Sacred Space brings church, food, compassion to the homeless in Oakland

May 30, 2012
John Trubina

Editor’s Note: The Diocese of California recently requested – and received – a $1,000 Jubilee Ministry Diocesan Development grant to help fund the work of Sacred Space~Oakland, a  ministry to bring church to the street people of Oakland. We invited the ministry’s founder, Deacon John Trubina, to share the story of how Sacred Space came to be.

Sacred Space~Oakland started in 2010, while doing my field education at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Oakland.  I was taking a walk around a large park in the center of the business district.

It was lunchtime and there were many joggers and mothers and children playing and enjoying the park.  I was told the park is totally different in the evening, with many homeless people living there at night. During the day, they leave the park and hide on the side streets out of the way of people.

That evening, I decided to return to the park around 6 p.m. to see what it was like after dark.  There were a few homeless people setting up their makeshift beds for the evening and getting settled in.  I handed out some food in zip-lock bags so that those I met would have a little something to nourish them.

As I left the park around 7, I felt a calling to return later that evening.  So I went home, changed, ate supper, and told my family I was going back to the park.

I left my wallet at home, and left the house with just my driver’s license and $5 - just in case.  When I arrived at the park, I sat in the car for about five minutes before finally finding the courage to get out.

I entered the park and began walking its dark and narrow path. I ran into a few homeless who were setting up camp for the night, their only earthly possessions being two shopping bags, some cardboard and a few worn out blankets.  Further on, there was a woman all bundled up in her blankets, and as I got closer, I realized she must have been in her 90s and very frail looking.  I introduced myself and she invited me to sit and chat with her.  Her name was Lilly.

She was a wonderful, intelligent woman, yet helpless.  She told me when she lost her husband a year or two ago, she couldn’t afford to keep her house and eat, so she decided to leave her house behind to have money for food. Now the park was her home. I asked if I could take her to a shelter where she would be warm and safe in the evening. “No,” she said, pointing at the others camping around her. “These are my family. These are my friends and protectors.”

Lilly mentioned she once tried to go to a shelter and was abused and her few belongings stolen. She said she would never go back to a shelter.

She asked me why I was there in the park so late. I told her I was a seminarian studying for the diaconate, and that I wanted to see what it was like at night in the park. I invited her to attend my church and she said, “Look at me…Do I look like I can go to church like this?”

I told her we are a welcoming church and that everyone is invited, no matter who they are.  She still declined. “I smell,” she said. “I have nothing to wear and if I did go, I would end up sitting alone in the back of the church.”

After an hour with her, I looked at her said, “One day, I promise you, I will bring the church to you.” And I bid her a safe evening and God’s peace and I departed.

Several months later, I graduated from seminary and was ordained at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. I was assigned to St. Clare’s Church in Pleasanton, outside Oakland.  I was the church’s first deacon, and the parish family was ready to go out and begin their ministry on the streets.

We created food bags, filled with Vienna sausages, juice, water, and other non-perishable items. As we were making the bags, my mind went back to the time in the park with the elderly woman. I spoke with my rector and mentioned I wanted to start a church without walls.  He blessed me and said “Go and do what you have to do. We are behind you.”

I gathered four or five of my friends and asked them to help me. That’s how we began Open Cathedral~East Bay. Every Sunday afternoon, rain or shine, we would go to the park in downtown Oakland, behind City Hall, and celebrate the liturgy and hand out lunches.

On our third service at the park, while I was setting the table in preparation, a little old lady, dressed nicely and with a big smile on her face, came walking toward me, carrying two shopping bags. It was Lilly. She looked at me with warm, glistening eyes and said, “I knew you would keep your promise.”  We hugged and she blessed me and said, “Never stop bringing the church to the people. This is their only touch with God. Make this a community.”

We later moved to another park in the heart of the city, one rife with gang violence and stabbings. But the neighbors invited us to be part of their scene, and as time went on, many of the neighbors, homeless, drug addicts and those on the fringe would join us every Sunday for lunch, prayers and liturgy.

Now we are called Sacred Space. We have about 50-75 people every Sunday sharing God’s love together, and we are one church.  Our shared worship includes song, prayer, ministry of the word, and ministry of the table.  We offer community, opportunities for private conversation, prayer, blessing, and counseling.

We are taking Christ’s word to the Streets.

We operate outside the usual construct of four walls and a roof. Our start-up equipment includes a rolling file box for worship supplies, a folding table, and plastic storage bins and hampers for storing, transporting, and distributing lunches and clothing. We anticipate, at some point, indulging in a pop-up canopy as a concession to inclement weather.

We envision multiple Sacred Space locations under our umbrella structure.  We are now starting a second such church in the neighboring city of Hayward. Other possible East Bay expansion locations discussed include Concord-Antioch, Tri-Valley, and Richmond-San Pablo.

Other goals include: 1) establishing formal, regular training for our volunteers, 2) recruiting experts such as a Nurse Practitioner, and 3) establishing connections with county hospitals and health agencies.  Through our personal work, church, and social networks we have a great deal of information available and potential connections to share with our community brothers and sisters.  We recognize, however, that we have a responsibility to advocate, connect, and advise within the framework of understanding our non-expert status.

We envision expanding our presence to daytime drop-in centers that serve people beyond Sundays.  We hope to tap into the current urban trend of city approved, short-term occupation of empty buildings to provide rest and refreshment, clothing, referral services, literacy programs, and other one-on-one help.

We find that we are being accepted and trusted more quickly than we anticipated.  We are optimistic that we will be able to repeat this elsewhere in Alameda and Contra Costa. An unexpected but happy effect of Sacred Space is that as we shared our story with friends, family, and acquaintances – people who are housed, fed, and clothed but would not otherwise be part of a church – are responding passionately to our ministry with donations, and participation.  We appear to be building a worship community that includes the homeless and marginalized and the housed and mainstream.

--The Rev. John Trubina serves a deacon at St. Clare’s Episcopal Church in Pleasanton, CA. For more information, contact Trubina at