SF Lutheran church celebrates 150 years
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Homeless and newly diagnosed as HIV-positive, Jordan Ward one day in 1994 found himself in front of Saint Paulus Lutheran Church and decided to sleep on the steps of the congregation's Gothic sanctuary then at Gough and Eddy streets. The parish administrator at the time offered him a cup of coffee and engaged him in conversation.
Their encounters grew into daily coffee klatches and lengthier talks, eventually leading Ward to join the congregation. Ward, a gay man, credits his doing so with saving his life.
"I was homeless and really had no direction. It was that coffee and conversation which drew me into service and to be of service," said Ward, 56, who for the past six years has served as president of Saint Paulus' Church Council, on which he has served for 15 years. "It took seven years from that first coffee to me having permanent housing."
He also began attending the church's weekly Friendship Banquet, started in order to provide people living with HIV and AIDS a healthy, hot meal. The seating, capped at 36, is by reservation only for the dinners, which are held most Tuesday afternoons except during the first week of the month.
"But it was different from any other meal program in the city because it was a meal served on fine china with linen tablecloths, candles, and flowers. It was a chance to be waited on in a dining room experience," said Ward, who now serves as the banquet director.
It is just one of the pro-LGBT stances Saint Paulus has taken over its 150 years, a milestone anniversary that the church is marking this weekend. In 1990, for instance, it hosted the extraordinary ordination of the first three gay candidates to the Lutheran pastoral ministry. The ordinations sparked a two-decade fight over the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's anti-gay policies and led to the ejection of two San Francisco congregations from the ELCA.
"Almost right from the beginning issues that confronted the gay community the congregation has certainly been responsive," said the Reverend Daniel Solberg, 67, who has been at Saint Paulus for 18 years. "The congregation has been open and welcoming forever, since the beginning of time."
In 2009 the national Lutheran Church revised its policies and dropped a requirement that LGBT pastors need to be celibate. The following year six LGBT pastors ordained extraordinarily and two pastors who had been dismissed from the ELCA clergy roster were received as full-fledged pastors in the church at a ceremony at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in San Francisco.
Today, quite a few of Saint Paulus's 90 congregants are members of the LGBT community.
"Since I have been here, we have focused on the marginal and homeless folks. From that gathering of people there have been a rather significant number of gay folks who have entered and ascended to our congregational life," said Solberg, a straight ally.
Eight years ago Stephen Camarota, 45, a gay man who lives near Saint Paulus' current location at 1541 Polk Street, joined the congregation after a friend he knew from the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus invited him to join the church's choir. Four years later Camarota, who was raised Episcopalian, joined its council, on which he now serves as secretary.
"I had lost interest in church for a while. When I joined them I regained it," said Camarota, who was later hired by St. Francis Lutheran Church in the Castro as its food programs administrator. "Saint Paulus has a welcoming, but not forceful, approach I find appealing."
The congregation has a "storied history," said Solberg, noting that it survived the 1906 earthquake and fire. Its then-pastor pleaded with firefighters not to blow up the church as they formed a firebreak to halt the conflagration that was sweeping up from downtown San Francisco.
"In thanksgiving for that, the church donated its space to the first responders and acted as a hospital and shelter for 10,000 people over the course of reconstruction," said Solberg.
But in 1995 Saint Paulus did succumb to fire, believed set by an arsonist, forcing it to become a "storefront church" operating in three different locations over the ensuing years.
It is now finalizing architectural plans for a new 14,000 square foot church at the site of where it was founded on the corner of Gough and Eddy streets. The developer Maracor bought the property from the church and, in January, won approval to build an 80-unit housing development there. Saint Paulus will own a commercial condominium on the ground floor it expects to move into sometime in 2019.
"It will have some imagery that will reflect the original Saint Paulus Church. It will look like a Lutheran church," said Solberg. "We have been working on this quite some time. We finally nailed the contracts and all the development pre-work."
Added Camarota, "It is a great chance to, not reboot exactly, but to see where we have been and are going. We are designing every nail and piece of wood in the new building."
Having its own church again will present "an exciting opportunity" for the congregation, said Ward, who attended a Baptist church as well as other denominations growing up in Michigan.
"Because, like I said, having a permanent space gives us an opportunity to showcase ourselves and what we have to offer," he said. "I think people don't realize how inclusive we really are. People have an unfavorable view of religion itself. They don't even try to look for churches that will accept them."
As part of its 150th anniversary celebration, Saint Paulus is giving $30,000 each to five local nonprofit organizations from its endowment fund and individual gifts. The organizations include Lutheran Social Services of Northern California; the Sojourn Chaplaincy at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital; the San Francisco Interfaith Council; and the San Francisco Night Ministry.
The fifth is S. Maria y S. Marta Lutheran Church, its sister Latino congregation in the Mission that will use the money to send a youth delegation in June to Wittenberg, Germany for the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation and to other German cities.
At 7 p.m. Friday, May 19 Saint Paulus is hosting a free anniversary concert at its Polk Street space that is open to the public. At 10 a.m. Sunday, May 21 there will be a festival worship service at the church, presided over by Bishop Mark Holmerud, followed until 3 p.m. by an open house with food and beverages provided by S. Maria y S. Marta Lutheran Church.
To make a reservation for the Friendship Banquet, held most Tuesdays at 4 p.m. at the Old First Presbyterian Church, located at 1751 Sacramento Street, call (415) 673-8088.