The Rarely told Story of How SF’s Congregations have helped shape San Francisco

This  post chronicles the 2nd Annual Interfaith Bike Ride, an event co-sponsored by the  San Francisco Bike Coalition and Interfaith Council that happened on May 22nd, 2016.

“We built this City (on rock on roll)!” goes the old #1 San Francisco-anthem from my youth. I actually detested that song (overly pop) but the title was just THAT catchy. When people think about the foundations of San Francisco, we think about any number of things, the artists, the laborers, and of course, the bands and music. All of these gave tremendous voice to the cries and the passions of SF’s citizens.

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Congregations to visit on the 2nd Annual Interfaith Bike Tour

But it’s often not told how San Francisco’s churches also gave voice to SF’s people and helped shape its culture. Before all the coffee shops and performance spaces ever came to be, even before the Mission District saw its its influx of Latino culture, the church had a formative role in helping shape San Francisco.  Given that San Francisco has a “touted reputation as a bastion of liberal tolerance,” the idea that SF’s churches had any influence on the City sounds foreign. But I believe telling this untold story would catalyze this story, pushing it forward among riders of the 2nd annual interfaith ride who are already seeking the welfare of San Francisco through its respective congregations.


To tell this story, we visited a variety of “sacred spaces” of different congregations in San Francisco. We stood among gardens and

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The gardens of St. John’s (note the red doors on the right)

memorials in different churches where ashes of AIDS victims and refugees of war seeking sanctuary were scattered. We stood inside both modern and historical sanctuaries amidst the stained glass windows and alters as we listened to gripping testimony of how congregations stood with and advocated for past and present victims of war, housing displacement, and local law enforcement. Standing in those sacred spaces, amidst the memorials, under the spires and towers and stained glass, at even hearing the deep bellows of pipe organs, the stories of present-day advocacy and past heroes were speaking to us and captivating our hearts.

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Admiring one of the sanctuaries that provided refuge for refugees and victims

Following are just a few highlights of the congregations we visited over a few hours. St. John’s the Evangelist church founded one of the City’s oldest hospitals, St. Luke’s. Standing first in St. John’s garden, then moving into their main sancturay, Father Richard Smith shared the very recent story of Mr. Lopez, shot in the back 6 times by police and how their church is advocating for his case and for many others. Father Richard also showed us the red doors76D5B495-B778-4316-8AD8-8EFA7DC0AA89 of his church, red being the color that signified sanctuary. For example, in the 1980’s when refugees were escaping El Salvador, the church made a commitment that any family being deported could step through those red doors and be “safe.”…At Grace Fellowship Community Church, Pastor Craig Wong told the story of how a Presbyterian missionary (Cameron Donaldina) decades ago saved literally thousands of young women from the sex trade and from the deplorable conditions at the immigration station, essentially a prison for Chinese during the Chinese Exclusion Era. One of these women was his grandmother shown here … St. Peter’s church was another sanctuary for refugees during Ronald Reagan’s war in Central America. That’s when the mural behind me in the picture was painted (shown above the title). There, I also dramatized a few lines from a speech given by Father Peter Yorke, one of the outspoken advocates for the rights of the working man during the labor wars in the early 1900’s. In those days, the Irish Catholics played an extraordinarily influential role role in the political and social development of San Francisco up to the 1970s. But riders were also encouraged by how present day churches are having an impact on San Francisco, bringing together diverse populations, different races together serving in the prisons, legally advocating for immigrants, and so much more. We ended our ride with debriefing at the St. Francis, one of the most outspoken voices for the inclusion of LGBTQ into their clergy. The story of the church’s influence on San Francisco culture is a complex story, and not always a pretty one. As the main architect for the story, we did not  shy away from the racism and imperialism woven into the story of churches in San Francisco. But by sharing just a few slices of these stories, we can honor them, and learn why we don’t have more freeways, why our neighborhoods look the way they do, why we don’t have even MORE displaced people, and learn to better seek the welfare of the people in San Francisco. As has been the case for all of SF’s history, anything we do here with an impact for San Francisco’s local people will have a national, and sometimes international impact.


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One of SF’s new bike lanes

There was no better way to tell this story then by bike; it could not have been told any other way. The congregations would have been too far apart to visit by foot; it would have taken too much time to mass transit to each destination, and it would have been too prohibitive to try to park at each location. And there’s always a camaraderie inherent to traveling in an entourage by bike. And if you’re not familiar with the feasibility of biking in San Francisco, the last few years have seen a tremendous increase in bicycle infrastructure. Seems like each week, I experience new, separated bike lanes, bike signals, staging areas for turns added and more. All this has led about 100% increase in bike usage in San Francisco since 2011. Having lived and studied in bike capitals of the U.S. like Davis, CA and Fort Collins, CO, I’m personally excited about this infrastructure. Our interfaith bike tour was inclusive of all bike levels. It IS possible to cover a lot of ground without hitting hills in San Francisco (thanks for bike routes that follow underground creeks that cut in between the hills). We had everyone on the ride from newbies to everyday bike commuters.  The advance Roman roads of 2000 years ago allowed for the spread of the Apostle Paul’s message; SF’s bike lanes and infrastructure was the spine that enabled the experience of this untold story to be told in the best way possible.


Planning the ride:
The main advocate of the ride, the one who really kicked this thing off the ground several years ago was Rev. Alyson Jacks of the Unitarian Universalist Church. A year ago, she and I were strangers. Today, her friendship is a gift to me. Even our respective church youth groups have hooked up to bless each other. For example, in my last post, I wrote about how both our respective youth groups met together for a special class to explore faith practices and its relevance for their lives.  Since last year, I’ve gotten to be friends with other leaders as well. Just last month, I visited the synagogue of another faith leader. What a blessing to see and hear him lead a liturgy in Hebrew. Our planning team included members of SF’s Interfaith Council and staff from SF’s walking and biking advocacy organizations.  Planning an event across organizations can be tricky. And in my opinion, can be especially tricky among religious organizations that don’t share world views because for some, our spirituality starts to get “personal.” It’s not the kind of “safe” conversation one often hears over coffee. (although I’ve personally bucked that trend) Heck, it’s even tricky among different congregations even in the same church to smoothly plan an event! But our planning was smooth sailing. We all submitted, delegated, respected, and trusted each other. My contribution this year was being the main architect of the ride; the team gifted me with their trust. During the ride while I led the stops, Alyson led the bikers to our next destination. Along the way, we had to make a good amount of mid-course adjustments, and that too was done without a hitch because of the trust we’ve built up for each other. What a joy for me to experience that with these other leaders.
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Planning Committee: Ralph Sinick of Bnai Emunah; Bea Chun of St. Francis; Bonnie Walton of the Bike Coalition; Alyson Jacks of UUC, Myles Cowherd of Zen Center, and me
In the words of participants, the tour was “History mixed with God, totally loved it…I was surprised to hear how churches have wrestled with AIDS and the LBGTQ community. I grew up in the midwest where churches are more conservative…eye opening…(seeing churches as)  places of sanctuary for the marginalized, the immigration law, these are more then just (non-relevant) religious institutions.” For me, biking started as a way just to get from A to B, to get my kid to and fro, to buy groceries and more. But biking also became a way to meditate, to pray for the well-being of friend’s neighborhoods and businesses I pass by, and to learn the story of blessing, the story of seeking the welfare of people for generations here in San Francisco. As a follower of Jesus, I share in His mission to love others with compassion. My own organization seeks to train people to do this better in cultures outside our default Western one. But I also join hands with other faith leaders who, by their actions are pursuing the well being of people here in the City. This is what participating in the Interfaith Council and Bike Coalition has meant to me. And being able to architect this ride and the stops to tell this untold story is just a small contribution to what has really been a global effort.

“Work to see that the city where I sent you as exiles enjoys peace and prosperity. Pray to the Lord for it. For as it prospers you will prosper.” Jeremiah the prophet, Chapter 29, verse 7

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