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

It soon became clear, King says, that they owed a responsibility to the community. Up to this point, they had just been fasting for one day and then feeding everyone to break the fast. One of the church's main criticisms of traditional faith organizations was that they had failed to alleviate the suffering of the people and ignored those on the streets. The Coltrane-themed church hoped to make a concrete contribution.

"With Anchor Rescue Mission, you'd have to come in, you'd have to listen to a sermon, you'd have to sing 'Rock of Ages,' and all this other stuff, to get a baloney sandwich," says King. "And we were saying, 'We're not gonna come like that. What we're gonna do is invite the people to sit down, give them a copy of John Coltrane's testimony A Love Supreme, and play the music.' And that's what we would do. Coltrane said, 'Let the music speak for itself.' So that was our preaching. We'll just put the music on and baptize the people in sound and let it go from there."

The church originally used the jazz band that had played at the old Yardbird Club, but although the musicians could play Coltrane's music, the service as a whole didn't exactly work out. "Some of the cats couldn't understand what was going on, you know. Because we'd go from 'Giant Steps' to [sings] 'Jesus is on the main line, tell him what you want!' They'd go, 'What?' It was just kind of hard for them, in that they had not been born again."

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.

Eventually the music problems were ironed out. A church member started a weekly Coltrane-themed radio program on the KPOO station, also located on Divisadero. Marina King organized the church's Sisters of Compassion, which acted as a choir for church services and solicited church donations at the San Francisco airport. The airport began donating clothing and luggage to the church from unclaimed lost-and-found items. The new Coltrane Memorial Outreach Programs offered free meals twice a week, counseling for the troubled, clothing and shelter for the needy, and calligraphy classes.

Around 1972, King recalls, members of the church went to Berkeley to see a performance by John Coltrane's widow, pianist Alice Coltrane. "We spent almost two years with her in study and meditation. We benefited greatly from her. She opened our eyes to so many different things spiritually and about John's life personally," he says. "She elevated our community in such a way. Very anointed woman, very wise."

During this period, however, many fringe religious organizations rose to prominence in the Bay Area, from Jim Jones' People's Temple to the Moonies, the Krishnas, and Synanon. King remembers the era well, including the stigma his church picked up. "'Oh, they're the Coltrane cult down there.' I think people still feel that," he says. "I think there's still people who are concerned whether we're down here worshipping John Coltrane, and it bothers them that we might be."

Cult hysteria increased with the Jonestown mass suicide in Guyana. And in 1981, Alice Coltrane turned around and sued the One Mind Temple Evolutionary Transitional Church of Christ for $7.5 million, claiming the group was exploiting her husband's name and infringing on copyright laws.

The news hit the inside front page of the Chronicle: "Widow of 'God' Sues Church." A photo showed King, identified as Ramakrishna King Haqq, sporting a big Afro and beard, sitting in front of a Coltrane-decorated altar. The article outlined the dispute: Coltrane was asking the church to stop desecrating her husband's image; King was saying he didn't care what the allegations were, because the music was healing, and allowed people to lead richer and more productive lives. He told the reporter that the church had even started a movement to get "A Love Supreme" named as the national anthem.

Representatives from the African Orthodox Church in Chicago heard of the lawsuit and sent a vicar to meet with King. This offshoot of Catholicism, founded in 1920 by a United Negro Improvement Association leader named George Alexander McGuire, was a popular affiliation for storefront churches in the eastern United States. The representatives told King they were looking to establish another church in the west.

King was reluctant to get involved. The lawsuit with Alice Coltrane had gone nowhere, but he felt gun-shy. Why should he get caught up with another faith? To him, John Coltrane's picture would always be the highest in his church. But after he met with Archbishop George Duncan Hinkson, the distinguished and charismatic leader of the African Orthodox group, he relaxed. Hinkson assured him he could keep the Coltrane connection.

Bishop King and Mother Marina traveled to Chicago and studied for two years with the principal members of the African Orthodox Church. After King received his Doctor of Divinity degree in 1984, the couple returned to San Francisco. King's church was no longer a group of revolutionaries who aligned themselves with the Black Panthers. Now they were part of an established faith. To King, the African Orthodox affiliation felt like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

"Up to this point, we're doing Sanskrit chanting, things we got from the Holy Ghost, things I brought from the Pentecostal movement, somebody else brought from their Catholic expression, somebody was a Buddhist," King says. "We had all this hodgepodge of things, but when we came under the umbrella of the African Orthodox Church, we had to accept the Sacraments. We had to really deal with being Catholic. So how do we do this? To keep John here?"

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