I don’t believe this community could’ve manifested in any place other than San Francisco. We belong to San Francisco,” said Archbishop Franzo W. King, co-founder of the Church of St. John Coltrane.
But while The City hasn’t always lived up to its hype as a sanctuary for love and tolerance, the clergy and parishioners at the Coltrane Church persist in pursuing divine love through music, as conceived by the composer and tenor saxophonist on his widely acknowledged masterpiece, “A Love Supreme.”
“There is a real desire among aficionados of John Coltrane, not only for his music, but for his philosophy and spirituality, as a believer and a saint,” explained Pastor Wanika J. Stephens, whose parents Archbishop King and Mother Marina King are the founders of the church, now in its 50th anniversary year.
“When people talk about us being the founders, it’s more like God found us and prepared our hearts and minds when we went to see John Coltrane,” said the Archbishop, as King is known.
Radically changed after witnessing Coltrane in 1965 at the Jazz Workshop in North Beach, “We were inspired to bring the music back to the community from which it came and create avenues for musicians to be creative, do what they do and make a living,” he said.
African American cultural education, jazz stories of oppression and liberation, and the search for justice, not only through music but in action, remain cornerstones of the church’s year-round programming, while every Sunday, the altar at St. Cyprian’s Church on the Western edge of the Fillmore District is transformed into a training ground for musical youth and a bandstand for touring musicians who wish to pay respects to a master musician.
“They come here from around the world like pilgrims to Mecca, like pilgrims to Jerusalem, like pilgrims to Rishikesh,” said Archbishop, who leads the ensemble through the Coltrane changes on sax, accompanied by Mother Marina and the Voices of Compassion on vocals, and his children and grandchildren on various instruments, including Stephens on bass.
“I had dreams of being a rock star with a message like Jimi Hendrix or Bob Marley. I wanted to spread the inspiration I got from Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali,” said Stephens, whose reggae band, Mystic Youth, won a Bay Area Music Award. “At some point, I realized it was all really the same thing,” she said of her family’s musical ministry, her chaplaincy at Marin General Hospital and her work as the voice of the church’s weekly broadcast Uplift on KPOO-FM, which offers four hours of the words and music of Coltrane.
“She has the spiritual consciousness and revolutionary zeal to do the work she’s been called to do,” said King of his daughter, achieving her Masters of Divinity degree at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley. “We’ve seen her for a very long time as a co-founder of the work, even as an infant. She represented the purity of our intentions,” he said.
The Church of St. John Coltrane evolved from a jazz listening club started in the King’s Potrero Hill living room then moved to several storefront locations. Ultimately incorporated into the African Orthodox Church in 1982, the year Coltrane was canonized, in the intervening years it has been the subject of a book, a film and a live album. Contingents from the church have traveled across the country and the world to deliver Coltrane consciousness. In honor of this year’s golden anniversary, in September it’s headed to the Kennedy Center in D.C. while locally, a celebration mass is planned at Grace Cathedral for July 20, the date former mayor Willie Brown proclaimed John Coltrane Day in San Francisco.
“When we began to see ourselves as a church, as a religious institution, the concern became what is our responsibility,” said King. The answer came to feed the poor.
“We didn’t preach to the people. We put John Coltrane on and let the music speak for itself,” he said. “We experience and understand music as a healing balm.”
Stephens was still a child when the church first offered its free vegetarian meals but she said, “I recall the young flower children and hippie kids and later, how people were more desperate, living on the street, some were strung out and runaways,” she said of San Francisco in the ‘70s.
The food program swelled in the era of the AIDS pandemic when the church’s immediate neighbors in the Lower Haight, Duboce Triangle and Castro areas came to rely not only on its meals but for the companionship a spiritual organization can provide. In more recent years, the church has supported efforts to clean toxins out of the Bayview. King personally confronted predatory lenders during the foreclosure crisis, and the church stands in solidarity against the persistent police murder of the black and brown communities, most recently during the weekly vigil held by Mothers on the March at the Hall of Justice.
“When we come together in community, it reminds us there’s a bigger world out there, that goodness is real, there are people who care and are out there making a difference, fighting for justice, for our environment and humanity,” said Stephens, who sees her job as less about proffering dogma and more about breaking away from labels.
“The world is in so much trouble. Are we the people of love or not? This is a hard nut to crack, particularly for clergy, but let’s acknowledge what we agree on,” said Stephens who notes Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as a guidepost in her work.
“Everyone is welcome here,” she said. “The main ingredient is love.”
IF YOU GO
Coltrane Church 50th Anniversary
A Love Supreme Mass
The Coltrane Church Ensemble with Teodross Avery, Marcus Shelby, Richard Howell and Elé Howell
Where: Grace Cathedral, 1100 California St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. July 20
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.