Mystery Worshipper: BWA
Church: Our Redeemer's
Location: San Francisco, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 24 January 2010, 10:30am
The congregation held its first service in 1953 in a rented store. Soon thereafter it had grown to the point where another store needed to be rented. The present church was finished in 1955, the congregation itself having supplied most of the labor. It's a green, cabin-like building, with a tall green bell tower. The building is surrounded by a tree lined lawn, where a drought-resistant garden has been planted.
They have had a long and supportive relationship with a highly respected pre-school that rents space in a building on the grounds. The congregation supports a large number of charities, outstanding among which are Samaritan House, providing food, clothing and shelter to those in need; Mateo Lodge, offering lodging and treatment facilities for the mentally ill; the Sunny View Retirement Community; and San Bruno Catholic Worker, part of the Catholic Worker movement that provides resources for the homeless, exiled, hungry and forsaken.
The church is situated in a neighborhood that couldn't be more diverse if somebody had called central casting to film a depiction of a U.N. meeting. On one side of the church is a modest, middle-class suburban housing enclave, on the other a funeral parlor, and directly across the street is a lower-rent district that includes a very old, very popular dive bar.
The Revd Dr Gabriele Schroeder, pastor, was the presiding minister, with the Revd John Lutz as assisting minister. Overseeing the singing was Jeanette Cool, minister of music, assisted by Fran Lange, cantor.
What was the name of the service?Worship Service
How full was the building?
Mostly full – I'd put the capacity at about 70.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Several people welcomed me personally. When I stepped in the door (somewhat early) I was greeted by assigned greeters, but also found a comfy lounge area in the narthex, where several friendly parishioners eagerly greeted me. I felt enthusiastically welcomed. Arrangements for the coffee hour were being made on a side table in the lounge.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was a decently ergonomic blonde wood standard pew, lovingly smoothed by many bottoms. No complaints.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The parishioners relaxed on a big comfy couch or one of the cushioned chairs in the lounge as they caught up with each other. The room was buzzing and animated. At about 10.25 or so, a gentle drift toward the pews began, and by the time the worship team took their places for the procession, everyone was quietly seated.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Evangelical Lutheran Worship and a printed order of service.
What musical instruments were played?
Blonde wood pipe organ and blonde wood upright piano. (I really dug the blonde wood thing.) Their organ has a fascinating history as described on their website – in short, it began life accompanying silent films at the Roxie Theater in Oakland, California!
Did anything distract you?
The cantor had a gorgeous sultry alto voice, but during her lectionary chanting I noticed her voice cutting out. At first I blamed the microphone. On observation, though, I noticed that actually she was holding the hymnal a little too high and blocking her voice. I was distracted in that I wanted to beg her to step into the microphone.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
California respectful casual. Not stiff and formal, but not very happy clappy either. The hymns and the lectionary were simple and dignified.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Pastor Schroeder's style seemed marked by a kind of steady, calm energy – enthusiastic, but deliberate. She made a direct effort to address the eclectic background of the community and encourage the parishioners to see that as a strength.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Pastor Schroeder interestingly blended two of the readings: Nehemiah 8:3-10 (Ezra reads from the Law to a large crowd) and 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 (we are members of the Body of Christ) to encourage the congregation to "stand on the shoulders of their fathers" while remembering that the members of the church body will all have different uses and efficiencies.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The responsive psalm reading was done by the worship leader – a sparkling soprano – and the aforementioned sultry cantor, who sang in a way that evoked jazz stylist Nina Simone or children's folk singer Ella Jenkins. The combination of the two voices was breathtaking. Also, during an otherwise mellow passing of the peace, a congregant suddenly let out a shriek of joy and threw her arms around an apparently long-absent churchmate, declaring, "I've missed my friend!"
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The bathroom. There was a unisex facility further down the hall with access for the disabled, but the general ladies' room was hardly accessible even by a Barbie doll! I am not exactly petite, but I can't imagine a standard twelve-year old performing adequately in those stalls. The sink area was about a foot and a half from the closed stall doors – a person standing at the sink would have a tight squeeze to avoid getting hit by a door when it opened. It was like reliving the stateroom scene from the classic Marx Brothers film A Night at the Opera.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Since the coffee area was in the back of the church, I resorted to standing by a chair and looking blank. Within seconds, a couple of women came over and made small talk. One of them eventually gestured toward the table and said, "They're setting up for coffee hour. Feel free to have some."
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee, tea, all kinds of juice – and a huge platter of deli sandwiches, with chips (crisps) on the side. I was told that there was a lunch being served for their annual meeting, and that I could dig in.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – If I weren't already fairly situated, I would definitely give it a try. As it is, I may come back to visit. Both via the sermon and the service sheet, I got the impression that this is a church that celebrates diversity. To that end, I would respectfully submit that a pub gathering across the street of willing church members would be a wonderful missionary opportunity. Get a pitcher of Stella Artois and make some friends.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. The sermon in particular encouraged me.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The alto, and "I've missed my friend!"