“We’re here to comfort those who are disturbed and disturb those who are comfortable.”
The Sister’s of Perpetual Indulgence, San Diego Chapter came into existence in April 2005. Fourteen San Diegans went up to Los Angeles and talked to their SPI about starting an order. Thereafter, the San Diego Sisters established their SPI chapter and called it the “Asylum of the Tortured Heart, Inc.,” devoting themselves to outreach for those on the edges.
Eleven years later, the Sisters still use humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry and complacency. I spoke extensively with two of the original founders, Sister Kali Vagilistic X.P. Aladocious and Sister Amanda Reckinwith. They explained that in 2005 when the San Diego Chapter of the Sisters was founded, there was no program for individuals who had a calling.
According to Sister Amanda, a Sister from the San Francisco chapter traveled around the nation helping start new houses. However, she quickly became overwhelmed, so she went back to the SPI San Francisco board and asked that they create some ‘national’ structure to the houses.
Now, in what’s called the “fourth generation” of Sisters, becoming a Sister has a distinct path. The road is long and hard. Nope, that pun is not intended. As a matter of fact, the path of Sisterhood is open to all, including women and Italians. Some of the first women who joined the Sisters were actually siblings of men who had died of AIDS.
Becoming A Sister
The Sisters have members with many different titles: there are friars, monks, popes and cardinals. In the San Diego Chapter they also have a Condom Tsar who supplies condoms of all kinds and provides safe sex awareness to the community.
To become a fully professed Sister, you begin as an aspirant. During this time, you aspire to be part of the house. After about three months, and there’s no rush, you can turn in a letter that says you are interested in progressing to the next level, which is a postulant.
A postulant learns more about the house and the meaning of the Sisters. While the media might dub them as drag queens and others might call them a sorority or a non-profit organization, becoming a Sister is actually a spiritual calling. The postulant learns to understand her individual calling and her contribution to the house. After about six months or more, the postulant graduates to novitiate.
As a novitiate you organize and present a project to the house. It could be anything from an event you plan and execute to organizing archives. Something that challenges you as an individual and benefits the house. After that project, you can present another letter to the Mistress of Novices asking to be elevated to fully professed.
“During their journey, from aspirancy, postulancy, novitiate to fully professed, we’re pushing them to explore who they are and how they’re going to manifest that,” Sister Amanda explains.
The Sisters in San Diego also have five fully professed guards. Their number one duty is to protect the Sisters when they go out into town for street ministry.
Bar Ministry As Improv Street Theater
Newly professed Sister Donatello Soul explains that in bar ministry, Sisters will go to a bar and if they see somebody drinking alone or being more of a wall flower, the Sisters might do something like steal their drink and run, and then go make sure they’re ok. Each Sister has a different approach. Donatello Soul’s approach is to sit down, especially when someone is looking glum, and say “What are we celebrating?”
At first, people may look at a Sister strangely. Then, they may actually open up. Donatella Soul says, “It’s like an ice breaker and it shocks them, especially if they’re sitting alone. Maybe we’ll have a chit-chat. A lot of times bar ministry is about people who are alone and may have a problem on their mind that they can’t talk to anyone else about. The iconography helps people open up. It’s not somebody they necessarily know or may run into again… and people trust Sisters.”
It’s A Ministry of Presence
Sister Kali explains, “We do what’s called ministry of presence, which is a form of street theater. Just going out and being seen, engaging in the community.”
When they go out, sometimes people will become shaken or even angry. Sister Kali explains, “We don’t define what people’s reactions are suppose to be, nor do we attach ourselves to that reaction. So if somebody gets angry, it’s not because we made them angry. If someone gets angry, it’s interesting to see that this inspired such a strong emotional response.”
If someone gets particularly angry or rowdy, however, the Guards will step in and help the Sisters diffuse the situation.
The Makeup, The Sacred Clown
The Sisters will spend several hours working on their makeup and clothing. Once ready to hit the streets, there are generally no defined plans. They may agree to a start and end point, so that there’s a point of reference where they will all gather together, but other than that, the process is organic.
Over time, the San Diego Chapter of Sisters have come to have their iconic looks. Sister Amanda, for example, tends to wear the same face every time because she is so well recognized after 11 years of service.
Applying the makeup allows Sisters to take time for a type of meditation. It is carefully applied, usually using makeup bought at a costume store. The face must be white, but beyond that each Sister defines her own face.
Sister Kali, in a white face, a delicate dress and a beard explains, “For me, it’s a gender fuck. This does not dimish my male-ness. If it did, then I wasn’t male enough to begin with.” She explains that she keeps her long beard because it anchors the look in a certain realness. In nun’s habit and white face, the long beard pulls her look toward gender questioning. “People assume the beard is glued on. They can’t place it with anything else and I like that. It causes questions.”
The Sisters, above all, are a spiritual group. Their work has a calling. As Sister Kali explains, “We function within our community as the sacred clown. We go out and by acting contrary through our various means, we give the community an opportunity to find its own answers, their own questions even…We can define the extremes so that people know where the middle ground is and that way they feel a little bit more comfortable in that space.”
To Comfort The Disturbed And Disturb the Comfortable
The philosophy behind the street theater is unspoken when the Sisters go out on the town, but certainly felt. Sister Kali explains, “Part of our work is to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable.”
She says, “When we go out into the community, ideally, people find a place within themselves either where their complacency gets shaken up or they are in a place where they’re shaken up and they find calm waters. Either way, either inspiring pain or diminishing it. Because sometimes people aren’t aware of the pain they’ve grown comfortable with, which is based on internalized homophobia, feelings of low self-worth, drug addiction. All the things that run prevalent in our community that all stem from this illusion of isolation because, for us, humanity has this illusion of isolation.
“But in the gay community – and I use gay in an overarching term – the isolation is real as it is presented to us in an over-culture. To live in a country were people can vote on whether or not we can marry is absurd to me. I would never in my life assume I had the right to vote as to whether or not another human being has the right to marry who they love. And yet, we live in a culture that to this day is debating whether or not that is a right we can have, without ever questioning whether they have a right to have a voice in that. They assume they do. They assume they have a voice in my life and that creates a feeling of other than.”
This was a 2-Part series that first appeared at San Diego Free Press. You can read Part 1 here.