Requiem for a Church Supreme

After three decades of feeding the homeless, the only church devoted to John Coltrane now finds itself without a home

"To the people involved, it's not simple, but from a commercial standpoint, it's very simple," he says. "Month-to-month is very difficult. When a new owner decides that they've got another use in mind, that's it."

San Francisco is experiencing an unprecedented commercial real estate boom. Spaces that once were considered disreputable are now being snatched up by high-tech firms and other companies that are benefiting from the strong economy. If a landlord buys a commercial building, and the tenants are renting month-to-month, if he thinks the market will pay more rent, he has the right to do just about whatever he wants. Even if that means posting an eviction notice on a kitchen that serves the homeless.

So the Coltrane church situation is pretty much over at this point?

MacDonald pauses, and says quietly, "Yeah."

Bishop King eases his wife's car onto Third Street, and slows as he passes a boarded-up tavern. He has been thinking about moving the church into this space, at least temporarily. It's in the heart of the community it serves, and Muni will eventually extend rail service to this point. But he's concerned that the tourist portion of his congregation might hesitate to commute all the way out to the Bayview.

We cruise past rows of residential housing. During Willie Brown's recent campaign, King says, church members actively participated in spreading the word throughout this neighborhood. They helped re-elect the man. To them, he is the father of the city, and they are his children. So King says he went to City Hall to meet with Brown, and asked for assistance.

He stressed his church's civic importance to the mayor, especially in terms of tourism. King envisioned a permanent home for St. John's, where people of all faiths could worship, and take classes in what he calls "Coltrane consciousness." The church would continue its outreach programs, hold a drum clinic, maybe even open a Coltrane college. Brown acknowledged that the church is popular with tourists. "If this is the place for their destination, then we do have to do something about it," King says he was told by the mayor.

To Brown, doing something meant that if King wanted to raise money within the secular community, the mayor would graciously lend his name and his support. As he does with any major real estate development in the city. King doesn't want to take government grants or tax money (constitutional restrictions on state support of religion would make a governmental role dicey, at any rate) and estimates that land, architects, and construction of a new building would cost about $10 million. No money has been raised yet.

King says he spoke briefly with developer Charles Collins, who plans to open a Blue Note jazz club on Fillmore Street as part of the neighborhood's planned Jazz Preservation District. But even if the church could be somehow included in the planned development, such an arrangement could not start until far in the future. Ground hasn't even been broken yet for the new club. And to King, the Western Addition is more lower Pacific Heights than the African-American community he wants to be aligned with. Besides, as he says, who's gonna be able to afford to go to the Blue Note?

After the service, as musicians pack up their instruments, members of the congregation shake hands and say God bless you to one another. Behind the altar of the St. John Coltrane Church and up a short flight of stairs is a Victorian flat with kitchen and restroom. Paint is chipped off the walls, but each vertical surface features at least one photo or poster of Coltrane. Nobody lives here. The rooms are filled with clothing and instrument cases.

A handsome musician in a turtleneck sweater named Clarence Stephens stands in the hallway. He has coordinated the church's food program for the past 11 years, and says between 35 and 55 meals are passed out every Sunday, with smaller numbers on Monday and Wednesday. All the food is donated weekly from Trader Joe's and Rainbow Grocery.

Stephens ended up running the food program after dropping by the church one day to teach music lessons. To him, donating food is a way to help people and see the results right away. "It's hard to give everyone a dollar on the street," he says. "You be out of dollars by the time you get to the end of the block."

In the kitchen, Bishop King's teenage goddaughter Erinne Johnson stands over enormous pots simmering on the stove, serving up beans, rice, and vegetables into styrofoam containers. Hungry homeless people begin lining up at the back door of the flat. Someone drops the Coltrane album Impressions into a boombox, and a saxophone serenades a scene of controlled chaos. People are bustling about, bumping into each other. A child wanders underfoot.

"We need forks," says Johnson, dashing about the kitchen looking in cupboards. "This is not good."

"Not good," says the child.

"Not good at all," says Johnson.

"Not good at all," repeats the child.

Johnson turns to face the first person in line, and hands him a container of hot food with an apologetic look. "You know what, I'm out of forks."

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