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STREET SHEET INTERVIEWS FATHER LOUIS VITALE

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Father Louie, could you tell us a little about your background, like where you were born and grew up… a little bit about your family?

I was born in San Gabriel, California in the Los Angeles area in 1932 (chuckles)… a long time ago. My dad was originally born here in North Beach. My dad grew up here and then went into business in Los Angeles, so they moved down there and I was born in Southern California.

I went to college at Loyola University and ended up in ROTC. With ROTC I went in the Air Force for three years and was what they called an Intercept Officer… I flew back seat for jet interceptors. Air Defense… you know, shooting down bombers that were coming to get us.

They sent us up to shoot down a Russian bomber one time. And we fortunately decided to look before we shot and found out that it was an airliner. So, anyway I became disillusioned around that time (laughter). At least, looking back on it, I did.

What years were you in the military?

Oh, that was Korean War—toward the end of the Korean War—around the early to mid-1950s. But during my final years in college I kind of got this buzz on about I should maybe become a priest… or a Franciscan, something like that.

Do you think your military experience led you that way?

I think it impacted that. My father thought maybe it was because I had gotten too much oxygen in those high-flying planes. He thought I should go to Italy and find a nice seniorina to marry… settle down and forget all that crazy stuff.

But you figured there were ways to get closer to the Lord than you could in a fighter jet?

(Laughter) Well, yeah I was always feeling that way, but back then I was kind of a “party boy.” So I let go of it, and continued in my ways.

When I got out I had to decide. My family was all in business, so had to decide whether to go to a business school or something like that, or going to the seminary. I decided to give it a shot. There was something about St. Francis that always attracted me. So I went in, and I’ve been in ever since.

But when I went into the seminary it was the ‘50s, so we were in the heyday of the ‘50s culture, which was all about… kind of pretty much a party. It was after the war… the euphoria of the war. One of the great musicians of the time talked about that you could see how serious our times were with our songs… like Maresy Doats and Oasy Doats and Little Lambs Edivey, airhead stuff.

I went into the seminary and learned about St. Francis and all that stuff, and as I was going through that we were very insulated… it was at Mission Santa Barbara, very insulated. But the Vietnam thing was beginning to start, and Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, all those things were beginning to percolate.

And as I came out of the seminary we were beginning to get involved already in civil rights, the peace movement, and Cesar Chavez and the farm worker movement. Right away I got involved in those… civil rights stuff. I didn’t make it to Selma, I was the next on the list to go.

I got involved in civil rights movements. I got very involved with Cesar Chavez in the very beginning of his movement, and that had a big impact on me… especially with nonviolence.

From there, I was teaching in our seminary for a couple of years, did some doctoral work at UCLA in sociology, and ended up in Las Vegas.

In Las Vegas I was working in social justice. I most particularly got involved in welfare rights… very heavily involved in that. Then I discovered there was nuclear test site there… we did a lot of draft resistance and military resistance around the Vietnam War, and then kind of fell into the anti-nuclear stuff.

I got dragged out of that in ‘79 to become what’s called provincial, or the minister representative for our Franciscan province in the Western U.S, and I was in Oakland for nine years doing that. And then I went back to Las Vegas and we started a group called Pace e Vene, which was a center for nonviolence, and I was very involved with that for about four years.

Then I took a sabbatical to Big Sur at a monastery, and somebody convinced me to spend three months here—I wanted to be in the Bay Area—filling in for him because he wanted some sick time off, and he never came back… and that was thirteen years ago. So that’s how I got here, just to fill in.

I was coming to the area just to do sociological research. And he never came back, and then this huge retrofit job here came along and I got involved in that, so I didn’t feel like I could pull out. Then I got all involved with the homeless here, and I liked it. I got a lot out of it.

I was still trying to do the social justice stuff while keeping the parish going… and I pushed it.

It was about three years ago, four years ago when I went to the School of the Americas. At the School of the Americas I got arrested and then spent three months in prison. I came out of that just as the war was starting… the Iraq war. And this seemed to be a great staging area.

We weren’t quite through retrofitting, but by that time we were starting to get some of our halls back, so we started staging with the Direct Action to Stop the War. I got very involved in the activities… I probably got arrested a dozen times during those first two weeks.

So one of the good things about it here was it brought together my desire to do a ministry with a very diverse group of people. We have a very diverse group of people here at the parish. We have a diversity statement we put out about how we are open to people of all races, nationalities, sexual orientations, etcetera.

And we have a really good cross-section. Most recently we adopted the gospel choir from the Fillmore at Sacred Heart church, because they closed them down. So now we have a really good, lively liturgy and mass… with that group we have African-Americans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Latinos, and then we have a lot of homeless people. So there’s a lot of diversity… I like that a lot.

I got involved very early on with Sister Bernie and Religious Witness with Homeless People. I like working for social change, and civil disobedience to bring that about, and she and I share that. We like to get out in the streets and do that kind of stuff. It’s kind of my forte. Martin Luther King had a thing about ‘the theology of stepping off the curb’. You have to put your body out there.

So I’ve always appreciated the opportunities to become involved in the struggle of homeless people.

You’ve been really central to a lot of poor people’s struggles, here in the Tenderloin especially. There’s a lot of issues that seem to center around this neighborhood because it’s this locus of poverty for one thing, and poverty organizations for another. What are some of your observations about the Tenderloin? How did you react to it when you first got here?

When I was the minister for our province, part of that was overseeing St. Anthony’s Foundation, and that was from ‘79 to ‘88.

That’s right about when homelessness started really emerging…

I remember coming to a meeting here one day and having to step over people to get into the building. And I said, ‘What is this all about? People are sleeping on the streets here in San Francisco? When did this start?’ and it was just starting, it was just really starting.

So right away we decided at the meeting that Father Alfred had accumulated some funds… because he was very good at getting funds and he was not real quick to spend them (laughter)… he was very frugal and he had so many people working for him volunteering. So there was a certain amount of funds available, and we asked what would be the priority of how we would use those funds So we said, ‘homelessness’. So we got someone right away working on homelessness.

At that time the dining room had just started taking in homeless women, and we started helping Hospitality House to take in men. We started with that, and then we spun off TNDC, because St. Anthony’s won’t do anything that takes any kind of government money, and we also didn’t want it to get any bigger, so we spun that off.

So that got me involved right away to some extent with the homeless situation. I had some awareness of it, anyway… not a lot of hands-on stuff… although I had some in Las Vegas. We did a lot of work with the homeless there.

My doctoral work was around social movements. And then getting that start right out of seminary with Cesar Chavez’s movement, with the peace movement and civil rights movement, made me want to approach things from a movement method.

There was community organizing, and I had kind of signed up for that, but that’s never been my thirst. My thirst is for social movements… which community organizing doesn’t really accept… but for social movements and social change through civil disobedience.

So what was great here was that there were two groups that really caught my attention because we were working with them in the beginning. One was the Coalition on Homelessness and the other was Food Not Bombs, because they were very active here in the neighborhood working with poor people.

The one thing I did at St. Anthony’s when I was in my minister’s role was say ‘We can’t just feed people, we’ve got to change the system’. So we started the Justice Ed program there, which they still have, where people are going after donors to come and learn what the sources of poverty are, and using poor people to tell the stories.

They’re really, really good. They get people who always want to give money, or they’ll even come down and want to work in the dining room. And they’ll say, ‘If you really want to help you have to go through this program and hear poor people tell you what they’re facing out there’.

What should government do differently to address poverty and homelessness?

First of all I think they should empower the people who are experiencing it, to be the decision makers in making that happen. I think people know what they need.
It takes some doing to do that. Take Scott Wagers, who learned here working with Sister Bernie in the neighborhood. Then he started a program in San Jose that really great. It’s kind of a church-based thing…

Yeah, CHAM has a tremendous reputation…

Yeah, Scott’s just great, and it’s the people doing it. Everybody’s empowered, everybody has a staff jacket on. And they feel empowered. I think you have to empower people.

What would you consider to be the most important achievements during your years here at St. Boniface?

It’s always tough when you’re talking about achievements when you’re working on poor people’s issues.

I have a brother-in-law who’s very conservative. And I’m out taking on nuclear bombs and all this, and he asks, ‘Well, are you making any progress?’ What the hell could you say? I mean, you look at the Reagan years… and the Bush years… are we making any progress stopping war and getting rid of nuclear weapons?

I think that certainly there’s been a great raising of the consciousness around homelessness… from stepping over people in the ‘80s, to getting to the point where there’s a real empowerment.

And I found that in Las Vegas when I was first working with welfare mothers. We got national welfare rights to come there… we had the marches on the strip, we had sit-ins, we had Jane Fonda to get us more publicity. And it was giving them this ability…

We went to the city, we went to lobby at the state… and I found that when lawmakers have to face poor people, or homeless people, or welfare mothers… they can’t do what they do. They lose their arrogance to a certain extent, and they’ve got to be accountable. And that makes a huge difference right off the bat. At least they don’t kill you as bad as they would…

Years ago at a liberation theology conference, somebody asked, ‘What can we white people do to help?’ And someone answered, ‘Well, when we come marching down the street, if you can keep your brothers and sisters from firing their submachine guns at us… that’s all we’re asking. We’re not asking you to lead or anything…’ (laughter) So I figure that’s our part, if we can at least defuse things.

I think that empowering people is the most important thing, and taking your direction from homeless people themselves. And I’m not naïve enough to think that you go out some Saturday night, or the first of any month, and hang out at, say, the Ambassador Hotel, and take a survey about what should be done, and put that into action…

I dunno. You’re kind of describing our organizing methodology…(laughter)

And that’s something that the Coalition does very well, doing the kind of critical analysis that you guys do over there is very important, very helpful.

I believe that there’s been a definite difference in the climate around homelessness. I mean, the very fact that it was recognized as the number one problem in San Francisco is a big accomplishment.

You know, it’s like that thing by Michael Harrington years ago about the invisible poor. It’s amazing how people can go down the street and see them… I mean, they’re disgusted with them, but they just don’t see them as people having a struggle.

So what are your future plans?

When I came here, I was really involved in social justice and social change, so that’s what I was doing. Even though I was a priest, I was really not focused on parish ministry, but on what brings about social change and social movements. So I felt like I really did get roped in here, but it turned out to be a good base for doing the social justice stuff. But I always wanted, ever since I came here, to go back and focus on what the major issues are, to be able to have the time to do more analysis and organize around them.

Somebody asked me ‘Is my heart in your ministry here at St. Boniface?’ And I said my heart is in it. I love the people. My passion is really in social change… all the way from trying to stop nuclear warfare to trying to change the situation for the homeless.’

Are you going to be pursuing those here in San Francisco?

I don’t know. I don’t know where I’ll be. The commitment I’ve given is that I have three months to six months of sabbatical, whatever I want, and that I won’t make decisions at least until towards the end of that.

So I could go back to Nevada, be involved in nonviolent activities and working on stopping nuclear war, because they still have the test site there and they’re gearing for more. Or I could be here. I’ve got different people trying to get me involved in different things, like the Direct Action to Stop the War, and we’ve been trying to sketch out a campaign to get us out of Iraq, military resistance and so forth.

So it’s not clear where I will be or just what I’ll be doing, but it will be around those issues. I am free to do Peace and Justice ministry, and that’s really what I want to do.

Thanks, Father Louie.

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Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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