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2602: St Francis Lutheran, San Francisco, California, USA
St Francis Lutheran, San Francisco (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Portola.
The church: St Francis Lutheran, San Francisco, California, USA.
Denomination: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The building: It's in a Danish-Gothic style, put up by Danish Lutherans in 1905/1906 with funding help from Queen Louise of Denmark. It has red brick walls with a wooden steeple. Biblical texts in Danish can be seen in the altar area. The church was damaged twice by earthquakes: the monumental quake of 1906 interrupted its construction, and the 1989 quake caused a wall to collapse. The most striking feature of this church, in my opinion, are the stained-glass windows, having a deep, rich color and texture. The restroom in particular is unique – it boasts two stained glass windows, giving it a sanctified atmosphere. One of the windows depicts St Clare of Assisi, the 13th century abbess who founded the order of nuns known as the Poor Clares, holding a host and ciborium. (Legend has it that Clare once warded off soldiers of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II from invading her convent by holding up the Blessed Sacrament at a window.)
The church: In 1990 St Francis Church called and ordained two lesbian pastors. In the same year another ELCA congregation in San Francisco ordained a gay pastor. In 1996, after years of controversy and debate, the ELCA expelled both congregations. Since then the ELCA has modified its views, and in 2011 St Francis voted to come back to the ELCA. They belong to Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries (ELM), which (quoting from their website) "expands ministry opportunities for publicly-identified lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people called to leadership in the Lutheran church as ordained pastors and rostered lay leaders." Among St Francis' ministries is a meal program for homeless and needy people. This year 11,901 meals have been provided. St Francis opens its doors every Sunday at 7.30am, offering meals, hospitality and support services to whoever comes.
The neighborhood: The church is located in a part of town called the Duboce Triangle, which features attractive Victorian houses, parks and tree-lined streets. Seven streetcar lines have stops near St Francis (including a historic vintage line), which must be some kind of a world record. This neighborhood was once populated heavily by Germans and Scandinavians, who created five Lutheran churches offering services in German, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish. Duboce Triangle is adjacent to the Castro District, which is possibly the oldest, largest and most active gay community in the world. Nearby (a 15 minute walk) is Mission Dolores, officially Mission San Francisco de Asis; it is the oldest surviving building in the city (built in 1776) and gave the city its name.
The cast: The guest preacher and presider was the Revd Andreas Pielhoop, pastor of St Matthew's German Evangelical Lutheran Church, San Francisco. The assisting minister was the Revd Michael Bass-Deschenes. Carol Moilan served as lector. The organist was not named.
The date & time: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 8, 2013, 11.00am.

What was the name of the service?

How full was the building?
It was less than a quarter full, with about 40 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
As we entered the building we were greeted in a friendly manner and given bulletins. We were greeted again upon entering the sanctuary.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was quiet. When people greeted one another it was usually with a hug.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Blessed be the Holy Trinity, one God: the Holy One who dwells in light; Christ Jesus, who came to save sinners; the Holy Spirit, who lives within us. Amen."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
There were no books, but a bulletin was available with all the words and songs of the service. The liturgy and hymns were mostly from Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

What musical instruments were played?

Did anything distract you?
Because it was a warm day, the windows were open, letting in the noises of the city: streetcars, trucks, airplanes. One cell phone jingled during the service.

St Francis, San Francisco (Altar)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was formal Lutheran worship, but omitting words that give God a gender, such as "Father" and "Lord". Also the creed was missing. A crucifer led a procession to the center of the sanctuary for the gospel reading, which is not typical for Lutherans. A special moment in the service was the sending out of the two deacons who were commissioned to take communion to the sick, the homebound and the imprisoned. The Lordís Prayer was paraphrased in such a way that it was almost unrecognizable. It began with the words: "God, lover of us all, most Holy One, help us to respond to you, to create what you want for us here on earth." This paraphrase emphasized what we as humans are capable of doing with the help of God, whereas the original, in my opinion, emphasizes what God is being asked to accomplish.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
17 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The preacher was born and trained in Germany. He showed his German theological discipline by using every aspect of his sermon to interpret the gospel reading. He held the attention of the listeners with humor, quotes and illustrations. He showed integrity in the way he dealt with a most difficult text.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
In the gospel reading (Luke 14: 25-33) Jesus talks about the necessity of "hating" one's own family and of forsaking all possessions in order to be a disciple. Church growth consultants suggest that a congregation should find out what people need and try to satisfy those needs. But Jesus contradicts this approach, asking the impossible without regard to so-called religious needs. Being a follower of Jesus involves some form of dying for Jesusí sake.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Holy communion is always the moment when heaven and earth come together. In this church it has an added dimension because of the participation of people who in earlier times would have felt themselves excluded because of their sexual identity.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The building is guarded by a heavy metal fence with gates – a typical sight in a big city – that shield the church from break-ins, vandalism and unwelcome intruders. After the service the gate could only be opened from the inside. Arguably this protection is necessary, but it is disconcerting to enter a church through an outer gate that turns the church into a secure area. It makes one aware of the criminal aggressiveness that threatens even a church serving the poor of the neighborhood.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no chance to look lost. After the organ postlude, our neighbor in the pew engaged us in friendly conversation and invited us to the coffee fellowship.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was fine. There was also plenty to eat. People sat at tables and remained for a long time after the service.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I am grateful for congregations like St Francis, which embody the all-encompassing grace of God. I have no doubt that one could find genuine Christian fellowship here. However, the gender-neutral language would be a barrier. Addressing God simply as "God" or "the Holy One" is too abstract and too impersonal. Also, it is important to me, when praying the Lordís Prayer, to have a more or less traditional formulation, because it gives me the feeling of being connected with Christians of all times and in all places.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, indeed. St Francis Church apparently pays careful attention to the language and dignity of the liturgy. The outreach programs are extraordinary. It would be an honor to be a part of this unique congregation.

St Francis, San Francisco (Window)

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The restroom under the special protection of St Clare. It is obvious that these windows were not originally meant to be part of a WC, but ended up in this place due to creative reconstruction. I am sure that the sacred feeling of this room contributes to maintaining its remarkably spotless appearance.
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