The Rev. Roland Gordon is not only the pastor at Ingleside Presbyterian Church, he’s an artist: his gigantic collage-mural “The Great Cloud of Witness” serves to inspire Black youth locally while his more numinous project, “The San Francisco World Peace Affirmation,” is available to everyone, no matter where in the world they reside.
“I turned the Prayer of St. Francis into an affirmation,” said Gordon, referring to the invocation, also known as the peace prayer, which he’s adapted ever so slightly, from a petition to a proclamation: Its opening line, “Make me an instrument of thy peace” becomes “I am an instrument of peace,” and so on.
”We have an opportunity to be a model for the whole world, for world peace,” said Gordon, who believes peace and love are the San Francisco ethos, but it’s up to us to consciously cultivate that vibe.
“Those words of St. Francis, ‘where there is hatred let me sow love,’ are the answer,” explained Gordon. “Love is the answer, God is love, and love is an action, a way of being that honors and respects everybody.”
Maybe it’s a coincidence, or maybe it’s the kind of stories SFLives goes seeking, but Reverend Gordon isn’t the first, nor he will be the last, to note that San Franciscans are here to demonstrate what it means to live in communion with nature and each other.
Several years ago, local Black historian John Templeton noted in this column how many of the world’s social and racial justice movements and organizers from the Black Panthers to Black Lives Matter and Colin Kaepernick, got rolling in the Bay Area.
From the occupation of Alcatraz, to the gay freedom movement and the formation of a church that venerates John Coltrane, our current intersectional movements seeking justice for disabled, trans and BIPOC lives, are rooted in the Bay Area’s legacy of liberation. It’s safe to say we lead in matters regarding reforming criminal justice systems and righting historic wrongs against Chinese and Japanese Americans; we’ve strived to be a safe place for immigrants and their descendants whether from Palestine, Pakistan, Mexico or Central America, though we fall short on the ideal every day, especially when it comes to taking care of our unhoused people.
“If you’re talking about love and honor and respect for everybody, San Francisco could be a microcosm of the world,” said Gordon. “We’re all here.”
As our renaming and casting aside things with colonialist attachments proceeds, The City’s freethinking faith leaders are here to remind us what’s worth keeping: Prayer, often the last resort of the downtrodden, is one thing that can’t be taken away. And when people pray, in whatever way they pray, things can change.
“I knew there was a God, though the Jesus thing was a problem with me when I saw people do one thing on Sunday and other days of the week it was a different story,” said Gordon, who ultimately found his calling.
A former high school and college basketball team captain from Gary, Ind., Gordon said that “a childhood friend said to him, ‘Come to LA because it’s God’s country.’” He did, immediately landing a gig emceeing the Miss Black America pageant.
“I was more into poetry,” he said, “But the experience let me know I could do anything I creatively set my mind to.” He opened a shop in Leimert Park, the historically Black cultural district of Los Angeles, and invited street artists to sell their handcrafts.
“I wasn’t a church man at the time,” said Gordon, “But someone broke into my shop, my home, and I got into a motorcycle accident. I struggled for about a year — everything closed down on me. It was at that time I began to read the Bible,” he said, though what he found was unexpected.
“It’s all about transforming the heart,” he said. “I started to look at everything I was working on being about love,” he said. Nudged by “an old minister who asked me if I was saved,” Gordon responded by coaching a youth ministry basketball team in Compton. In short order, he was enrolling at the San Francisco Theological Seminary.
It was 1978 and Ingleside Presbyterian was down on its luck: With just four parishioners, it couldn’t afford a pastor, but Gordon, who was ordained in 1983, had a vision.
“I saw the gymnasium and knew I could do something,” he said. “We opened it up and kids started flocking to it.” Basketball games turned into sports banquets and eventually families joined the church. Gordon’s seen the neighborhood cycle from 60 percent African American to about that many Asian American families.
“I love people,” he said. “We’ve had senior programs, food programs, cultural arts things, plays,” he said.
“The Phelan Loop used to be an eyesore,” he said of the City College Terminal. “People would dump stuff, but we adopted the area and young people planted 16 palm trees,” he said. These are the acts Gordon is talking about when he said, as he said many times in our talk, “Love is an action.”
But Gordon’s art — a collection of historic images collaged onto the building’s walls that pays homage to the ways Black people have demonstrated greatness across all fields of endeavor — that may be his most spectacular act of devotion.
“They may they not choose to read Black history books, but they’ll read the wall,” said Gordon, describing why he’s driven to create. The ongoing project was begun over 30 years ago with pictures of Muhammad Ali.
”I appreciated that he took a stand against war and the draft and he stood up for his principles,” he said. The newest addition to the collage will be actor Chadwick Boseman, He’s mounted images of singers Bessie Smith and Lena Horne, writers James Baldwin and Colson Whitehead, sports giants and countless other folks who made history — like the friends who prevailed in court after a racist confrontation on the wine train, and San Francisco painter Eugene E. White, whose work is incorporated into the installation.
Gordon is the subject of a short film, “Give,” by David de Rozas and the church and mural are among the Historic Preservation Commission’s designated landmarks, but the pastor’s work is never done: He holds Zoom services on Sunday and the church maintains a food program for those in need. And then there is his San Francisco World Peace Affirmation.
“Jesse Jackson came here a couple of years ago and I read the affirmation to him. He said, ‘This is going to be the basis of a world peace movement and it’s going to come out of San Francisco,’” said Gordon. “The mindset of St. Francis is about peace, it’s about one race, the human race. We’re in this together. We, San Francisco, can be the hope for the whole world.”
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.