Sunday, April 10, 2016

SPIRIT HOP #1. Serendipity - ST. Augustine Episcopal Church, Oakland, CA


The day I first visited St. Augustine was November 8, fall of 2015. I drove past this church for several years with a bit of curiosity or a flashing thought about how rough the area appeared.  The church is located on the corner of Telegraph Avenue and 29th Street; which happens to be just down the street from a homeless encampment under the 980 highway. For the past eight years, I have driven by with a negative and short-sighted opinion about the area and location, not knowing anything about the church or its people and never paid much attention until this day. The banner that hung outside caught my attention that read Jazz Sundays, so I decided to check it out.

The church building itself is small yet inside it is very beautiful with a deep red wood throughout.  It is a historical landmark that was built in 1890. There are about 130 members, and a choir made up of approximately eight or nine persons. There are two services 8am and 10:30am, which comfortably accommodated members and new guests. As usual, I arrived at the last minute. Congregation had already begun, and the choir was signing the opening hymn ‘We Gather Together.’ You know the church is small when you open the door and a flood of sunlight spills in when you enter, and everyone looks up at you; new and arriving at the last minute. Ok - Awkward! I quickly scampered in and grabbed a seat to the rear and closest to the door. 

From my seated position, I could really see how small and very beautifully the church was preserved. It was fall harvest. The center aisle was decorated with dried large bamboo leaves and plastic flowers that arched and connected the pews on each side to commemorate the festivities. The quaint environment was charming and intimate with the d├ęcor. It reminded me of being in a Tiki lounge, except without the flaming cocktail with an umbrella hanging from the side of the glass. Tiki would not be far from appropriate since Tiki is Polynesian mythology of the first man or a carved figure of a deity.  I soon discover that the Jazz is held on the 4th Sundays, so I missed it.

The minister is a quite handsome elder with mingling of grey and black curly hair; Dr. Rev. Kwazi Thornell. His voice is forceful and his demeanor smooth. He greets everyone and instructs us for the first reading: Ruth 3:2-5; Psalms 127, Hebrews 9:24-28. We kneel and pray; kneel and pray; kneel and pray; a practice very similar to Catholicism. They congregation sings ‘I’ve Decided to Make Jesus My Choice,' and I ab-lib.  The congregation is multi-culture and multi-ethnic with Anglo, African-American, Latin, Caribbean, African and they are extremely hospitable and friendly. After the sermon, the church hosts a reception of food and drinks in the community hall behind the main building. I attended and met more of the members; most of whom have been in the community for a very long time. I was certain to return again, and I did in February 2016.

It was February 21, 2016-second Sunday in Lent. I normally avoid First Sundays as a visitor because I am never comfortable with unknown customs of other church communions. Nonetheless, communion is practiced here on the second Sunday, so I rise and get into line following the couple sitting on the left of me in the pew when instructed by the usher. While in line, I join the choir in the song ‘What A Friend We Have,’ with the customary ab-libing and making my way to the front as communion began.

When I arrived at the alter, I followed suit with everyone and kneeled down. At this time, my stomach is growling very loud when the assistant pastor handed me the wafer. I placed it on my tongue. My stomach growls again, and my only thought is what am I going to eat once this is over. Here comes the grape juice. The brass goblin is placed before my lips. I sip and discovered it was wine! Wow, cool! However, I was hungry as hell.  So on this occasion immediately following service, I proceeded directly to the community hall to eat and fellowship with the members.  

I was overwhelmed by their hospitality.  They gave me flowers, a visitor package.  They provided tea, coffee, various sweets and cakes, including baked and fried chicken and salads.  I even received a gift coffee cup with a picture of the historic church.  My belly was full, I received an outpouring of love and hospitality.  I am sure to return soon if they will tolerate my ab-libbing of songs.   Thank you St. Augustine's Episcopal Church of Oakland, whose motto is 'Going Forward In Faith.'