By Erin Sherbert
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Sister Dione Bell is on the drum kit singing when her father, Pastor Joesiah Bell, strides into the sanctuary and heads for the pulpit. He hushes the music and greets the handful of people gathered for a Wednesday-night service at the Church at San Francisco Where Jesus Is Lord.
"Praise the Lord, everyone!" his deep voice booming through the nearly empty church. Bell talks about how happy he is to be in the House of the Lord, and adds, "I don't know about you, but I think there's some truth here to be found!"
The assemblage had left off at the 13th chapter of First Corinthians during the previous service, but Bell takes a break from gospel chapter and verse to talk about the importance of helping those in need whether it be with food or shelter. "If you would love your neighbor as yourself!" he says.
He adds, "Whew! Now that is a hard sell!"
That description would be appropriate for Bell and his bright blue church in Noe Valley these days, especially since he launched a fundraising campaign to build temporary housing for homeless women and their children, which he named the House of Sarah. In April, he announced plans for the $5 million building, an expansion that would have added three more floors to the church, and it would include additional plans for services like life-skills and vocational training programs.
The housing would be located at the corner of Church and 28th streets, an area that is undergoing a transformation of its own with new restaurants and shops in family-friendly, upscale Noe Valley.
The pastor heard from the neighbors about his planned refuge. For the most part, they were outraged.
Bell says of the nearby residents: "These are women, they said in the '60s they were flower children. But they don't think it's appropriate in their neighborhood."
Noe residents have voiced concerns about safety, drugs, drug dealers, and even shootings. "I mean, you'd think I was running a prostitution ring," Bell says, sitting behind the desk in his study at the church which he also calls home. Bell, who is black, says he feels racism is fueling much of the opposition to his House of Sarah plans. He sits, his broad shoulders sagging, next to a sign hanging on the wall that reads, "Lord Help Me Hang In."
Rather than continue the righteous fight, Bell got so fed up with his neighbors that he's hanging it up, selling the property, and leaving Noe Valley. A Concord-based company, J. Branch Developments, is now working to construct market-rate condominiums at the site. The plan involves retail space on the first floor and about six condominiums scheduled to go up for sale in early 2008. J. Branch Developments is currently in the process of applying for permits, assistant project manager Candace Branch says, adding that meetings with neighbors "went well."
"There's not a lot of opposition to replacing the church," Upper Noe Neighbors president Vicki Rosen told The Noe Valley Voice in October. "It doesn't have a warm place in many people's hearts."
Rosen now adds that the church's lack of communication with its neighbors, not racism, fueled concern about the shelter. She says that anybody who wants to build "a halfway house or a homeless shelter" in a neighborhood would have to answer questions from residents.
Many in Noe Valley also objected when the Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco tried to shelter young homeless gay people in the neighborhood during the winter of 2000.
Trouble is, hundreds of San Francisco homeless people are without housing. Between July 1, 2005, and June 30, 2006, 630 families waited for shelter in the city, according to Jennifer Friedenbach, organizing director for the Coalition on Homelessness, San Francisco. Friedenbach is tired of the "not in my backyard" attitude she keeps encountering in "so-called progressive San Francisco." She says that during her 10 years of organizing throughout the city not just Noe Valley people freak out when they hear poor people are moving in. "Just because people are poor does not mean they are criminals," Friedenbach says.
The majority of residents who were interviewed did not want their names used, but say they don't feel Noe Valley is an appropriate location for a homeless shelter.
Yet some Noe Valley residents are deeply disappointed in the action of their neighbors.
"I just feel bad. The guy was trying to do a nice thing," Noe Valley homeowner Charlie Lichtman says. "Maybe it's an awful sign of the neighborhood. It's an unfortunate sign of the times."
The baggage and bad feelings between the Church at San Francisco and neighbors seem to have begun long before the House of Sarah. The church moved to the neighborhood in 1965, settling into a 1916 movie house. It was then called Holiness Temple in Christ. The bright blue one-story adobe-style building certainly stands out amid the posh shops and rows of pretty pastel houses of Noe Valley.
And the pastor, who was previously a Baptist, Black Muslim, and Pentecostal, does not exactly fit the consumer culture of the Church Street shops surrounding him. His church billboards hold drawings of Christmas trees and Santa with crosses over them. One billboard posting reads, "Santa Claus, also known as Santa Claus or Saint Nicolas, the famous mythical creature loved by multitudes across the world, is a demonic caricature of our Lord Jesus Christ."