West Portal Lutheran, San Francisco, California, USA

West Portal Lutheran, San Francisco, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: West Portal Lutheran
Location: San Francisco, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 13 June 2010, 8:30am

The building

A typical California Spanish colonial-style building, built in 1947, with red tile roofs and a dark wood beam ceiling. Before this church was built, the congregation met in a theater. The sanctuary is a good mixture of brightness and darkness. It conveys immediately the feeling of being in a consecrated place.

The church

At the last count, West Portal had 859 baptized members, of which an average of 259 attend on a weekend. The congregation are actively involved in missionary and outreach programs. One project: they support a missionary in China. There are Bible study groups, sports groups and other organizations. The crown jewel of this congregation is its school, recently featured on local television as being the best grade school in southwestern San Francisco. There are about 500 students in grades kindergarten through eight, spread over two campuses and served by a staff of about 40. Sixty per cent of the families participating in the school do not belong to a church. Eighty-one per cent of the students are Asian.

The neighborhood

The West Portal district of San Francisco derives its name from the west portal of the Twin Peaks streetcar railway tunnel, opened in 1918, which connects the area to downtown. Streetcars still run through the Twin Peaks tunnel. This part of the city has a mixture of middle class housing as well as homes for more wealthy people. Standing on the sidewalk in front of the church, one can see the Pacific Ocean to the west, as well as a park featuring tall eucalyptus trees. To the north is a beautiful grove of eucalyptus trees behind the school buildings. To the south is an attractive residential district. To the east is Mount Davidson, the tallest hill in San Francisco, on which luxurious homes have been built and which is crowned with a huge cross. It is a popular setting for Easter sunrise services.

The cast

Anthony Dodgers, a seminarian, conducted the service and delivered the sermon. Holy communion was ministered by Kantor J. Wayne Kerr, pastoral deacon and director of music, who also presided at the organ. Brandon Kung played some selections on the piano as the offering was being received and communion was being distributed.

What was the name of the service?

Divine Service, Setting 1.

How full was the building?

About half full – I counted 80 people. But there is a later morning service as well as a Saturday evening service.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

At the door we were greeted with a handshake in a friendly, polite manner as we were given a bulletin.

Was your pew comfortable?

The padded pew was comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Lively, quiet conversation during the organ prelude.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning! Welcome to worship at West Portal Lutheran Church."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Lutheran Service Book. But everything we needed, including the service music and the words to the hymns, was presented in its entirety in the bulletin. One needed the hymn book only if a particular hymn was unfamiliar and one needed to look at the melody. I have only encountered one other Lutheran congregation in the United States that offered the complete service in the bulletin. It seemed welcoming to me – an indication that the service is not just for insiders who know it by heart or who can juggle the books with ease.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ and piano.

Did anything distract you?

Two distractions. There was an open door to the right of the altar area; occasionally one could see movement on the other side of the door. The other distraction was the stained glass window behind the altar. At first it was pleasing to look at, but after a while I started to wish that whoever designed it had chosen a different shade of yellow. Somehow it looked sickly in comparison to the freshness of the blues and reds.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

It was formal liturgical worship. I appreciated that Mr Dodgers spoke in a natural way. He did not draw attention to himself by trying to speak too expressively, but at the same time he avoided the pitfall of being too bland. He let the words speak for themselves, which is not easy to do.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 – Mr Dodgers' sermon was cohesive, well-structured and easy to listen to. It was remarkable how much solid content was presented within the relatively short time. He showed poise and had a smooth delivery, as though he had been preaching for several years.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

His text was Luke 7:36-8:3 (Jesus forgives the sins of the woman who bathed his feet, much to Simon's distress, and resumes his travels with the Twelve). The focus of the sermon was the kissing of the feet of Jesus: why Simon the Pharisee did not do it, why the woman did. He spoke of the "dirty, dusty feet of Jesus" as a means of grace: they represent the self-debasement of God in Jesus. We also can kiss the feet of Jesus by serving others. It is not demeaning to serve.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I found it delightful the way this congregation shows respect for worship and worshippers. The service was conducted with reverence and modesty. By providing the entire service from beginning to end in the bulletin, they made it easy for me as a visitor to participate. Usually, one is distracted by having to turn quickly to pages in a hymnal, in order not to lose track of what is going on. It is a service of love to spare the worshipper this distraction.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Afterward in the fellowship hall I noticed a yellow poster on the bulletin board entitled "What to do in case of on earthquake." This notice was a reminder that the infamous San Andreas fault is literally only a few miles away from this church, just off the coast of San Francisco. This fault line can turn San Francisco into a horrifying hell within minutes, as it did in 1906. The next so-called "big one" is inevitable and long overdue, and no one can predict how catastrophic it could be. Having grown up in San Francisco, I know how terrifying even a small earthquake can be. Just thinking about this possibility was like being in the "other place."

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

As we loitered in our seats at the back of the church, someone came up to us, greeted us, and invited us to the after-service coffee. In the fellowship hall below the church it was easy to engage people in conversation.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The decaf coffee was surprisingly strong, which was fine with me. (Church coffee is usually too weak.) Cake, brownies and donuts were also offered.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

7 – Although I grew up in this denomination, I am not completely comfortable with the doctrines of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. They are not open-minded enough for my taste. There seems to be a tendency in this church to resolve ambiguity prematurely with "correct" doctrine. But despite my reservations about the dogmatic stance of the Missouri Synod, it would be appealing to participate in worship and Bible study at West Portal on a regular basis and feel the pulse of this Lutheran community.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Without doubt. This seems to be a lively, well-organized congregation. They offer plenty of opportunities to become actively involved and to enjoy fellowship. It is a congregation which is apparently focused on reaching out to people who do not belong to the church (especially through the school) and to people all over the world. I appreciate a church that conducts services in a well-organized and reverent way, where the flow of the worship service does not get bogged down with too many announcements or the greeting of visitors.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The simple beauty of the sanctuary keeps coming back to me in spirit. So typically Californian in style, so well balanced (except for the sickly mustard yellow in the window).

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