Sister Libby Fernandez was alone at her campsite in the Lassen National Forest this summer, “with nothing but my Bible, my journal, and God,” she said, when she had an epiphany.
She had spent 20 years working at the sprawling Loaves & Fishes agency near downtown Sacramento, serving the poorest of the poor, fighting their battles for housing, food and medical care.
“I think I’m ready to move on,” she wrote in her journal.
On Wednesday, Fernandez made her decision official, telling the agency’s board of directors that she would leave her job as executive director in June to start a new “bicycle ministry” she is calling Mercy Pedalers. The endeavor, she said in an interview, will allow her to continue her mission as a Sister of Mercy to serve poor people, but without the administrative burdens of running a large nonprofit group.
The news came as a surprise to many who have long known Sister Libby as the face and force behind Loaves & Fishes, where as many as 700 people migrate each day for hot meals, showers, legal help, mental health counseling and other services. Fernandez is both a beloved figure and a lightning rod known for her fierce advocacy for homeless men, women and children.
“Sister Libby is the conscience of this community,” said Darrell Steinberg, the city’s newly installed mayor who has placed homeless issues at the top of his priorities. “Everyone knows what she stands for, and that she is credible and absolutely committed.
“We have asked Sister Libby and Loaves to do things that the government is unwilling or unable to do. I thank God she has led the way to make sure that homeless people have some help.”
Fernandez, 56, came to Loaves as a volunteer in 1985, following a brief stint in the Air Force where she received her “calling” to become a nun. She worked at the agency’s Maryhouse program for women and children, and founded the Genesis mental health program on campus. She became executive director 11 years ago, and recently oversaw a major renovation of the Loaves & Fishes campus on North C Street.
Through the years, she has drawn attention to her cause by sleeping at homeless campsites, marching in the streets to protest city policies and speaking at public meetings. In 2009, thanks in large part to her advocacy, Sacramento became the subject of an Oprah Winfrey program about homelessness in America.
Not everyone has appreciated her efforts. Fernandez has generated controversy during her push to establish a “tent city” for people who cannot or will not live in shelters. She has fielded criticism from neighborhood groups and businesses about trash and crime that they blamed on Loaves & Fishes clients.
Through it all, she ran the largest nonprofit group of its kind in the region. Loaves, which relies solely on private funding, today has 12 programs, 80 employees and an annual budget of about $6 million.
Fernandez will be hard to replace, said Bob Erlenbusch of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness.
“She’s an icon, a real force,” said Erlenbusch. “She has been rock solid and very focused in her efforts to establish a ‘Safe Ground’ for people to escape the streets, and to stop the criminalization of people who are homeless. She’s very gracious, but she is also very tough when she needs to be. My first reaction when I heard she was leaving was, ‘Who could possibly fill her shoes?’ ”
Joan Burke, advocacy director at Loaves & Fishes, said she felt “very happy for Libby, and devastated at the same time. Libby has given her abundant gifts to Loaves & Fishes. Now she’ll be doing something incredible on her own.”
The agency will conduct a national search for her successor.
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At her office just off the lobby of the Loaves campus, with a large photo of the weathered face of a homeless woman behind her, Fernandez spoke about her epiphany at tiny Crater Lake in the Lassen National Forest, where last summer she spent her annual personal retreat.
She felt content about her decision to leave Loaves, she said, as she looked at the crystal blue sky and the forest all around her. But she also felt fear.
“It was a frightening moment,” she said. “Am I really ready to leave? If so, what door is going to open up for me? Am I going to be happy? What if I fail? Because I surely love being at Loaves & Fishes.”
Fernandez has put a down payment on a $2,800 adult tricycle with an electric motor and a large basket for holding cargo that she intends to use to launch her new mission. Mercy Peddlers will largely be a volunteer organization, she said, and will run under the auspices of Sisters of Mercy. She and other volunteers will scour the city on their bikes, offering friendship and counseling, along with help in connecting to other services.
“My passion is working with people one on one,” said Fernandez, who has a master’s degree in social work. “When you stop and meet someone and look in their eyes, you see them as an equal. That’s where the long, slow dance toward trust begins.”
As she took the short walk Wednesday afternoon from her office to Friendship Park, the central gathering point at Loaves & Fishes, Fernandez shouted out greetings to every guest she passed. She listened to their troubles and offered gentle words. These encounters at the end of the day, she said, are the things she will miss most about the place.
“Tiron! How are you?” she asked Tiron Brantley, who toted a guitar case on his back as he made his way out of the park.
“This weather,” he said, shaking his head. “Three weeks of rain, wind. Wet clothes. But I’ll be OK.”
He told Fernandez he would be sleeping outside a church on this night. She told him to be safe and that she would see him tomorrow.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Sister Libby Fernandez’s planned new ministry. It is called Mercy Pedalers.