A church supreme

After three decades of feeding the homeless, the world's only church devoted to John Coltrane now finds itself without a home

Sixty people -- primarily white twentysomethings with goatees and dreadlocks -- crowd into a small storefront in the Western Addition area of San Francisco. Musicians carrying saxophone cases and drumsticks slip through the crowd up to the front. It's immediately apparent that this is not your ordinary Sunday church service. The walls feature a series of 10-foot-high murals depicting saxophonist John Coltrane, and lyrics from his album A Love Supreme. The altar displays a portrait of a black Jesus Christ.

A beatific African-American woman greets the room.

"Anyone here love John Coltrane?" she asks. People answer yes. Some raise their hands. Sister Deborah introduces herself, welcomes everyone, and explains that it is acceptable to do whatever the spirit moves you to do during the service. If you want to sit, fine. If you feel like standing and dancing, that's cool. If you want to sing along or grab a tambourine, even better.

Giant steps toward heaven: John Coltrane's music has inspired a church in San Francisco.
Giant steps toward heaven: John Coltrane's music has inspired a church in San Francisco.
Bishop Franzo King addresses his congregation during a recent service.
Paul Trapani
Bishop Franzo King addresses his congregation during a recent service.

"This is God's house," she explains. "We're God's children. So we wanna have a good time!"

She smiles wide, and asks how many in the room are locals. Three hands rise. The vast majority of this morning's congregation is from somewhere outside the city -- Texas, Arizona, Spain, New Zealand, France, Denmark, Sweden, and Ireland all are represented today.

Bishop Franzo King enters from behind a curtain, wearing bright purple vestments and sporting a saxophone around his neck. He kneels in front of the altar, crosses his chest, and turns to face the room. At this point in a service at this particular church, many things may happen. Bishop King may decide to read from the Bible. He may start a free-association sermon about John Coltrane, explaining that he was a "musical scientist" and dropping in quotes from Malcolm X and Cornel West.

Or the bishop might not say anything at all. He might stick his sax in his mouth, and the band might kick into a Coltrane composition that goes on for 30 minutes, with the choir singing along and every musician getting time to play solo. The entire crowd might be on its feet dancing, clapping along, rapping knuckles against the walls. The pianist might move to a Hammond B-3 organ in the back of the room and rip into a groove so furious that Bishop King will run over to him with a wireless microphone, stick the device directly into the organ's speaker, and send out an ear-splitting cacophony of jazz that echoes off the walls and ceilings. And at that point, the bishop might scream, "YEAH! YEAH!"

Since 1971, the St. John Will-I-Am Coltrane African Orthodox Church has operated out of this Divisadero Street location in San Francisco, holding weekly services; feeding, clothing, and counseling the homeless; and teaching music and computer classes. After nearly three decades, a word-of-mouth reputation has earned the church mentions in travel guidebooks, jazz Web sites, and Coltrane biographies. Each Sunday, the room is filled to capacity.

But a peek inside the photocopied program for this service says something else is going on behind the scenes. A note from Bishop King, the founder of the church, warns of a "great transition" and asks his congregation for financial support. In an increasingly familiar San Francisco scenario, another business is about to be evicted because the building in which it had been leasing space has been sold. The business' new landlord has doubled the rent, making it impossible for the business to continue. This time, though, the "business" is a church.

San Francisco is adept at fostering the creation of one-of-a-kind cultural landmarks, but not very good at hanging onto them. From topless dancing at the Condor to the Winterland hippie concert venue to the drag-queen emporium of Finocchio's, civic institutions that once made headlines, in San Francisco and around the world, have faded into mere footnotes. The reason for this turnover is partly financial; as rents soar with the Bay Area's flush economy and trends change, some enterprises simply become unprofitable. Also contributing to this changing of the cultural guard, though, are the thousands of new residents the boom economy has attracted to San Francisco -- residents who often have little or no interest in maintaining the city's iconoclastic history. The Coltrane church seems to be a victim of both financial pressure and local neglect.

Bishop King and his flock have been told to leave their building by the middle of March. They have yet to find another location, even a temporary one, with a lease they can afford. King has consulted with an attorney and even asked City Hall for support, but nothing has come of his appeals. In a few weeks, the church that feeds the homeless of the Western Addition will itself be homeless.

One could argue that the Bay Area embraces the spirit of the individual. It certainly boasts a large appreciation for jazz, which has been described as the music of both individualism and community. And the area provides freedom to worship almost any imaginable form of religion. But at this point, there doesn't seem to be anything anyone in San Francisco can do to extend the future of a little church devoted to praising God through a patron saint of jazz.

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