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A junked car sits on a trailer, sulking in the afternoon sun. Several homes sit abandoned in various states of decay. Farther up the same street is a line of industrial warehouses. This is Bayview-Hunters Point. After the Redevelopment Agency swept through the Western Addition in the 1960s, leveling entire blocks of Victorian buildings in a drive to "improve" the neighborhood through urban renewal, the Bayview was the one district where a displaced black population could, and can, afford housing.
Bishop King pulls up to his house in an old black Mercedes with a missing hood ornament. He steps out of the car, looks back as if it were an old friend who hadn't repaid a loan, and shakes his head. Once inside his two-story home he removes his shoes, asking guests to do the same, and changes into black slacks and a dark blue turtleneck. After making a cup of tea, he selects some music from an enormous collection of Coltrane CDs and sits back in a chair.
He's hesitant about discussing his church's eviction, because he hasn't asked for any press on the subject. This article wasn't his idea. Although praised by umpteen national and international journalists -- from Life, Vibe,the Wall Street Journal, the Bravo network, London's Guardian, and many other media outlets -- the church has been portrayed as quirky and silly by San Francisco's mainstream media. So the bishop hasn't bothered to make any noise. He just figures that God will allow something positive to happen.
The Church of Saint
The church's official home page features information about its weekly
What he can't reconcile is the obvious importance of the church to the city, and the little regard the city seems to have for it.
"You know how they say that jazz is the ambassador for the United States? This church has been an ambassador for San Francisco, for the United States. We go to France three times and represent the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, and they say, 'From San Francisco!'"
Coltrane's music hums along in the background. A fiery minister who gives his all during sermons, King seems to be fighting an impulse to raise his voice.
"So we're doing some work in terms of this city. We're saying that the city has a certain responsibility to keep an entity as this not only alive, but properly edified. And that it should be in a position, in a house, in a place that represents not only the dignity of the city, but the dignity of the saint that we represent. And that if in fact that San Francisco leans so heavily on tourism, and you've got a little institution, a little spiritual community here, that's bringing people from all over the world, without any hotel tax money ...." His sentence trails off, but as if playing a saxophone solo, he quickly regains momentum with another thought.
"People are coming from all over the world. The French Consulate -- there was a man from Chile there last night. Said that Coltrane changed his life. He had heard about the church, and knew he had to come to this place."
The Coltrane church does not advertise itself, nor has it ever made any attempt to build up its congregation. Until recently, it never bothered to pass the collection plate. It has survived in near obscurity, supported by private donations, bake sales, and commissions from T-shirts and postcards. Despite this deliberately downplayed public image, the organization has become extremely well known to a worldwide network of jazz fans.
But why in this city? King sips his tea and thinks about that.
"To me, to be significant to San Francisco is to be significant to the world. In other words, if I correct my behavior, it doesn't just affect me and my family, it affects the whole community. As Coltrane says, the whole of the globe is community for us."
The phone rings frequently. Each time King answers with the words "One Mind." One of the church's philosophical tenets posits that emotionally, we are all of one mind -- one anger, one joy, one love. (An earlier version of the church was named the One Mind Temple Evolutionary Transitional Church of Christ.) The bishop advises one caller, a person in need of a bit of counseling, to hang in there, and he will call him back later. And then Bishop King begins to tell the story of how a church dedicated to John Coltrane came to be.
King's parents and grandparents were Pentecostal ministers; music, he says, was extremely important to the service. And even though he grew up in Southern California, a major hub of pop and rock radio in the 1950s, King was allowed to listen only to church music (and, for some reason, country and western). In fact, his earliest memory of jazz comes from a church jam session by a Sacramento group called the Ford Brothers.
As a teenager, King was introduced to jazz in bits and pieces. One day he came home from high school and his older brother was playing "My Favorite Things," a 1961 jazz version of the popular Broadway show tune sung by Mary Martin. This version of the piece sounded very strange, almost Indian or Middle Eastern.