Genny Nelson is not a big or imposing woman, but she has stared down a drunk brandishing a chair and talked a distraught kitchen staffer into putting down the chef's knife he was clutching at Sisters of the Road Cafe.
PORTLAND — Genny Nelson is not a big or imposing woman, but she has stared down a drunk brandishing a chair and talked a distraught kitchen staffer into putting down the chef's knife he was clutching at Sisters of the Road Cafe.
When you sense the granitic commitment to ideals that underlies her shyness, you can envision her breaking up two guys going at each other with a broken wine bottle and a hay hook, and standing up to a man about to bust a chair over his buddy's head.
Nelson, 57, will retire Saturday from Sisters of the Road in Old Town after three decades of helping replace the taint of charity with dignity. She affirmed the nonprofit's commitment to nonviolence and the "gentle personalism" of the Catholic Workers movement.
Her retirement celebration Saturday afternoon at Sisters of the Road will happen exactly 30 years after the cafe's opening celebration, a month after Nelson and co-founder Sandy Gooch opened its doors Nov. 7, 1979.
"Soon after we opened, word began to get out," Nelson said. "People quickly got the fact that something different happened here; that this was not business as usual on the street."
So when that drunk grabbed a chair, Nelson knew she had to have a word with him. "I said to him, 'You know, you're at Sisters of the Road, and you can't do this here — you'll have to leave for the day,' " Nelson said recently over a cup of coffee in the Personalist Center that adjoins the cafe.
She told the man's companion that he had to help get the man out of there and that the kitchen would pack meals for both of them. It was understood they'd be welcome back the next day, even if they had been drinking again, and that they had as much right as any to be there, provided they behaved in a Sisters-ly manner.
That they listened and left, and that people of all backgrounds mingle without violence, has made the cafe a sanctuary, a safe haven where any and all can enjoy a meal and respite from the street. Soon after the cafe opened at 133 N.W. Sixth Ave, someone chalked three Xs on the sidewalk — the hobo sign for hospitality, which is now the Sisters' logo.
Sisters was, and is, a place where you can use your food stamps for a meal. Sisters and Nelson helped make that a federal law. It's a place where, if you lack the buck and a quarter for a meal — the price hasn't changed in 30 years — you can work 15 minutes to pay for your lunch or half an hour to earn enough to treat a pal to lunch, and imagine how lordly that bit of generosity might feel to a man who perhaps owns little other than his good name.
"What makes Sisters so special is that how we do what we do is the most important thing," said Monica Beemer, executive director of Sisters of the Road since 2005. "That's Genny's legacy: It's about building relationships and community and challenging the violence within ourselves and society; it's about seeing each other every day and sharing stories.
"Genny's done a great job of institutionalizing that, because nonviolence informs everything we do, and she reminds us to stand up for nonviolence not just when it's easy to do so, but when it's hard."
Such as the time Nelson looked up to see one of the kitchen guys threatening the cleanup crew with a knife.
"I said, 'Bill, it's Genny — you're at Sisters and you have to put the knife down,' " she said. "He was distraught and that's why he pulled the knife, but that's the value of making relationships — I knew he was, and I knew why he was hurting."
Sisters of the Road was founded on relationships.
Nelson and Sandy Gooch ran an Old Town women's center called Boxcar Bertha's before they founded Sisters of the Road. When Boxcar Bertha's federal grant ran out, the pair decided to create a new organization and asked hundreds of people what the community needed.
"We didn't presume that we knew best," Nelson said, "and we wanted to be an alternative to the paternalistic social services of the time, to the soup kitchens and the missions."
From Boxcar Bertha's, they knew that most homeless women dealt with sexual abuse, sexism and violence on the street, and that they wanted to create a place where all could feel safe.
"People told us that they wanted somewhere they could eat with dignity," Nelson said. "They said, 'Genny and Sandy, come see what it's like.'"
So they went to the dining hall where you were told to grab your tray, sit down, shut up and eat and then leave; to the mission where you were preached at before breakfast, which on the chilly morning they visited was black coffee and past-the-pull-date ice cream.
They made their cafe warm and clean, a homey place known for its good food. But they didn't stop there.
"We had to address the immediate need in the community, and the cafe has done that for years," Nelson said. But the other part of the Catholic Worker philosophy is standing up for social justice and systemic change.
And Sisters allows employees civil-disobedience leave.
The recently opened Personalist Center is dedicated to community organizing, Nelson said. Sisters is training people and getting vans ready to ferry them to San Francisco in January for a Homelessness Ends With a Home rally.
"It's not your politicians who are going to wake up one morning and say, 'Oh, we need to end homelessness,'" Nelson said, "It's the people who are going to do it."
Nelson, who's been diabetic since she was 8, is retiring because she's running out of steam. "This is still the best place in the world to work, but you have to have energy and I just don't have it anymore."
"It's amazing to me that she's lasted so long," said Sister Mary Bertoli, who as a St. Vincent de Paul volunteer coordinator helped Nelson and Gooch get into the Sisters of the Road space, then a kitchen for a St. Vincent de Paul program. "But she felt a very deep call when she was young, and she responded to it and has remained faithful to it."
"I'm very impressed and proud of what she's done," said Sister Rosemary Anne Parker, former vice principal at St. Mary's Academy, where Nelson graduated in 1970, "but I'm not surprised."
Nelson leaves Sisters with good leadership and a crew of nearly 30, all of whom earn a living wage and health insurance.
"I'm confident that Sisters will continue to thrive, and that's a gift to a co-founder," she said. "It doesn't always happen that way."
But she knows that retirement is a relative term. "Even when I have no energy at all, I'm still on fire about social justice and human rights issues, and I don't think that'll ever change."