Those People at That Church 

San Francisco Examiner, 16 Feb 1995


Thursday, Feb. 16, 1995 

SOME jokers in the congregation call it Our Lady of Safeway, for its proximity to the supermarket across Church Street. Other folks don't notice the dark brick church at all as they get off the streetcar, even though it's in the middle of "the traffic of life," as parishioner Jack Lundin puts it. 

Next time you jump off the J-Church at the Safeway take a look at St. Francis Lutheran Church. San Francisco's best is represented by "those people at that church," as the parishioners have called themselves in their new cookbook (The "Those People at That Church Cookbook"). 

The real San Francisco is a lot of things, but sometimes we are distracted from the real San Francisco by the antics of elected officials and unelected hate-mongers on the radio. 

The spirit of San Francisco, in these plague years, is expressed by this scene of the extended Christian family at St. Francis Lutheran: Frail young men are escorted to the altar by strong older women, and in turn healthy young men escort frail older women to the altar. 

Only in this city will you see such a communion. 

Unlike most American churches, St. Francis Lutheran's young male parishioners are dying faster than older female parishioners. AIDS is a central issue in this church, as it is in all of San Francisco. "We don't have any choice but to stay here and keep slugging it out," said pastor James DeLange. "It's our calling." 

The remarkable thing is that his church has continued to grow, drawing parishioners from all walks of life, ages and groups. Since the 1960s, the average Sunday attendance has gone from 20 to 100. In terms of giving (the monetary kind), St. Francis Lutheran is in the top 10 per capita in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), according to pastor Ruth Frost. 

Unfortunately, the ELCA does not approve of St. Francis Lutheran having appointed as pastors Frost and Phyllis Zillhart, an openly lesbian couple, and Jeff Johnson, an openly gay man. At the end of this year, the Lutheran Church will expel St. Francis Lutheran. 

The main effect so far has been that the number of parishioners has grown and contributions have doubled. Perhaps this is because, as DeLange puts it, "we try to be what someone has called 'the church that oughta be.' " 

In the margins of the church's cookbook (and a very good cookbook it is) are parishioners' notes. Marti Lundin, a grandmother and retired educator, wrote: "We chose to join St. Francis Lutheran in order to be in a church where we can actually work on social issues rather than argue with people over whether we can even deal with the issues." 

Those issues have included offering sanctuary to Salvadoran refugees during that country's civil war, as well as taking up the cause of gay and lesbian rights. When William Sloane Coffin delivered a sermon to San Francisco Lutherans three weeks ago, he titled it, "Liberty to the Captives and Good Tidings to the Afflicted." 

In essence, that's the spirit of St. Francis Lutheran. It's also the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of this town, who said: "Where there is hatred, let me sow love." 

Nowadays hatred is cultivated to reap ratings. That's in the unreal world of mass media, not in the real world of San Francisco spirituality. 

Spirituality can be very real. That's one thing conservative Christians definitely have right. 

It's as real as 37 little children, most from poor families, playing at the Friends of St. Francis Child Care Center. The church opened the center, which is now operated independently but with the church's spirit. The well-equipped playground lists a series of rules, first of which is "Play!" The second rule recognizes the realities of children's impulses: "Shovels are for digging." 

The life of the spirit, of course, also is found in food. "Our congregation is growing in more than one way," says pastor DeLange, patting his stomach. His epilogue to the church's cookbook reminds us that that the Bible contains a lot of good food stories, starting with one in a garden.

At noon Wednesday, male parishioners had taken over St. Francis Lutheran's kitchen to cook ham for the weekly dinner for seniors. The seniors were doing before-dinner exercises with a 16-month-old child dancing in their midst. That child was Joy Noelle Hart, daughter of the church's lesbian pastors, Frost and Zillhart. 

Noelle is the church's child, too. A 7-year-old in the congregation once asked Zillhart if she was Noelle's mom. "Yes, and so is Ruth," she said. The 7-year-old said that couldn't be. Then the girl caught on. "Oh, you're lesbians," she said, and went on to something else.

Too bad adults aren't always as sensible.

©Thursday, Feb. 16, 1995 San Francisco Examiner, All Rights Reserved

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