Mercy on wheels

On the eve of her charity’s one-year anniversary, Sister Libby Fernandez and volunteers continue peddling—and pedaling—mercy to the margins

Sister Libby Fernandez hands a cup of coffee to Quintin Grant, who she has known since 2009, when a tent city existed near downtown Sacramento.

Sister Libby Fernandez hands a cup of coffee to Quintin Grant, who she has known since 2009, when a tent city existed near downtown Sacramento.

Photo by John Flynn

The Mercy Pedalers will celebrate their one-year anniversary September 14 at Uptown Studios (2415 23rd Street). Tickets/suggested donations are between $15 and $250.

During a crisp morning ride on August 20, Sister Libby Fernandez spotted her friend, David, who sat in a wheelchair with a black, padded boot wrapped around his leg. Startled, she cried, “What happened!” as she pulled her tricycle up on the sidewalk and gave him a hug.

“I got hit by a car,” David responded. “Broke my leg in three places.”

Fernandez, who eschews a nun’s habit for basketball shorts and a T-shirt, handed David her card and told him he could use her as a reference if he found a personal injury lawyer. Then she opened up a custom-made cubby on the back of her tricycle, poured him a cup of coffee and loaded up his bag with water bottles, nutritional bars and soap.

“It was a God drop to see you,” Fernandez told David.

“A what?”

“That means: God sent you on my path.”

After a week-long retreat in the Grand Canyon, Fernandez came home eager to get back on her trike and reconnect with folks experiencing homelessness as part of her Mercy Pedalers program. In Sacramento, where thousands of people fall through the cracks, Fernandez rides along these fault lines, handing out food, water and hygiene products, and provides a sympathetic balm against the harshest of living conditions.

After spending over 20 years as executive director of Loaves & Fishes, the city’s largest homeless charity, Fernandez craved a new form of service. In her prior role, she fought on behalf of those experiencing homelessness against elected officials seeking less-than-compassionate solutions to the statewide epidemic. Because of this advocacy, she was called “the conscience of this community” by Mayor Darrell Steinberg in a Sacramento Bee article marking her retirement.

The idea for Mercy Pedalers was born after a visit to Crater Lake National Park last year. Today, on the eve of the program’s first anniversary, Fernandez has accrued 60 volunteers who join her on two-hour rides at least once a week to hand out essentials, mostly in downtown Sacramento, but also Oak Park, West Sacramento and Arden-Arcade—with talks developing to spread this service along the river.

While running a multimillion-dollar nonprofit entails countless intricacies, her new mission is comparably simple and based on a passage from the Gospel of Matthew: “For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Fernandez said the last part’s the most important, as it goes both ways.

“It’s all about entering someone’s space and befriending them,” she said. “The first time, they may not want you. And of course, you don’t take it personally. But you don’t give up. And the next day may be a different moment for that person.”

Journeying alongside Fernandez entails looking at places differently than most do. As K Street professionals hobknob and hustle from meeting to meeting, Fernandez zigs and zags across the street in a parallel world, personally greeting those who are often ignored with a friendly hello, a ring of her bell and an ice-breaking offer of a cup of coffee. Probably 95 percent of the people she visits respond positively to her efforts.

“Through her life, there’s a consistency of care for all the people in need,” said Mercy Pedaler Richard Hernandez. “She covers young people to old people to all the different ethnic groups. She’s just totally inclusive. So I think people are drawn to that and made to feel welcomed immediately by her.”

Typically, Fernandez spends between one to 10 minutes with each person she visits. To be a Mercy Pedaler, she said, volunteers must possess boundaries so they don’t engage where “it may be unsafe” as well as a desire to communicate and connect during visits. After a ride-along orientation, she can tell if a volunteer “gets it.”

Mercy Pedalers is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, so all her members are volunteers and the vast majority of her wares are donated, largely thanks to the efforts of her board, which is comprised of people from diverse religious and socioeconomic backgrounds. She also works with homeless navigators, street nurses, service providers and law enforcement officials to help ensure each person she visits has easy access to get what they need.

“If we stay connected and everyone does their part, we can make a big impact,” she said.

Due to her years of serving this community, Fernandez knows many people living on the street who are difficult to find solutions for.

One woman named Whitney, Fernandez said, is a paranoid schizophrenic who was kicked out of Section 8 housing, arrested for assaulting another person during a mental health episode and incarcerated for over a year. Now, she no longer qualifies for public housing and may have lost her Supplemental Security Income while behind bars, Fernandez said, adding that she’s working on connecting Whitney with a homeless outreach navigator.

Still, Mercy Pedalers’ main goal isn’t to heal or house everyone they meet. Instead, they prioritize providing perhaps the most lacking substance on the street: comfort. After their visit concludes, Fernandez leaves them with a hug or a handshake and a “God bless you” or a “You’re in my prayers.” At a time when the Catholic Church struggles to atone for another widespread sexual abuse scandal, Fernandez’s life fits closer to what one imagines Jesus would have wanted the church’s representatives to be doing.

Born in Spain on an Air Force base, Fernandez first volunteered at Loaves & Fishes in 1985. Five years later, she earned a masters in social work from Sacramento State and became a Sister of Mercy after briefly following her father’s footsteps to the Air Force.

“I wanted to serve even deeper, in a more humble way,” Fernandez said. “Instead of serving my country, I wanted to serve my people.”

While at Loaves & Fishes, she worked on programs for women and children, founded the Genesis Mental Health program and oversaw a renovation of its campus. She’s also represented the voice of those experiencing homelessness as the city implemented ordinances against panhandling and camping.

“The citations are expensive,” said Bob Erlenbusch of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. “The camping citation is $230 for people who have no money. And then, irony of ironies, you panhandle to pay it off, then get another citation for panhandling. She understands the impact on people’s lives.”

Fernandez lives humbly in a Midtown apartment with a kitchen and living room filled with the supplies she distributes to those in need. Minus the administrative responsibilities inherent to her former role at Loaves & Fishes, Fernandez said she can devote most of her energy to her people.

“Our mission is to be present—to make relationships,” she said. “When you can meet someone eye-to-eye, they feel like they’re worthy. They feel like they mean something. It’s simple as that. How can you make a change if you don’t feel good about yourself?”

In contrast to some helpers of the homeless, Fernandez puts almost no limits on who she will help. Often, when she pours a cup of coffee, she loads it up with a somewhat shocking amount of sugar—which isn’t for the added calories.

“They like it, especially people who have addictions, they love that sugar,” she said, then added with a laugh: “One time, a man wanted me to put coffee into a cup with water in it. I did, but said, ’That’ll water it down.’ He said, ’No, no, it’s vodka.’”

As Fernandez continues along K Street mall, she meets Melanie Tadakawa, who said she and her husband became homeless after they gave rent to a property manager who neglected to pay their landlord.

Tadakawa owns a dog, Blaze, a big fella who lets you know he could take your wrist off with playful, soft chomps. Blaze provides protection to Tadakawa, who said she was attacked near Cesar Chavez Plaza last February. In addition to helping her and her husband deal with their post-traumatic stress disorders, she said Blaze adds some structure to their days.

“He just gives us something to do,” she said. “Being homeless, we don’t have much to do. It would be cool if they actually employed homeless, because wherever we go, we always try to clean up, pick up garbage.”

Tadakawa said she and her husband visited the triage shelter near Railroad Drive and appreciated being able to bring Blaze. But she didn’t love living in a warehouse with few windows and bunk beds for nearly 200 residents, some of whom were people “that weren’t used to living inside,” she said. Outside a shelter, she said, the lack of publicly available restrooms makes taking care of her personal needs a daily challenge.

“It’d be nice to have actual restrooms that are everywhere and open 24 hours,” Tadakawa said. “Any business that I come into, they ask me to buy something. And they all say that homeless are dirty and they go everywhere. But if there are actual facilities and actually things that help, it wouldn’t be like that.”

As they commiserate, Fernandez hands Tadakawa a mocha made with powdered hot chocolate mix, then helps her find her requested items: food, water, hygiene products and a small pamphlet containing scripture verses and reflections.

“My favorite passage is when Jesus is sleeping in the boat with his disciples and a storm came,” Fernandez said to Tadakawa as she hands over the pamphlet. “And they’re all afraid. And Jesus said, ’Don’t be afraid, I am with you.’ And it calmed the storm.”