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The rebirth of St. John Coltrane church in the Western Addition

Sat, 30 Dec 2017 19:29:00
4 / 5 (1 Votes)
Article by:
Michael Orion Powell Deschamps
Archbishop Franzo Wayne King standing before stylized portrait of Saint John Coltrane during a church service. Photo by Michael Orion Powell-Deschamps.
The Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church — now located with St. Cyprian’s in the Western Addition neighbor— has maintained a presence in the life of many Bay Area residents for decades.
    
A documentary in 1996, “The Church of Saint Coltrane” by filmmaker Gayle Gilman — which can be viewed on the academic website Aeon — showed the conceptualization of Archbishop Franzo King.
    
The genesis of King was followed — from his exposure to John Coltrane, which initially took him through the despair of heroin use and led ultimately to the creation of the church, along with the support of his mother and his wife, the Reverend Mother Marina King.
   
“The worship of God is what we encourage, and we’re using the music of John Coltrane” is the testament that was given by the archbishop to filmmakers back in the mid-1990s, and the story of Saint John Coltrane was far from over 21 years later. Upon its inception, the church was originally located in the Fillmore District, and did not shy away from the church’s status as a music venue as much as a house of worship.
    
Speaking about that in the documentary, King said, “John Coltrane said that music is a venue of rising and so we wanted to create a temple that was an expression of it.”
    
Jeff Swimmer — director of “The Church of Saint Coltrane” — said during his interview with me that “Their approach to music and worship are fascinating, and I love this idea of God through music, which I think is fascinating.” Swimmer added that the participation of the congregation in music-driven worship was one of the unique aspects of the church that he found especially charming, “It’s not a show or a faraway ‘Sermon on the Mount.’ It’s participation. The congregation is basically invited to participate in a live event, and together they bring each other in to the congregant. It’s intimately involved in creating music and to access a higher being of whatever they believe, and that’s fantastic.”
    
Nicholas Baham, PhD., a professor at California State University, East Bay, has written a full-length book about Saint John Coltrane. During his interview, Baham said that there was a utility to the church as a music venue. “I say in the book that the church understood that you have to control the venue in which your cultural art is produced.” Dr. Baham noted also that atheists and those of various other beliefs often attend Saint John Coltrane simply to enjoy the music, just as in a club or any other venue.
    
The genesis of the church originated in Archbishop King when he first saw John Coltrane perform live in 1965, an experience which he saw as akin to baptism. Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church was incorporated only a few years after that experience, in 1969.
    
Alan Klingenstein, who helped produce Jeff Swimmer’s documentary, said that his impressions of Saint John Coltrane evolved over time, “I thought it was, at first, before spending time there, a really interesting cult based on the liner notes to one of Coltrane’s albums. The more time I spent there with the bishop and some of his flock, I decided that they weren’t a cult and they were just a bunch of people who had a very beautiful notion.”
    
Since its founding, Saint John Coltrane has experienced challenges to its very existence. The difficult real estate climate in the Bay Area led to the congregation leaving its historical place on Fillmore Street and moving in with St. Cyprian’s and two other congregations. Dr. Baham attested how difficult running the church has been, saying, “It's very difficult to do this — pushing against this dominant majority, they're still working from the margins. I think what they're demonstrating is that it's not hopeless.”
    
Swimmer, film director of “The Church of St. Coltrane,” said, “I always think it’s a shame when real estate pressures push out institutions that look at value in a different way than real estate developers do. I think that they provide a lot of value that doesn’t come with dollar signs attached.”
    
King rejected the idea that his church was a “nonprofit,” taking on realism as he said, “I think ‘nonprofit’ is a misnomer. If you don’t profit, you perish,” adding that the church has taken on various fundraising ventures, along with St. Cyprian’s — which is doing the same — in order to keep its doors open. Despite ties in its creation with the Marcus Garvey movement and the Nation of Islam, both Baham and King emphasized the diversity of their congregation, with King attesting, “We have an advantage because we are a global spiritual community and even though we are tied to one community, we are a global spiritual community and work with people of many different backgrounds, educational and economic. As we form one, we may all end one. That is how we feel about engaging the world.”
    
King and Baham both attested that their social activism work was integral to the church. This started with an attempt — which is explored in depth in Baham’s book — to create a Liola King Memorial Center, which would honor the memory of King, a property owner in the Bayview Hunter’s Point area who owned many different homes and properties, as well as a contemporary struggle against Mercy Housing, which has been accused by multiple congregations in the Bay Area of trying to usurp low-income tenants in order to using the housing for their own enterprise. “They use the word ‘mercy,” King said, “but they don’t seem very merciful.’”
    
Despite one part of its name, the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church throughout the years has been anything but orthodox. It has maintained its place in San Francisco through collaboration and growth and, as the city adapts to new challenges, will only grow and change more.

 
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