By Liz Dossa
Sister Amy Westphal threads through tents and people sitting or lying on the sidewalk and past workers hosing the litter of needles, syringes and feces off the walkway to get to her current ministry The Healing WELL in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco.
Four days a week she walks purposefully three blocks from the bus stop at Leavenworth and McAllister to this storefront nonprofit and feels irritation, rather than disgust or fear. “I’m irritated by seeing people who are trying to rest or find some peace on the street,” she says. “They are bombarded by another layer of drug cartels. These are groups of young people who arrive mid-morning, hustling each passerby with what they need for the day. I see people who are using and can’t find their way out of it. The incidence of drug overdose lingers on every corner.”
The Healing WELL, founded in 2015, provides “Tenderness in the Tenderloin.” Their mission of trauma-informed wellness means respite and peace for the neighbors who reach out for it.
Amy is well prepared for the work at this nonprofit, providing an escape through yoga, poetry, a 12-step program and spiritual guidance. As a staff member, Amy often sits in the hallway outside the yoga or the 12-step meeting to simply listen to people who are too agitated to stay in the group, and need to talk.
“Amy listens intently and with mutual respect and appreciation,” says Healing WELL director Kathy Curran. “Her strong suit is building one-on-one relationships. She enjoys listening to and speaking with individuals—and people can sense that. She’s ok with being together and being quiet, too. Her gentle, steady and loving presence offers a comfort and ease to our community members that is greatly needed.”
She also helps to deliver produce to people in need one day a week. “We go to hotels and boarding homes and have conversations with the residents. Most are experiencing isolation and loneliness. Some can’t leave because the elevator isn’t working. They don’t have resources to cook. These one-on-one visits allow us to hear their needs.”
Clearly, Amy is called to this ministry of empathy. She was preparing to be a Lutheran minister and part of her preparation was working with immigrant migrant workers in Yakima, Washington, and with immigrants being deported from Chicago. “I did a lot of ministry of presence on the buses from detention centers and with parishioners who were migrant workers…It was an ongoing discernment, especially in seminary, discerning at that time how God was calling me to minister in the world and understanding my call to service.”
Her move from Lutheran to Catholic was a matter of the gradual steps of discernment. Attending Mass while in seminary and for holidays with her Catholic stepfather, Amy realized she was drawn to the presence in and reverence for the Eucharist and the Catholic faith. After spending six weeks at the Mexican American Catholic College in San Antonio and listening to stories of service and community of the sisters attending, she felt the Spirit calling her to a religious vocation. The experience matched what the Spirit was calling forth inside of Amy. Eventually, she entered the Catholic Church and then religious life. Amy entered the Mercy Community in 2018 and currently shares life with her community of sisters at Mercy Place in San Francisco. Even walking through crowded sidewalks, Amy relishes community. “I think of the Tenderloin as a space of hope and light. In the midst of such adversity, people are caring for the community and for one another.” Inspired by the lines in the poem “St. Francis and the Sow” by Galway Kinnell, “For everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing; /though sometimes it is necessary/to reteach a thing its loveliness,” she hopes to create that space for someone to recognize their loveliness and bloom.
Photo credits: Sammy Darris