Though its physical doors have been closed since the shelter-in-place order began in March, there’s one San Francisco church where worship – outside on wheels – continues on Sundays.
Roller skaters in the Church of 8 Wheels, whose building has been shut, also have been gathering at Skatin’ Place on Sixth Avenue in Golden Gate Park, practicing in a spot where they’ve gone for some 40 years since David Miles Jr. started the community. They have not stopped due to coronavirus.
“Skaters are really dedicated to the craft. The thing is, we need safe enthusiasm. If we see someone without a mask, you can’t be here,” said Church of 8 Wheels manager Daniel Albert Chytrowski, who goes by Daniel Albert. “The last thing we want is to become a hotspot. There aren’t places like this in the Bay during the pandemic where you can let your hair down.”
Worshipers are uplifted not by hymns, but by modern music booming from lit-up speakers on the ground. The set list, often supplied by Albert, includes tunes ranging from Tupac’s “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” and Alicia Key’s “Wasted Energy” to the Purple Disco Machine’s remix of Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You.”
Church of 8 Wheels’ building at 554 Fillmore St., originally Sacred Heart Church, fell into disuse and disrepair. After receiving permission from the owner, Miles renovated the 19th century structure, adding new flooring, strobe lights, a professional sound system and disco ball.
Albert said the official conversion from Catholic sanctuary to fluorescent roller disco in 2013 was “meant to be.”
“That is the most cool place on the whole planet. We converted it into a roller disco because it’s what we do. We make things happen,” Albert said.
Miles’ activism in the 1970s and ‘80s led to the creation of Skatin’ Place decades ago during a time when banning roller skating in Golden Gate Park was being considered due to public complaints about the sport. Miles was instrumental in developing car-free days in the park, making sure there was a dedicated skating place.
“He arranged for no traffic on Sundays as well so people can roller skate, bike and take walks on the streets and feel safe,” Albert added. “It’s a little paradise we have here that we are very fortunate to have.”
Skaters enjoying the park aren’t only from San Francisco. Miranda Domico, an East Bay resident who’s been roller skating for a year and takes part in Church of 8 Wheels’ Sunday gatherings once a month, is pleased that people from varied experience levels are welcome.
“I’m from Oakland, but I love to participate here. This is community, creative expression and people supporting each other in their creativity,” said Domico, who recently learned a maneuver called shoot the duck from another Church of 8 Wheels member.
Creative expression among roller skaters goes beyond how they roll.
“The nice thing about skating is you can put as much energy as you want in it. You don’t need a booking agent or manager to be a star. If you want to be shining and wear sequins, you can do that. If you want to be low-key and skate in the sidelines, you can do that too. Whatever you put into it you can get out of it,” said Albert, who like many at Skatin’ Place, has his own identifiable style and presence.
“With the pandemic, people get so pent-up. They need to find things that bring them joy,” said Elliott Johnson, a Church of 8 Wheels member who joined at its inception. “When people put on wheels, it lets them roll with the earth and it gives them joy.”
Although Johnson has retired from roller skating, he shows up to dance and be the church’s “energy.”
“Before the church, we met here every Sunday like a religion,” Johnson said. “It’s not religion, it’s ‘rolligion’ – it’s a way of being blessed and gives you a new lease on life. No matter what you have going on, you come out here and you enjoy yourself.”