained.
The call center also provides aspiring chaplains and therapists an opportunity to practice their reflective listening skills and receive one-on-one coaching and feedback following phone calls—though Nelson wants to make it clear that anyone can volunteer to answer calls from their own home, prepare meals, or join a night walk.
Nelson’s new path began with a web search.
“I literally started typing adjectives about me—spiritual, school, religion—and I landed on Chico State,” Nelson said. “I know not everyone sees things this way, but I believe there was a little something in me that knew the path I needed to take. Once I consciously found it, there was no doubt. I knew this was the school and this was the program. I decided that I was going to get my degree, go get a Master of Divinity, and go work in the margins. I was very clear, and, very privileged that I could pursue that path.”
It was an opportunity and decision she remains grateful for. She’s currently pursuing her Master of Divinity at Starr King School for the Ministry in Oakland, as well as interfaith ordination at the Chaplaincy Institute.
“I still draw on my Chico State and Religious Studies education today,” Nelson said. “It’s still foundational for me in my master’s coursework and in the work I’m doing at SF Night Ministry and the hospital, which is amazing.”
“I still draw on my Chico State and Religious Studies education today,” Nelson said. “It’s still foundational for me in my master’s coursework and in the work I’m doing at SF Night Ministry and the hospital, which is amazing.”Kelly Ann Nelson
As an interfaith minister, Nelson endeavors to witness people holistically and affirm their experiences and feelings. She admits that it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the scope of it all, especially when it comes to people who are in crisis.
“There’s an unhoused persons crisis. There’s a drug crisis. There’s a poverty crisis. It’s just a never stops. So, I understand the impulse to shut down. And there are times we must do that for the sake of our own mental health,” Nelson said. “But I would encourage people to soften their gaze when they can and try to see an unhoused person as a person in pain instead of a nuisance. And let the experience be big because it is big. You are humanizing people who are dehumanized and you’re allowing your own internal landscape to change.”
SF Night Ministry’s vision for the care line includes those who are suffering on the street but widens well beyond them. Nelson wants all people to know they can call (844) Hope 4 SF | (844) 467-3473 for any reason at all.
“Every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, there’s someone for you to talk to,” Nelson said. “And it doesn’t have to be a spiritual issue. It’s a resource for all of us and it’s free.”