The Rev. Donald Stuart was, by his own account, “an innocent, naïve young clergyman from the Midwest” when he moved to San Francisco in 1964 to launch a ministry unlike any that city had known before.
Stuart, then the pastor of a United Church of Christ congregation in Lincoln, Nebraska, had been called by San Francisco’s ecumenical Council of Churches to minister to the city’s growing population of “night people”: young runaways, late-shift workers, addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, hustlers. He served this eclectic congregation for 12 years as the founder and director of the Night Ministry, meeting them in seedy dives, in all-night diners and on the street corners of the Tenderloin district. He listened, he counseled, he talked the desperate out of suicide. And his path-breaking ministry inspired similar efforts in cities like Chicago and Seattle.
Stuart, a 1948 graduate of Elmhurst, died in his home in Claremont, California, on March 5. He was 91.
“He did his work among people who lived in the shadows, who lived outside the law, who were part of the night culture,” said the Rev. Dr. William R. Johnson, a 1968 graduate of Elmhurst, who came to know Stuart in San Francisco. “His gentleness and genuineness conveyed safety to anyone needing to talk.”
Stuart authored a vivid memoir, I’m Listening as Fast as I Can, published in 2003, in which he wrote of his years “walking where the traditional church seldom walked.”
That path sometimes placed him in perilous situations. He wrote of sheltering a 16-year-old runaway from an assault by a motorcycle gang, and of flooring a pimp who had attacked him. But more often he ministered through quiet conversations and a non-judgmental acceptance of the people he met. He called his work “a ministry of presence” and said his mission was “sharing the ‘Good News’ through being there when no one else was, and at any time of night.”
Born and raised in Chicago, Stuart enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1944. Stationed in San Francisco for two years, he fell in love with the city that would later become his home. Returning to the Midwest after completing his service, he graduated from Elmhurst and went on to study at Mission House Seminary in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. He served congregations in Kansas and Nebraska before founding the Night Ministry.
Under Stuart’s leadership, the ministry grew to include assistant night ministers and volunteers who tended a crisis hotline. The organization has continued to serve people on San Francisco’s streets every night for the past 50 years. The current director, the Rev. Lyle Beckman, is assisted by 10 ordained clergy and 45 crisis-line counselors.
After leaving the Night Ministry, Stuart was pastor of St. John’s United Church of Christ in San Francisco from 1977 to 1987. He retired to Claremont in 1990. His survivors include his son, the Rev. Mark Stuart; his daughter, Kathleen Stuart; and two grandchildren. His wife, Eunice, died in 2008.
Johnson said that Stuart’s ministry was uniquely inclusive for its time, reaching out to the gay community and other people who felt unwelcome in traditional churches.
“It is difficult to imagine the fear with which gay people lived their lives in 1964,” said Johnson, who in 1972 became the first openly gay person ordained to mainstream Christian ministry. “Many felt rejected or abandoned by the Church and were startled and intrigued to see a young man wearing a clerical collar, sharing the night in which, ironically, they found more safety to be themselves than during the day.”
Stuart’s work influenced other ministries across the nation, including the Night Ministry of Chicago, founded in 1976.
“We looked very much to Don Stuart as an example of what we could do in our neighborhood,” said the Chicago ministry’s founder, the Rev. Tom Behrens. “His San Francisco ministry was a direct influence on us. He worked with all kinds of people, and he had the calm confidence to make them feel at ease.”
In his memoir, Stuart called his years working on the streets “the high point of my entire ministry.” Some of his experiences, he wrote, “are just as vivid and just as painful as they were on the nights on which they occurred. … Yet in retrospect, I can say, without equivocation, that I would do it again and can affirm that my years in the Night Ministry were the richest and most rewarding of my 50 years in the ministry.”