On a recent Sunday morning, I took my family to church as I do most Sundays. But this Sunday was different. After our worship service, bicyclists began gathering outside my church from San Francisco’s diverse inter-faith community. I welcomed everyone to my church and began my role of presiding over this first-ever inter-faith service on wheels. My church (shown here) was the first stop of eight stops total covering different San Francisco churches as diverse as San Francisco itself. We had members and leaders on the ride from churches that were gay-inclusive, Jewish, Buddhist, Unitarian Universalists, Christian, and more. For the next few hours, we rode to visit each of these churches and engaged in a liturgy to honor each of the churches. This was the first ride of its kind in San Francisco, and my quick Google query says this was the first inter-faith “rolling” service done by bicycle anywhere on earth.
What an honor for me to emcee this worshipful bicycle gathering for it provided me a unique way to love and bless these 40 bikers of different faiths. That was more than enough motivation put the liturgy together into a seamless experience. I spent time researching each site’s architecture, history, and faith backgrounds. I also corresponded with their leaders, priests, rabbi’s and reverends, then integrated their input into the ride. On the day of the event, riders experienced a liturgy that honored and blessed their church’s history, members, and its vision. At some of the church sites, a church leader would give the overview and invite all of us inside to witness their respective sacred spaces. When a church leader was not available, I presented each church’s history and vision. I ended each site visit with a benediction for the church, its members, and our riders. This was always followed by the ringing of our bike bells! As the ride progressed, love, camaraderie, and connection with each other grew. At the end of the ride, my job was over and I handed the “baton of leadership” over to the Reverend Allyson Jacks of the Unitarian Universalist Church and Shundo David Haye, Director of the San Francisco Zen Center to lead us in the closing ceremony. I was delightfully surprised by all the hugs and hi-fives I received. And people still hung around after it was all over; we started as strangers and ended as friends.
Though we came from different faith backgrounds and hold different world views (What is truth? Does it exist? What happens after we die?), the bonding we experienced with each other was something I’ve never experienced on a ride with people I had just met. To be fair, there are many other kinds of organized bike rides in San Francisco (literary book rides, coffee rides, bike to work, bike to school, bike to yoga, and yes, even naked rides) that could provoke bonding experiences. For example, a coffee ride to SF’s best coffee houses could very well be a “heavenly” experience that can bond people together. But there was just something intimate about visiting the spiritual homes of the riders we had, for these were the very spiritual homes where they sang, chanted, meditated, and communed with their “higher power.” In my opinion, sharing that kind of story with each other can hit greater depths then sharing a love for a beverage or a sport. And I’m willing to bet that no other ride has ever intentionally sought to bring out the stories of its riders through the very places that they worship at. In my work, I’ve given similar tours of San Francisco’s neighborhoods (e.g. Chinatown) where I interweave historical narrative into the student’s background and story so that the student enters into the tour as a participant, and not as a tourist. But these tours I do for my work are usually restricted to those who are studying for some kind of cross-cultural work (like counseling, pastoring, or work abroad) within the Christian faith. But to be able to give that kind of experience to the wider inter-faith community was such a joy for me. Many told me through words, hugs, and high-fives how much they appreciated the whole ride. And for me, I learned the story and even the spiritual inquiries of many of my new friends. By the end of the ride, my voice was shot, my diaphragm tired after all the open-air talking in the loud San Francisco streets. There were only 40 bicyclists but with their bikes in tow, the space we took up at each stop was several times our actual number. But the effort was worth it, to have the privilege of blessing and loving SF’s worshiping community of different faiths!
The Inter-faith bike ride was a team effort:
One of the highlights for me was working on a wonderful inter-faith team of church leaders. The idea of an inter-faith ride was first birthed in the heart of the Rev. Alyson Jacks of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Francisco. She was the one who pitched the idea to the San Francisco Bike Coalition (www.sfbike.org). Bonnie Walton, event planner for the Coalition, worked with us to get us off the ground. She arranged for the Bike Coalition’s Executive Director to speak at the InterFaith meeting, coordinated the publicity, and even provided food for the ride! Shundo David, director of the San Francisco Zen Center was a major force in our planning, and a wonderful speaker. Shundo recruited Myles Cowherd, also of the Zen Center to actually plan the route with input from the team. On the ride itself, between the liturgies, Myles was the one who led the way, the one who led the directing of traffic (one time, he single-handedly stopped all traffic on busy Gough St so we could all merge right), and with his huge booming voice, was the overall cheerleader for us all. Two Buddhists, a Unitarian Universalist, and me, a Christian, along with the bike coalition event planner made up the core team. Others were involved to help write some of the liturgy presented throughout the ride. The whole thing was such a wonderful group effort; we trusted each other (that we would not proselytize riders with our public role!), worked so well together, and our strengths complimented each other. Bonnie, Allyson, Shundo, and Myles, thank you for being who you are!
As a Christian, I’m called to “love my neighbor.” When I look at the life of Jesus, the word “neighbor” often means loving those you’re unlikely to hang out with, like natural enemies. Jesus often pursued “those” kinds of people, and it often threw the “religious” folks of his day in a fit! Now, I’m fully aware of how Christians are perceived here in San Francisco. Books I’ve read about San Francisco like “Season of the Witch” remind me that the tension of being a Christian in San Francisco is decades old. From dozens of conversations just in the past year alone on this subject, I know Christians can be seen as dogmatic, non-tolerant, etc. Just on this ride, a good number of riders shared stories of Christians they personally knew whom they felt were overly dogmatic and non-tolerant. And I listened, and often felt sad listening. I can’t judge those who claim to be Christians. The Jesus I follow loved people where they were at. The issue of change can’t come into the conversation until someone is loved. Love bridges every gap; the beloved will change, but out of love. Jesus loved this way all the way to his crucifixion. The afternoon of the interfaith ride was an afternoon of sharing love in a healthy way, love for our worship centers, its architecture, its history, our City, and the beauty of all its citadels, spires, and towers. But what I enjoyed most was simply being able to bless the riders with whatever I had. Because when their stories and histories are honored, they are loved. And it’s always nice to share that with others.