Genny Nelson, at the cafe early on. (Sisters of the Road)
Genny Nelson, at the cafe early on. (Sisters of the Road)
Genevieve “Genny” Nelson, 67, co-founder of Sisters of the Road Cafe in Portland’s Old Town and a tireless voice for Portland’s marginalized, died Aug. 19. She had suffered from diabetes since age 8.

“We mourn the loss of Genny Nelson,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler wrote on Twitter. “She was an advocate for our community’s most vulnerable, a friend, and a mentor to many people in our community. She will be dearly missed.”

Born in Lewiston, Idaho, in 1952, Nelson graduated from St. Mary’s Academy in Portland and continued her education at Portland State University. She was a junior when she participated in a work-study project in the Old Town neighborhood. She lived for five years in Portland Catholic Worker houses, welcoming individuals who were without shelter for a night or a couple years.

In 1979 she and her friend Sandy Gooch founded Sisters of the Road Cafe. Nelson was 27.

She described herself as “a faithful and hope-filled woman who believes that Gandhi was right when he said, ‘You must be the change you wish to see in the world … .’”

To that end, in addition to addressing the immediate need for food and sanctuary, Nelson led Sisters of the Road in its ongoing campaign for social justice, particularly a change in the systems that foster homelessness. She helped people who were homeless get training in community organizing, providing them with tools to help themselves even in the halls of government.

When the University of Portland granted her an honorary degree in 2010, she spoke about how grace could help change lives and societies. “What happens when your mind is opened, and the flame in your soul is lit up and tended by a parent, a teacher, a mentor, a friend?” she asked. “And then what happens when you get a chance to test your newfound beliefs, and your mettle? I suggest that this is how we become the change we seek. It happened to me.”

Sisters of the Road Cafe has served tens of thousands of meals, 300 a week. Tens of thousands of Portlanders, both housed and not, have eaten at the cafe and have handed out coupons for meals there instead of cash to those in need.

Diners could trade 15 minutes of work in the kitchen for a meal, the price of which was $1.25, never changing with inflation. Nelson was also an early advocate of allowing people to use food stamps to pay for a meal, something that is now federal law.

She was helped in her mission by her cheerful and direct demeanor, and by her tirelessness.

Monica Beemer, who served as executive director of the cafe from 2001 to 2013, described Nelson as leading “with a gentle, yet formidable presence, centering Sisters’ work on the core principles of gentle personalism, nonviolence and the practice of dining with dignity.”

In 2010, Beemer told the Catholic Sentinel that Nelson brought nonviolence and the Catholic Worker notion of “gentle personalism” — looking out for the other person as opposed to being self-centered — to Sisters of the Road.

Nelson, at that time, urged people to “build authentic relationships with people different than yourself. You meet at the table and share your truth and listen carefully and take in their story.”

In a 2019 article on the cafe’s 40th anniversary, Street Roots newspaper described listening as the defining act at the cafe. People told Nelson and Gooch that they wished there were a place they could eat that was not a soup line. “A place where they can dine with dignity.” The two women listened.

The Holy Names Sisters, who educated Nelson and worked with her, were inspired by her work.

“She lives the Gospel deeply,” said Sister Mary Bertoli, speaking to the Sentinel in 2010. Sister Mary helped Nelson secure the former St. Vincent de Paul Society food distribution site for the cafe and then served on the Sisters of the Road board of directors.

“Genny Nelson is one of my all-time heroes,” said Erik Sten, a former Portland city councilman who focused on homelessness and housing through much of the 1990s. “I think the most important thing for ending chronic homelessness is helping people who are on the street reconnect with their human side.”

The cafe issued this statement Aug. 23:

“We are deeply saddened by the recent passing of co-founder Genny Nelson. For decades Genny served many roles, from community organizer, to cook, to executive director. Genny always led with a gentle, yet formidable presence, centering Sisters’ work on the core principles of gentle personalism, nonviolence, and the practice of dining with dignity. Genny Nelson embodied community-led organizing through every aspect of her activism — reminding us always to not do for others what they can do for themselves.”

More details will be published as they become available.