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Stopping on the Street for Coltrane: A Real Latter Day Saint
One sunny Sunday in March of 1997, I went outside for a walk. The whole city of San Francisco held a promenade on this particular morning. I was up early. We had a house guest sleeping in the den, which limited my options to get away from the non-morning persons who were usually quite annoyed with my early morning movement. With all the rooms taken, I had to get out of there. I grabbed the requisite latte at my local coffee bar. Still fairly new to the city, I relished its energy and vibrancy with that sort of innocence you get to experience through life from time to time.
Sipping my coffee, I made my way up to Divisadero Street where I heard pulsating drum and horn music coming out of a storefront of the SAINT JOHN COLTRANE AFRICAN ORTHODOX CHURCH. The music may or may not have been polished, but carried down the street, it drew me to it. A gob of people stood outside on the sidewalk grooving to this jazzy gospel improv. I peeked in the doorway and the room was wall-to-wall people. It held about 40 people and over half were playing some kind of instrument. And, for an African Church, it seemed to be mostly white people. At least half. None of it seemed to matter. Colorblindness abounded and pulsed with musical squeegees and drum hits. I stood hungrily next to a beaming woman. I leaned into her while clapping and said, "I've always wanted to check this out but I don't want to offend."
"Oh, go in. That’s what they want you to do. You won't regret it."
I was intrigued by this place since I saw it months ago. There are paintings of Jesus and John Coltrane in the display windows. There was an organ on one side, and on the other side, during services; a man playing trumpet stood in the display window. I stood out there for a while until a smiling gentleman donning a fancy embroidered skullcap and a grabbable graybeard coaxed me inside. I pulled out some crumpled dollar bills for the offering and found myself going deeper and deeper until this dancing black man wearing a brightly colored shirt and a tag that read "usher" boogied me into a pew and shoved a maraca in my fist.
There were people with musical instruments all over. The guy in front of me had to sit in a very strange position so he could play his trombone and not sock the guy in front of him in the head. At the altar was a drummer, pianist, bassist, and bongo drummer, and this church was ROCKIN. There was a choir made up of women (white and black) with their hair in cornrows. I found the backbeat of the jam and shook my maraca as if I knew what I was doing.
I was raised Catholic and have been in very few non-Catholic churches. I especially have never really been to a Baptist service or any kind of fire-and-brimstone Protestant church except for a few weddings. I used to attend St. Augustine's Catholic Church in DC on occasion. It is the nation's oldest Black Catholic Church and its Mass was like no Mass I'd ever attended. Moved by that experience, I leaned apologetically toward a woman next to me and said, "it’s been so long since I've been to Church." She replied crisply, "That’s the good thing about Church. You can always come back." I thought, screw atheism. I wanta find my soul.
This Church seemed to have elements of Catholicism, Baptist and I-don't-know-what. There was some preaching, some Amens, Yeah Brothahs and Yeah Sistahs in between the singing and jammin'. It was a simple service in a cramped, dingy building, but I slipped into a bucolic stupor feeling for a brief moment that peace (all kinds inner, outer, world) could be possible if we all just played an instrument at a church somewhere, anywhere. With all the whining and bitching and bombing we do for God’s attention, I'm convinced his preferred way to communicate with us is through music. For me, all forms of music can send me into some deep, warm place way inside me. It is where God is. It has to be.
I stayed at this church on this Sunday much longer than I anticipated. Partly cuz I wanted to, partly cuz the usher was shaking a tambourine right where I would need to make my escape. And, as I shook the maraca, it became a part of all the rattling that was happening so how could I leave and be responsible for stopping this chattering phone call to God. God, Jesus and St. John were all giving us THE WORD and THE MUSIC. I couldn't leave just yet. I stayed until my arms got tired and the service winded down and spent the rest of the day with the notes in my ears.
A few years later, even the power of St. John couldn't fight the power of the almighty dollar and the tantalizing temptation of riches the now-defunct dot-com boom promised. In 1999, the owner of the storefront that housed the church for something like 30 years wanted a bigger piece of the action. So, the Coltranites had their rent tripled on them and they had to move. The fate of the church was shaky for a few months, but the members and their surrounding community rallied to their aid and they were able to stay close to their neighborhood, relocating on Gough Street. The storefront is now really a store again. Sadly, it now houses a store selling skinny girl clothes. I don't really know what the fate of this store will be given that the girls who can fit in those clothes are probably laid off now and shopping at Ross or hitchhiking the world.
Across the street, the local record store has tried to keep the music on Diviz. But, it’s not the same community spirit at St. John’s. The music store seems more intent on just being really really loud to scream WE ARE HERE. The Coltrane Church did a more "COME ON IN" kind of shouting. Funny how music can open a door and also build a giant concrete wall. Like language. Like drugs. Like art. Like... a lot of things in society.
At the Cheese Board, also located on Divisadero (no music, but great cheese), we lamented the passing of the Church and all agreed that in its place there should have been a bakery... not a skinny girl store.
The clothing store remains as of this writing, but when I pass it, I usually only see a lonely, silent employee folding overpriced T-shirts. No music. For a long time, there was a sign letting latecomers know where St. John had moved too. The only remnant of all that wild, beautiful music... the last vestige of what used to be a hopping part of the Fillmore District.
Lynn LandryGot feedback on this page? Share it with the moocat!
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