Church of John Coltrane to Be Evicted at the End of May

The Rev. Marlee I. Mystic sings vocals, left, while Landres King plays drums and Franzo King III plays the keyboard during the “A Love Supreme” mass at the Church of Saint John Coltrane in San Francisco. Religion News Service photo by Kimberly Winston
The Rev. Marlee I. Mystic sings vocals, left, while Landres King plays drums and Franzo King III plays the keyboard during the “A Love Supreme” mass at the Church of Saint John Coltrane in San Francisco. Religion News Service photo by Kimberly Winston

The altar is set with a drum kit, a keyboard, a saxophone, and— most importantly—a much-loved vinyl rendering of a jazz classic, complete with liner notes. 

When this church and its 70 members are forced to leave their storefront location at the end of next month, they will pack those instruments as lovingly as they will the shiny brass tabernacle that holds the Eucharist, the brass cross, and the scarlet and gold icons that grace all the walls.

This is St. John Coltrane Church, a 48-year-old institution in this city’s Fillmore District, just south of swankier Pacific Heights. Sunday masses are built on a live performance of “A Love Supreme,” a 33-minute opus that saxophonist Coltrane wrote to express the awesomeness of God.

“St. John Coltrane referred to this music as being an expression of higher ideals,” said Wanika Stephens, the church’s pastor, who played the electric bass guitar during the a recent Sunday mass while a standing-room-only crowd moved to the beat.

“The music has a power to unify us, to bring us together,” she said. “Because of that, he felt that a brotherhood was there in the music and if you had that brotherhood you would have no more poverty, no more war. The music has that power.”

That belief is reflected in an oversized icon of the musician that dominates one wall of the church. His penetrating eyes stare straight out, his left hand clasping a saxophone spewing flames, his right hand clutching a banner that reads, “Let us sing all songs to God to whom all praise is due.”

But where the music will play next, and for how long, is unclear. The church is the most recent victim of rising prices in the Fillmore, once home to numerous jazz clubs and late-night bars that are now making way for condos and coffeehouses. As they are in other parts of this expensive city, lower-income residents, many of them African-American and Latino, are being priced out.

Church officials say the landlord stopped accepting their monthly $1,600 rent checks two years ago and attempted eviction last September. That was averted with a petition of 4,000 signatures, way more than the church’s worldwide membership of 700. Now, landlord Floyd Trammell—himself a pastor at another church—has agreed to withdraw eviction proceedings if the church will peacefully vacate by the end of April.

Trammell has repeatedly declined to discuss the eviction, issuing a statement that reads, in part, that he “operates in the same ruthless economy that has engulfed the entire Fillmore District.”

The church’s final service will take place April 24. After that, church officials do not know where they will alight next but say they would like to stay in the neighborhood where they have so many roots. They have started a fundraising campaign to cover moving costs.

“The ruling principle of God’s love is a love supreme,” said Franzo W. King, the church’s founder, archbishop, and sax player, as he welcomed the 80 or so people gathered on a Sunday, some from the neighborhood and some from as far away as Germany, Spain, and Australia.

“The saxophone is like a surgical instrument that is capable of cutting away fear, of cutting away evil,” he continued, his long, thin frame upright in clerical black with a white collar framed by a gold chain necklace. “And John Coltrane is the supreme surgeon.”

King and his wife, Marina King, started the church after attending a Coltrane show in 1965. As Nicholas Baham III recounts it in his book The Coltrane Church: Apostles of Sound, Agents of Social Justice, the pair were out for fun, but had a spiritual experience.

“They had what they call a ‘sound baptism,’” Baham, a professor of ethnic studies at California State University, East Bay, said in a telephone interview. “They saw the Holy Ghost walk out on stage with John Coltrane and the movement started from there.”

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Source: Christian Century | Kimberly Winston, Religion News Service