Former prostitute-turned-pastor distributes clean needles and condoms in effort to save the lives of the city’s young sex worker
SAN FRANCISCO The Rev. River Sims’ rent-controlled efficiency apartment is lined with handmade crucifixes and photos of young male hustlers who sold sex for cash. Many are now dead.
There’s Zach, who died of a drug overdose at 19. Larry died of AIDS at 27. They are just two of the young men Sims has known during his years as an itinerant street priest who walks San Francisco’s seedier streets, distributing clean needles, condoms and Gospel tidbits to male prostitutes.
“St. Francis said, “‘Preach as much as you can but use as few words as possible,”’ says Sims.
Sims, 45, a priest in the independent Apostolic Catholic Church, is part of a resurgence in urban missionaries who feel more at home on the streets than in parishes, says the Rev. Mario DiCicco, president of the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley. They are opening soup kitchens and working with the disenfranchised in cities with little institutional backing, inspired by St. Francis of Assisi’s work in leper colonies.
“He’s in the margins and that’s where we should be,” DiCicco said. “We’ve settled for kind of a traditional lifestyle. Not many priests or ministers would do what he’s doing.”
The Apostolic Catholic Church has just nine parishes and a little more than 2,000 regular members. The faith spurns material wealth in favor of social justice and working with the poor.
“We think people are more important than capital,” said the Rev. Chuck Leigh, who heads the Tampa, Fla.-based church and once trained for the Roman Catholic priesthood. The church is “more progressive and inclusive” than some Christian faiths, he said.
The church is a good fit for the rebellious Sims. Dressed in a camouflage jacket, shorts and skull jewelry as he strolls the Polk Gulch neighborhood a prime spot for older men cruising for young boys Sims looks more like a bike courier than a priest.
He carries a duffel bag over his shoulder crammed with hypodermic needles, white tube socks and packaged crackers. The socks are popular among the homeless, who can go months wearing the same pair; the crackers are quickly snatched up by those who can’t afford a meal.
Sims estimates he’s attended 1,000 funerals for young sex workers and addicts since he established his ministry more than a decade ago. Some were as young as 12; none were older than 28. All led lives that were far too sad and complicated for their years.
He calls his work a “ministry of presence.” Sims tries to be available in the boys’ worst moments: when they are exhausted and hungry; when they are released from jail or when they are craving heroin or methamphetamine.
Male prostitution has largely migrated to the Internet in the past five years, experts say, leaving boys working the streets more desperate than ever.
Sims tries to reduce the damage with needle exchange and condom distribution. He provides spiritual guidance should the boys request it.
Sims understands the hustlers because he was one of them. After growing up in Lilbourn, Mo., population 1,300, he ended up working as a prostitute in Hollywood. Sims, who is bisexual, spent two years on the streets before finding his calling.
“I was trying to find out who the hell I was,” he says. “But I had a strong sense of a call. I found out who I was, and unlike the guys out here I had some reference points to fall back on.”
He took a job counseling the homeless in suburban San Francisco, then founded his street ministry in 1994. He’s since survived on about $15,000 annually and donations of roughly $55,000 to pay for the 100,000 needles and 50,000 condoms he distributes annually.
Sims will prepare a Good Friday service on the streets of the city’s tough Tenderloin neighborhood, trying to help young men live.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, March 31, 2006.