One of the items on my wife’s “must do” list, when we visited San Francisco recently, was to visit a church where the choir sang Gospel music. A quick ‘Google’ recommended Glide church in one of San Francisco’s seedier areas – the Tenderloin. I wasn’t all that keen on attending a church service but went along to make sure she was safe on the streets.
Neither of us are overly religious and don’t attend church on anywhere near a regular basis at home (usually weddings and funerals), nor follow any particular religion, but for some reason when we travel overseas we tend to visit quite a few churches, chapels, temples etc. – mainly from an interest in their history and architecture. We do however feel a certain degree of spiritual uplift after visiting these buildings, particularly if there is a service on at the time of our visit.
We were in the UK a couple of years ago and, as is our habit when overseas, visited a few churches there. We were told the same story where ever we went – falling congregation numbers and churches closing or having services every couple or more weeks instead of every Sunday. In one village we visited in Cornwall, the church officials outnumbered the congregation, us included. I believe that, although modern day people live busier lives than in the past and the internet has made knowledge more accessible – particularly about “the Creation” and scientific alternatives – the main reason for falling congregation numbers in the UK is because the church still sticks to its format of old. It has not moved on, has not evolved.
No such problem, it seems, in America. Some churches maintain the status quo, others are more progressive and not only maintain congregation numbers but in some cases have increased them. And I add – slightly tongue in cheek – one can’t help feel that more people are praying these days as a result of who is in the White House.
Glide church, in one of the poorest areas of San Francisco, has two services each Sunday to accommodate everyone who wants to go – one at 9am and another at 11am. We went to the 11am service, or should I say “celebration”? Prior to the “celebration” we had mistakenly wandered into another room, downstairs in the church building, used to help both feed those in need and help to rehabilitate and offer assistance to people with addictions. We were greeted by a man of about my age who was obviously there to be helped, but also made a point of making us feel welcome. He gave us his life story and then shed tears when telling us how much he misses his parents who died in 2012. A lady helper then told us that if we were looking for the Sunday Celebration…..it was upstairs in the church proper.
It was certainly an interesting and surprisingly emotional experience. Being a “gospel” church, and I know I am being stereotypical and for that I apologize, I expected a black preacher. The main preacher here is white…..but delivered the sermon with a sense of humour, even if it did seem like he was using “dad” jokes. He made sure the emphasize that this is a church that is fully inclusive and supports the community it serves, by being a community. Every day they need 70 volunteers to help in the task of feeding the homeless. They also run rehabilitation programs for those dependent on drugs, alcohol or gambling. They care and they try their best to make a difference. Of course there was the usual plea for folks to “give money”, but when you see what they are doing with it and the programs they have to help the needy you don’t mind digging deep to put something into the collection plate.
San Francisco has a huge problem with homelessness. Except in the rich areas, where I’m guessing the streets are policed a little more strictly, you will find the homeless sleeping in shop doorways, the middle of footpaths, or even in some cases in makeshift tents on the median strip of busy roads. Most of them with cardboard signs asking for nickels and dimes “anything you can spare to help”. It’s bad enough in the middle of the day, but the “body count” increases once the stores close and more of the homeless take up their usual spot, wedged into alcoves against shop doors, to find as much shelter as is possible, from the weather, for the night. The weather is one of the reasons that San Francisco has such a high population of homeless people. The temperature range here is fairly constant – no extremes of heat or bitter cold – making outdoor living at least bearable, if not comfortable. Other cities, such as New York, constantly hassle the homeless and move them on as quickly as possible – in some cases they even bus them out of the city so that they become someone else’s problem. Not so in San Francisco.
And not so at Glide church where everyone is welcome regardless of your status, skin colour, gender (or gender choice), religious beliefs, social problems, health or mental state etc. So, as you can imagine, there is a diverse cross section of the community here and ALL are warmly welcomed and embraced into the heart of this church. Very early in the service – or celebration, as they call it here at Glide – the preacher gets everyone to shake hands (or hug) someone that they haven’t met before. It was something very much out of my comfort zone and not an inherently English thing to do, but after the initial pang of discomfort I couldn’t help but warm to the feeling of love and belonging that these folk – the congregation here – exude.
Before the “celebration” began a lady circulated though the pews offering either a fan or a tissue to each of us. It was quite chilly in the church anyhow so there was no need for a fan and I had no idea, at the time, why she thought we might need a tissue – other than to blow our noses on. However I could have used that tissue later on. I was emotionally affected by the whole experience – the sermon (which wasn’t much related to the usual biblical texts that I have been used to in more staid Church of England services) was more about life experiences and struggles that ordinary people have to get through to survive….not just those on the street, but working families where mum and dad are both having to work two jobs – drawing minimum wage – just to pay the bills.
The American Dream lifestyle of the 1950’s and 60’s has become an American Nightmare for many in the 2000’s as the gap between rich and poor continues to widen at an alarming rate, enslaving many in a seemingly unbreakable cycle of debt. Combine this with the singing of the choir and a talented bunch of musicians, playing everything from keyboards, drums and guitar to a brass section…..add in the words of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” – the choir and band did a brilliant job of this number – experience being in this tumble dryer of humanity and humbleness and next thing you’re dabbing away tears of emotion and gratitude.
The celebration featured many things other than the choir and the sermon. At one point a gentleman was asked to step up and talk briefly to us from the stage. He was 27 years sober, thanks to the support of Glide church, and a former member of the choir. He spoke most eloquently and you could see that he was in a good place both literally and figuratively speaking – very comfortable in his own skin and in addressing the congregation – interesting to listen to.
We also had an appearance on stage from another member of the congregation – a transexual called Stacy – who was very flamboyant and totally ‘out there’ – and her favourite word was “fabulous”. She was on stage to announce a LGBT event coming up in May where everyone was invited “including straight people”….but they have to dress up and of course “be fabulous”.
There was a short sermon by a former Glide minister (he also covers for the current minister when needed) – this time a black man, or man of colour (I don’t mean to offend but never know when to use the word black or colour so I’m using both to cover all bases). He delivered a very modern take on the crucifixion and why God didn’t save his son from the suffering of the cross. He said it was due to modern day pressures. God was holding down 2 jobs, had already taken time off work to help his troubled son out previously and was going to lose his job if he left his work station to take yet another call from him asking for help. He related it to the lives of every day working class Americans and the message came across very clearly. Another eloquent speaker.
It was a very humbling, moving and uplifting experience during which we weren’t merely visitors or tourists – we were part of the congregation and community….and I am glad that my wife dragged me along.
The link to the Glide church web page is