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Unorthodox: S.F.'s Counterculture Churches Offer a Road to Redemption 

Wednesday, Mar 18 2015
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When I drive up to the foot of Twin Peaks on a Sunday morning to attend the Liturgy of the Divine Feminine at herchurch, the congregation inside is friendly and welcoming. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that I'm a newbie, fresh meat, a potential recruit. Among the roughly 50 adults in the sanctuary, fewer than 10 are men. The 90-minute service is structured much like the traditional Catholic services of my youth, except that this one includes soft acoustic folk music, a prayer with a Tibetan bowl and bell, and an ecstatic call-and-response in an indigenous language that sounds like a Pentecostal channeling the Spirit — or, if you prefer, scat.

I pick up some maracas and join in. The homily that follows includes a rousing defense of the selfie stick as a point of entry to divine grace.

If you've lived in San Francisco for any amount of time, you've likely driven past this big purple church across from Tower Market. One of the highest commercial addresses in the city, herchurch sits at the intersection of Portola Drive and Woodside Avenue, essentially at the foot of Twin Peaks Boulevard and within view of the controversial Mount Davidson cross.

On the one hand, herchurch feels like a bizarre outlier. It's a small congregation that might hide in plain sight in an overwhelmingly secular city were it not for its geographical prominence and its paint job. But beyond the Gothic Revival majesty of traditional Christian churches such as Grace Cathedral or the still-thriving Roman Catholic Archdiocese, herchurch is one of several houses of worship in San Francisco that marries a left-wing social justice tradition with a theological outlook that embraces pantheists and atheists along with what one might think of as traditional Christians. These churches may be unorthodox, they may be LGBT-friendly — in one case, they may even consider the late jazz legend John Coltrane a saint — but they are anything but anomalies. They represent a thriving counterculture of specifically Christian-based churches in a city long known for its spiritual alternatives.

Herchurch is technically Ebenezer Lutheran, a 131-year-old congregation. But earlier this century, the church altered its theological orientation to a degree that might rival, say, an early Christian basilica replacing a wine-soaked temple of Dionysus. While still part of the large and fairly liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, herchuch's minster, the Rev. Stacy Boorn, says she felt challenged by the overt masculinity in the language of Scripture.

The Bible, Boorn says, erects "domination structures rather than partnerships." She wanted to reconcile the masculine and feminine aspects of "the Divine One," but within the Lutheran context of "a life of gratitude and justice and grace." The name of the church came about for the most pragmatic reason: When the fledgling congregation began to build a website, nobody had yet registered herchurch. "Much to our excitement and dismay, the domain wasn't taken," Boorn says. "I say 'dismay,' because [it suggested] someone hadn't already used that on their spiritual journey."

Boorn is a cherubic woman who speaks with a soothing lilt, and gesticulates with such vigor that at one point she knocks the glasses off her face. If the very idea of herchurch might make some people roll their eyes at hippies and the things they do, Boorn is a theologically grounded woman who first preached at age 19 and graduated from Berkeley's Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in 1987.

Quite likely owing to the season (Lent), nearly everything at Ebenezer Lutheran is purple or lavender: the vestments, the candles, the altar coverings, some of Boorn's hair, and the pen that's passed around so that we can all sign her birthday card. Apart from some diaphanous banners and paintings in a second-wave feminist style, the décor is otherwise austere and Protestant, since the building was erected for a larger congregation more than a century ago. It feels oversized, like a child wearing a hand-me-down several sizes too big, although the voices of herchurch's enthusiastic congregants fill the space even if their bodies do not.

The vibe is more informal than what I'm used to, the tolerance for cellphones and unruly toddlers higher, and the homily — selfie stick reference and all — considerably more contemporary. Boorn reads from the "reconstructed" Gospel of Mark out of a spiral-bound book that members physically touch. Communion, which I'm specifically invited to participate in, consists of a delicious, still-hot loaf of bread — with a gluten-free alternative — that makes the consecrated wafers of my youth seem like Kraft singles to cave-aged Gruyere.

Am I actually having fun here?

Afterwards, over coffee and brownies, I meet Kathryn, who started coming to herchurch when the conservative Lutheran church she was born into told her that her daughter was going to hell for being in a lesbian relationship. I also sit with Dionne Kohler, the fiftyish "Drumming Priestess" who'd led the tribal call-and-response song. Kohler, who's been drumming since high school, wears her hair tucked in a beret. When she discovered later in life that she was part Native American, Kohler learned that her birth father had been a musician, too. Like several other members, she first encountered herchurch after driving by it — in her case, for 20 years. Kohler says she's not sure of the language of the song she led during the service, but says it's a legend about three bears who save a starving tribe. (So much for scat.)

Fellow parishioner Alison Newvine, who'd written the words of another chant (and who serves as both yoga instructor and president of the Church Council), has an even more striking appearance. Fair and lithe, she wears her hair under a long kerchief and bears a faint resemblance to Girl With a Pearl Earring. Newvine, like Kohler, was raised Catholic. So was another woman, who asked to not be identified because she teaches at a Catholic school and fears she could be fired.

The crowd thins before I can find anyone who's been at Ebenezer Lutheran since the pre-herchurch days, but I do learn there are only five of them left.


About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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