Thursday, January 19, 2012

Those People at That Church

My friend David Townsend writes on his blog, Anchorho(

Just north of Market Street, and across Church Street from probably the cruisiest supermarket in San Francisco—recall that it was in the Church and Market Safeway that Mary Ann Singleton tried to pick up Michael Tolliver at the beginning of Tales of the City—stands an unassuming little brick gothic church, built by Danish Lutherans in 1906. As the Castro came to be the Castro, the congregation could hardly fail to see that the neighborhood around them was changing. But more importantly, and perhaps more surprisingly, its pastor and members recognized that life meant embracing change, and they chose life, opening their doors to the burgeoning LGBT community that flourished around them, as to the marginalized and often homeless population along a very down-at-heel street.

In 1990, the congregation called Ruth Frost and Phyllis Zillhart as its pastors, lesbian graduates of a Lutheran seminary who had been disqualified from ordination on the grounds that they refused to pledge abstinence from sexual relations. (First United Lutheran in San Francisco at the same time called an irregularly ordained out gay man.)

Keep in mind that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America presents itself as heir to the radical ecclesiastical disobedience of Martin Luther, when I say that nothing, nothing freaks the Lutheran hierarchy out like a refusal to capitulate to its authority. Years of wrangling led eventually to a classically Lutheran judgment. A commission struck to address the unsanctioned ordinations found that the congregation had acted in accordance with the dictates of the Gospel, and recommended that the ELCA in fact ought to reverse its position; but because St. Francis had failed to comply with good church order, the congregation had until January 1, 1996 to revoke its call to Ruth and Phyllis or else would be excommunicated from the national church—unless the national church in the meantime reversed its policy forbidding the ordination of out gay and lesbian seminarians who refused to pledge celibacy.

On the night of December 31, 1995, the congregation walked the walk by celebrating what they dubbed the Feast of the Expulsion with a big party in the church basement. As the congregation’s website ( puts it in describing the next chapter of its history, “In the face of this judgment against us, we, along with our companion congregations, continued to stand by our decision, and continued to celebrate our diversity as part of our everyday journey with Christ.”

I first walked into St. Francis in 2000. There were maybe thirty-five people in a sanctuary that a hundred and twenty would pack to near capacity. As the Gospel book was carried in a very short procession into the middle of the congregation, everyone turned to face the reader, business as usual in “high” Lutheran congregations. Not so business-as-usual was that as people turned, they also crowded from the pews into the central aisle, hands laid on shoulders in a web that knit the whole assembly into a single body with a living voice at its center. And I lost it.

I was a mess all over again after Mass, when I walked out into the columbarium garden that flanks the church to the south, where the ashes of dozens of members rest—most of them gay men who died of AIDS in the 80’s and 90’s, when this church was a place of refuge from the complacent indifference of denominational hierarchies.

But long before I’d walked through the door of St. Francis—and long before I’d made the decision to reclaim the flawed, problematic inheritance of the faith I was reared in—I knew Those People at That Church: The St. Francis Lutheran Cookbook. It’s long out of print. If you can find a copy, grab it. This isn’t a volume of jello salads and tuna casseroles. It’s got the best broiled polenta recipe I’ve ever made, a wickedly spicy and variously flavored corn salad, and the cookies baked for Bill Clinton’s inaugural gala.

But far, far better, its cover sports a collage of the campiest, most joyful parish photo album imaginable: octogenarian matrons offering strawberries to the viewer, middle-aged guys wearing colanders as Easter hats, a lesbian couple standing back to back and crossing turkey drumsticks as they look over their shoulders to the camera, buff shirtless gymboys in barbecue aprons, smiling eight-month-old babies holding cupcakes. (Oh--and heterosexual couples. Did I mention heterosexual couples?) Sidebars flanking the recipes tell the story of the congregation and its witness, up to the date of publication in 1994, when expulsion from the ELCA loomed.

The lumbering behemoth that is the institutional church finally caught up to St. Francis Lutheran in 2010, and the congregation was readmitted to the ELCA. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s the ELCA that was finally reunited to St. Francis Lutheran Church. I know where the promise of freedom and grace lay, for me and people like me, during those intervening years that this quirky, outrageously brave little community went its own way for the sake of Truth and Love.