You haven’t seen much about St. Paulus Lutheran here but I want to tell you a bit more about them today. I’m overdue to blog about the Friendship Banquet they sponsor every Tuesday at St. Mark’s, but I want to talk a bit about the church itself today.
St. Paulus is a little church in the Western Addition with the sanctuary separated from the office by a row of bookshelves. They provide a lot of material support to SF CARE, including my workspace. On any given day numerous people are in and out of here, getting pastoral care from Pastor Dan, picking up their mail, calling relatives or their payee, using the bathroom, getting a cup of coffee, chatting with me or with the fabulous Carol who is our administrator. I really like having a desk in the middle of such a vibrant space.
Wednesday night is Mission night. Anyone is welcome to come for a meal and conversation, though most of those who come are also members of St. Paulus. The conversation is general for the first part, then Pastor Dan usually introduces a topic. Last night the topic was the church and its mission. I was working late and got to overhear the conversation. I found myself moved by it and asked if I could write a blog post about what they were saying. Everyone graciously agreed to let me blog about their conversation.
They all spoke about how welcome they feel at St. Paulus, and what a sharp contrast to other churches they’d been to that welcome is. The fact is it is not easy for someone who lives outside or has mental health issues to find a congregation to welcome them in San Francisco. They went on and on about how St. Paulus is different. How they could come here and be at home. “What other church lets someone come inside and sleep for a few hours during the day?” “Other churches don’t like you to question, but here you can even question big things,” and “Acceptance is part of the deal,” were some of the comments I overheard.
Accepting people exactly as they are is a profound and powerful act. It’s a theologically sound way to live because God takes each of us as is. Recognition of that grace is what guided the next part of the discussion, which turned to the question of what do we do about such grace, beyond receiving it with gratitude and extending welcome to all.
The theology here at St. Paulus is that God’s grace (God’s unconditional love and acceptance of each of us) is an unmerited gift. One cannot earn it because it is already given fully and unconditionally. If one doesn’t need to earn it, then what do we do about it? There was a lot of lively debate around this topic. How do we best share God’s grace with others? What does it mean in terms of how we forgive and express forgiveness? What does it require of us in terms of sharing the news of this grace or news of a little jewel like St. Paulus?
Many of those present at the meeting either live outside now or were when they first started coming to St. Paulus. They talked about how freely given acceptance motivated them to change their lives where the conditional acceptance of other churches (basically, ‘change and then you can be accepted here’) had not. This acceptance grows out of a recognition that God motivates rather than dictates in our lives. And I’m talking serious change – like going from shooting up together to being on the church council together. They spoke about how they were leery of coming to any church when they were first invited here, but now enthusiastically invite others to come. At every step Pastor Dan pushed the discussion to go farther, kept asking hard questions.
This is what I’m starting to love about this church. Not only do they take the (sadly unusual) step of truly accepting every person who walks through the door, but they don’t just rest on doing that, profound though that act is. They have a pastor who respects his congregants enough to push them in the direction of justice and challenge them to share their faith in more profound ways. And isn’t afraid to remind people that the grace found here at St. Paulus comes from God and is beyond our power to control. They have the heart to put their money where their mouth is in contributing to such projects as the Free Farm and the advocacy initiatives we have planned at SF CARE. And they have the courage to ask hard questions of themselves and to debate the answers with verve and respect.
One of my other jobs has me working just about every Sunday, but as I listened last night, I started thinking that as much as I enjoy being in the midst of the bustle here during the week, I’d like to visit on a Sunday morning, too.