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."
But Bell believes the church's troubles with its neighbors date back to 1996, when he returned to San Francisco after years in Seattle, Sacramento, and Richmond. He was moved by the city's tremendous problems with homelessness, and decided to invite homeless people to stay in the church. He says that's when he started getting angry calls from the neighbors. "I thought the attitude was that I'm going to be bringing all these 'black' people into our neighborhood," Bell says.
The church has since been hit with multiple code violations, including violations for having a pile of debris at the side door of the church, remodeling without a permit, distributing food to the homeless without a permit, a wall crumbling near the foundation, and having people living in the church.
The word some neighbors use when describing the church is "sketchy," but Bell insists the violations are simply a symptom of harassing neighbors who call to complain every chance they get.
The pastor and his church have had internal problems beyond neighborhood squabbles. In June 2004, the Church at San Francisco Where Jesus Is Lord sued Associated Trustee Services, BDM Mortgage Services, and others. The case alleges that the pastor attempted to borrow $237,000 from BDM Mortgage without getting permission from the church's board of trustees. "The funds (if any) obtained by the Pastor were not used for the benefit of the Church," court documents read. The church, which was clearly concerned about foreclosure, requested dismissal of the case in May 2005.
A few months later, in September 2005, the pastor's wife, Teresa Bell, filed for divorce. In that case, she's filed an order restraining him from selling or disposing of any property "except in the usual course of business or for the necessities of life as presented to the Court," documents read.
The pastor allegedly took money that Teresa Bell earned at her job and used it for the church, according to his wife's attorney Drexel Bradshaw, who's arguing that she was entitled to her community share of the property. That case is still in litigation.
The pastor says disputes over his finances, and his wife's attempt to claim church property, wouldn't be happening if he were a white pastor. "This is just ridiculous, it borders on the absurdity," he says, adding, "I'm trying to transform people's lives." The church has received $800,000 from condominium developers, Bell says, but it's unclear where it will move if and when construction at the Church Street site begins. And he's still holding out a shred of hope that he could stay put and build the House of Sarah right in Noe Valley. Sketches and plans for the shelter still hang on the door outside.
And, at the end of the Wednesday-night service, Bell and the dozen or so people who eventually gathered there each took out some money and raised a hand "to the Lord" for an offering. Calling out for donations, Bell reminds them that he would need $5 million for the House of Sarah. "Don't bring a check!" he says. "Bring cash! Money order!"
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