Tuesday, June 23, 2015

St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco

 "Step with your right foot to the right, move your left to the right in front, step with the right foot..." We were receiving instructions on performing a modified Hora, as we circled the communion altar. We also held the lyrics of a song to sing in one hand while the other hand was on the shoulder of another congregant. If our choreography was observed by a resurrected Agnes De Mille, I'm afraid she would not have been impressed. Martha Graham, dancing on the walls above us with 88 other saints, looked more or less benign.
Just as churches everywhere provide the talented and the tone deaf an opportunity to sing, St. Gregory's provides those who are graceful and those with two left feet an opportunity to praise God through dance; using the arts and sensual experience are central tools for worship in the ministry of this church in a business and warehouse district of San Francisco.

We were drawn to the church by the work of writer (and now St. Gregory's Directory of Ministry) Sara Miles. And it was these aesthetic values that initially drew Miles to the church. A nonbeliever, she was attracted by the architecture of building and once inside, was intrigued by the art on the walls. Then came the home baked bread for communion served with a good wine rather than stale grape juice. The reality of Christ's presence came to her through the bread and the cup. (I found it interesting that we noticed no concessions made for teetotalers or the glucose intolerant.)

People are provided with various opportunities to develop their gifts. We heard announcements for classes for bread baking and icon painting. We attended the first service, which didn't have a choir, but we heard the second service does and all are welcome to be a part of it. Even the children's ministry has a similar focus. The lesson material, from the Godly Play Foundation, uses Montessori methods to help children learn Bible stories through art, storytelling and imaginative interaction.

Mindy and I arrived a few minutes late for the Daybreak time of prayer, psalms and meditation, just after 8:00 am. We realized quickly we wouldn't be using our pens and notebooks. In a church with pews, it's usually easy to take notes rather inconspicuously, but instead we were seated in a semi-circle. We joined in chanting a number of Psalms (which, even without music, were surprisingly simple to follow). Many Fundamentalist and Evangelical churches say that the Scriptures are central to worship, but few devote as much time as this church (and many Episcopal churches) to the reading of Scripture. At Saint Gregory's the Bible is spoken and sung throughout the worship times. Between times of singing and prayer, the worship leader would ring one of the prayer bowls to indicate a transition.

As the worship leader pulled the rope to ring a bell in the church tower, the half hour Daybreak service flowed in the 8:30 worship service (Holy Eucharist). Liturgical books of songs and readings were on every other chair, along with a few printed papers with announcements and music to songs not in the books. We sang a number of songs, often from long-ago periods of church history. Between songs, readings and prayers, time was often allowed for periods of silence (true for the Daybreak service, as well).

The Gospel reading was the story of Jesus calming the storm. The sermon that followed introduced a topic that I'm sure was on the minds and hearts of many who came to worship that morning. The woman who spoke (seated, rather than standing) said that when she considered the Scripture early in the week, she thought of personal storms she'd faced in her life; vocational crises, the death of her father, the birth of a child.

But midweek, she realized she'd have to deal with a national, shared storm: the shooting of the nine people at church in Charleston, South Carolina. The mention of this event resonated in the congregation, I feel like we all longed for and dreaded its mention.

She went on to talk about the storm of racism that continues to engulf the nation, coming up in squalls like the killing of blacks by police. "For crying out loud," she said, "Even the President of the United States is criticized for his race instead of his policies!" She talked about the difficulty of facing such a vast problem (with a mention of Jon Stewart's take on the issue). She urged us to face the storm with assurance of Christ's presence.

After the sermon, people were given an opportunity to share how God had spoken to them. One woman shared the encouragement she had received studying the lives of the apostles. A man shared the Scripture from Job (which he had read aloud during the Daybreak service) where God answers the questions of Job.

After the worship service concluded with the Eucharist, the bread and cup are removed from the altar and replaced with morning snacks (which included bacon, but don't expect that every week. Fresh fruit and pastries are generally available). I asked a woman named Carla what led her to the church. She said she'd been attending for nine years now. She'd grown up in the South and had grown weary of the church's not only failing to condemn racism, but practicing it. When her mother came out as a lesbian, she saw the church treating her with "gay hate."

Living in San Francisco, she wasn't looking to be a part of a church. But one Christmas Eve, she just wanted to hear some carols. She came to St. Gregory's and felt something different was going on there. She was invited to come back on Sundays and she did because she had been made to feel welcome.

Mindy and I appreciated that we too were made to feel welcome at St. Gregory's.

Statistics:
Service Length:  50 minutes      
Sermon Length:  13 minutes
Visitor Treatment: We were given nametags shortly after we sat down, and during the refreshment time were asked to sign the guestbook if we'd like
Our Rough Count:  38
Probable Ushers' Count: 50
Snacks: cherries and other fruit, coffee, tea, bagels (with a toaster) and cheese spread, various pastries, chocolate cake, leftover communion bread (but not wine), bacon, sausage
Musicians: none, although during the dance around the altar, tambourines and other hand held percussion instruments were available, especially to children.
Songs: "Holy God"
            "Surely it is God Who Saves me"
            "The Lord's Prayer"
            "How Firm a Foundation"
Miles to place:  63
Total California Miles:  8,766
-- Dean