celebrates 150 years
by Seth Hemmelgarn
A San Francisco church that's been welcoming the LGBT community for more than three decades will celebrate its 150th anniversary this weekend.
The Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist has survived low membership, the 1906 earthquake, an arson fire in the 1970s, and an ever-evolving neighborhood. The church, which occupies a quiet, leafy corner of the Mission District, will host a special Eucharist, reception, and dinner Sunday, November 18.
You don't have to be Episcopalian to attend.
The church offers a "very loving, supportive community," said Kathy Veit, one of the church's lay leaders. The church provides "something people are looking for that can be elusive in a place like the San Francisco Bay Area, where people are too busy to work on relationships," she said.
Veit, who identifies as lesbian and was raised Roman Catholic, said before she became a member three years ago, it had been 25 years since she'd been to church. She said the Bay Area's transitory nature makes it hard for people to get to know each other, but church members do things for each other like taking meals to new parents, and helping elderly church members get to medical appointments.
According to the Reverend John Kirkley, the church's openly gay rector â€“ the pastor of the parish â€“ as many as 80 percent of the church's approximately 90 members are LGBT. Veit said about 60 percent of the church's members live within walking distance, which is close to the Castro District, Noe Valley, and the South of Market neighborhoods.
The church's membership is small â€“ attendance averages about 70 members on Sundays. The members are a mix of "cradle Episcopalians," former Roman Catholics, and, as church literature puts it, "the rest come from a variety of traditions (or none), from atheist to Baptist to Jewish."
St. John's has often been aided financially over the years by the Episcopal Diocese of California, which is comprised of several Bay Area counties and is known for being supportive of the LGBT community. It has also received help in the form of bequests from members when they die. But Veit said the church, which has a budget of about $250,000, has also survived by continuously seeking to meet the needs of the surrounding community.
The church's links to the LGBT community go at least as far back as the early 1970s. Kirkley said it was one of the first churches in San Francisco to include gays and lesbians in all aspects of the church. The church's first openly gay rector, Jim Br
The church allows people "an opportunity to explore the integration of their sexuality and spirituality in a safe and respectful community," Kirkley said.
In the 1980s, during the early years of the AIDS crisis, St. John's offered support to those affected by the disease.
"[The church] became a real support network, almost like a family," Veit said, especially for people whose own families had ostracized them.
The church is also deeply embedded in the Mission District, where some residents â€“ like people in other parts of the city â€“ struggle with poverty and addiction.
"One of the things that made St. John's spiritually mature is its willingness to embrace the inner city and try to be a compassionate presence there," Kirkley said.
The church started St. John's Educational Thresholds Center, a tutoring program for neighborhood youth, in the 1970s. It also rents the kitchen out for Dolores Street Community Services to make dinner for its homeless shelter. Several 12-step groups for people addicted to alcohol and other drugs hold meetings at St. John's.
The church also helps provide people who are visiting sick family members in San Francisco with a place to stay.
St. John's also does work abroad, helping to provide clean water to people in Nicaragua and offering financial support to the Episcopal-Anglican Diocese of class=yshortcuts>El Salvador.
In San Francisco, the church is also considering helping to offer a Spanish-language ministry.
"We're looking forward ... to think about how we can do more in the neighborhood," Veit said.
All are welcome at the November 18 celebration, which begins at 4 p.m. with a special service featuring the Rt. Reverend Marc Handley Andrus, bishop of the Diocese of California. A reception follows at 5:30, with dinner at 6. The cost for the dinner is $50, sliding scale. No one will be turned away for lack of funds. The church is located at 1661 15th Street. For more information, visit www.saintjohnsf.org. Please RSVP by calling (415) 861-1436.