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A love supreme in San Francisco

Under CC license from Flickr user rocor // Resized and cropped.

Update: Saint John Coltrane Church is nowhoused at St. Cyprian's Episcopal Church at 2097 Turk St. in San Francisco. 

Editor’s Note: As of February 2016, it's been reported t​hat the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church hasn’t paid rent to its landlord, West Bay Conference Center, for over a year.  The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department served notice that the church must leave by Wednesday, March 2. Church leaders are planning to meet with city officials on Tuesday, March 1, in an effort to buy more time before they have to move. 

On Sunday morning, while the Fillmore District is brunching or sleeping in, I’m sweating to attend something I’ve never run for in my life: church. I’m hoofing it past hair salons, fast food chains, corner markets, and thrift stores to catch the start of Mass. Just up the street from an abandoned pool hall and a windowless police station, I come across what looks like a dormant storefront window. I almost pass it, but I check the address. I’ve arrived.

I walk into the studio-sized space, and am immediately greeted by a dauntingly huge mural of a black Mary and Jesus. This isn't your typical cathedral with marble and stained glass. There aren’t any pews, just rows of chairs facing the front of the room. Before the mural is an altar of instruments. An electric upright bass cozies up to a wooden pulpit. There’s a full drum set, a keyboard, and a saxophone. Suddenly, a procession of church members emerges from behind a curtain next to the stage. I’ve made it just in time. I’ve arrived at the African Orthodox Church of John Coltrane.

I notice the usual fare: a table with a Bible and sacraments. But, on the wall to the left of that is something you won’t see in any other church: a floor to ceiling painting of John Coltrane, holding a scripture in one hand and a saxophone in the other, with a glowing gold halo around his head. This holy Coltrane watches over a cluster of 30 church-goers. They’re a mix of jazz tourists from abroad and local regulars – all clutching tambourines, maracas, and mini hand drums.

A ritual jam session begins. The church calls it the Coltrane Liturgy. This means taking the Lord’s Prayer and readings from the Gospel – and lacing them with fiery performances of Coltrane’s masterpieces. The small congregation is on its feet, led by a three-woman chorus leaning into their microphones with their hands raised to the heavens.

The Church of John Coltrane has always put the man’s music at the center of its services.

“I hear John Coltrane say that when you discover the possibilities of music, you want to help humanity and free people from their hang ups and make the world a better place,” says Wanika King-Stephens, the church’s pastor. “And so that’s the kind of intention that he had behind his music.”

Her father, Franzo King founded the church decades ago after he took his wife Marina to see Coltrane play.

San Francisco was a hotbed for jazz at the time, filled with  smoke-filled clubs and a rotating cast of musical greats. The Kings were at a popular club in North Beach, the Jazz Workshop. That night, Franzo King experienced what he calls his “sound baptism.”

“We had great expectation for John Coltrane. But I think that the most obvious thing I can remember is the atmosphere around his being,” Franzo King says. “He flooded our heart with the divine love of god, and he planted seeds that grew into what we now call the St. John Coltrane Church.”

John Coltrane wasn’t always a saint.

He was born in 1926 to a North Carolina family of musicians and ministers. He picked up the clarinet and then the tenor sax. After high school, he joined the Navy, and made his first recording. He eventually moved to Philadelphia and New York where he studied with jazz greats Jimmy Heath, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. But as Coltrane hit his musical stride, he also developed a heroin addiction. He was falling asleep at shows. Davis fired him. The year was 1957.

Coltrane saw this as a wake-up call. He retreated to his mother’s house for a few weeks. Something of a jazz-scene cleanse. And he had a realization of a deeper philosophy, as shared in an interview in Japan in 1966:

"I believe that men are here to grow themselves into best good that they can be – at least, this is what I want to do. I am supposed to go to the best good that I can get to. And as I'm going there — becoming this — and when I become, if I ever become, this will just come out of the horn. Good can only bring good."

Coltrane change the way the Kings thought about jazz. He transformed jazz into spiritual enlightenment.

Franzo King was sitting in Marcus Bookstore in the Fillmore, when he learned of Coltrane’s passing in 1967. It was another awakening for him. It was time t o act.

The Kings had a listening club – a place to meditate on music. They studied Coltrane’s sound and how it related to scripture.

“We saw ourselves as the prayerful vigilantes, coming together at midnight to listen to St. John's music and being prayerful,” says Franzo King.

The congregants began considering themselves to be a church and the cornerstone would be Coltrane’s Love Supreme album. Coltrane wrote the iconic liner notes to that album himself: “To the Church of Coltrane, everything about that album is part of a higher power. The titles. The compositions. The consciousness.”

“I would say Coltrane Consciousness is the divine formula,” Marlee-I Hand says. She has many roles in the church that range from choir singer to outreach to drummer in the band. “Acknowledge, resolution pursuance to reach the love supreme, so acknowledge god, resolve to do all you can and continually pursue everyday. That’s Coltrane Consciousness. Follow those steps, that’s it. coltrane gave us the key.”

When the church moved out of the King’s living room, they moved over to Divisadero street. Wanika King-Stephens remembers the area feeling like a ghost town. That’s because the Western Addition had been the center for urban renewal in the 60s.

Justin Herman, the city’s head of redevelopment at the time, had a new plan to clean up the rundown buildings of the area. By the time the Coltrane church arrived on the scene, 10,000 residents had been displaced. Jazz heritage and black culture were crushed in the rubble of bulldozed buildings. Franzo King says it was then that the church found its greater purpose.

“I remember when Dr. Huey P. Newton came out of prison and he was on the radio and saying the churches had really failed us and that the churches need to be more relevant and they need to be more concerned about the survival of the people,” he says. “And I go “I know what kind of church he’s talking about, he’s talking about my church.’”

King recalls the food programs they held with the Black Panther party.

This was a time when many socio-spiritual groups were growing in the Bay Area: Hare Krishnas, the Moonies, Jim Jones’s People’s Temple was right next to the Fillmore Auditorium before relocating to Guyana.

After the Jonestown Massacre in 1978, people were suspicious of a church that worshipped John Coltrane. King says the influence of African American leaders helped his church survive this intense era. And in 1982, the Church of Coltrane became part of the African Orthodox Church.

The Coltrane church would face more challenges. Its neighborhood gentrified residents and business owners promised a shinier space by redevelopment could no longer afford their homes. The church’s rent doubled.

Marlee-I remembers the church’s departure from the neighborhood in 2000 when she was about to leave for college. For her, though, it wasn’t an ending, but a rebirth.

“We had a march, we just paraded all the way down the street singing  praises to the lord from the old site to the new site,” she says. “That whole transition of physically moving the spirit and the praise from one place to another, that was a great memory for me.”

Today, the church is nestled in the heart of the lower Fillmore. I’ve heard people recall when the area was the “Harlem of the West,” but I’ve never recognized the connection. Now I understand why the parallels seemed so faint to me: when they forced much of the black community out, they also evicted the culture. Sometimes I see evidence if I look closely. I can see tiles in the cement with the names of jazz legends of that time. Sometimes there’s a jazz band at the Sunday farmer’s market. Echoes of another era.

Nick Baham is a professor of ethnic studies at Cal State East Bay.

“It was an important cultural center but it was also an important economic center,” says Nick Baham, a professor of ethnic studies at Cal State East Bay.”

Baham’s writing a book called Apostles of Sound about St. John’s church. He thinks of their presence as a 40-year sit in:

“The Coltrane church is now one of the last remaining if not the last remaining community centered, black owned institutions of music, in particular, if you think of them as a musical institution that remain in the Fillmore.”

Pastor Wanika King-Stepens is in a revolutionary role as the first female leader in an African Orthodox church. She shares her father’s original mission: baptize African Americans in sound.

“Ultimately it would be great if we could really start to reach out by educating the poor which includes African American people, reaching out with a sense of love and really letting people know you are special. It’s up to us to lift each other up,” she says.

The church’s own evolution mirrors the streets outside its tinted windows.

San Francisco has invested money in the Fillmore, but the new identity of the old jazz district is still undefined. When I leave the service and walk toward my house a few blocks away, I pass small art galleries and condos. I also pass plenty of vacant storefronts. In this place of transition, the Church of John Coltrane remains.

A version of this story originally aired on May 28, 2013.