"Are you sure you don't want to take the tram?"
I hesitated. The hill was pretty massive.
Up we went. Monica and I were headed for Grace Cathedral, the towering, century-old Episcopal Church in downtown San Francisco.
Grace Cathedral was nothing short of magnificent. We drifted through the great wooden doors, silent and awe-struck. But this wasn't just a beautiful building. It was... well, different.
Just inside to the right was an Interfaith Sanctuary, dedicated to AIDS awareness, and representing religious symbols from around the world. I had never experienced a church that welcomed other religions. Sure, the Church is generally open to the public, but there’s an assumption that any church-goer is consenting to a Christian track, is subscribing to this religion. An Interfaith Sanctuary, though? A specific space within a church to welcome all forms of worship? This was new.
The centerpiece in the Interfaith Sanctuary was a large, silver altarpiece, with designs that looked like, wait a second—“Is that Keith Haring?” I asked. Monica nodded. An altarpiece by Keith Haring. Alright. I noted an abstract infant in the center, and angels along the sides. All these lines didn’t necessarily denote a complex theology. Rather, Haring seemed to be depicting energy.
And towards the front of Grace Cathedral, in the top right-hand corner, a brilliant stained-glass window, with a glowing orb at the center of the swirling cosmos of color. Divine presence before the creation of the world, God in every inch of this earth and beyond. Cosmic Christ.
Before heading out, Monica and I approached the labyrinth, the circular tangle of pathways on the floor, designed to be a miniature meditative pilgrimage. We entered one after the other, stepping carefully through the maze of lines. Around and around we went, while tourists clunked past. I love this church, I thought. This is the way it should be.
My brother recommended that I read the playwright Stephen Adly Giurgis, who uses theater as a platform for social criticism. Last week, I started Giurgis’ The Motherfucker with the Hat and, 2 hours later, was hunting for the rest of the Giurgis collection. This man is an outstanding writer—hilarious, disturbing, and thought-provoking in one fell swoop. This week, I read his 2005 play, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, which is set in Purgatory and depicts the trial of Judas. After dozens of historical figures—from Mother Teresa to Satan—weigh in on whether Judas ought to be sentenced to eternal damnation, we finally hear from Jesus Christ, who says,
“Right now, I am in Fallujah. I am in Darfur. I am on Sixty-third and Park having dinner with Ellen Barkin and Ron Perelman... Right now, I'm on Lafayette and Astor waiting to hit you up for change so I can get high. I'm taking a walk through the Rose Garden with George Bush. I'm helping Donald Rumsfeld get a good night's sleep...I was in that cave with Osama, and on that plane with Mohamed Atta...And what I want you to know is that your work has barely begun. And what I want you to trust is the efficacy of divine love if practiced consciously. And what I need you to believe is that if you hate who I love, you do not know me at all. And make no mistake, "Who I Love" is every last one. I am every last one. People ask of me: Where are you? Where are you?...Verily I ask of you to ask yourself: Where are you? Where are you?”
This is the quote that came to mind as I walked through Balmy Alley, an alleyway in the Mission filled with mural after mural, where the voices of the people are on display front and center. There is no turning a deaf ear to the cries of the impoverished and homeless along this street of art. The city speaks loud and clear.
The words of Stephen Adly Guirgis loop through my mind: where are you? But the greater the repetition, the further inward the quote, shifting from "Oh God, where are you now?" to a self-directed inquisition. Where am I?
To conclude the day, Monica and I went to the Church of 8 Wheels, an abandoned San Francisco church converted into a roller skating rink, with themed skate nights almost every night of the week. Tonight was LGBT night. I arrived before Monica, and waited outside for her arrival.
It wasn't long before a conversation began with a man also standing outside. His name was Don, and he claimed to be the "deacon" of the Church of 8 Wheels, as one of the founding members.
"What is a church, anyway, right? It's not the building, it's not the worship, it's the people. Right?" Don lit a joint while he spoke (only after assuring me that this was medical marijuana, which made me laugh).
Another man joined our conversation, by the name of Howard. He had bright blue hair and more piercings than I could count. Shortly after Howard came Michael, a man in dark, ripped clothing, carrying a half-eaten apple and a bag of cheetos.
The 4 of us stood outside the building, chatting idly. Howard pulled from his bag a metallic purple joint, packed it, and lit up in sync with Don.
Don grinned, "Now this is some church we got."
Howard exhaled smoke with a chuckle and passed the shining joint counterclockwise.
Monica arrived, and we pulled on skates and rolled onto the rink. I thought about Don's words, how this was his church, how these were his people. We skated around and around, in an endless flow of blurred color. We were back at the labyrinth of Grace Cathedral, only this time with fellow sojourners sailing by, glazed over, outside of time. The disco lights crossed and spun around my feet, swirling around in a rainbow cosmos. Cosmic Christ. Now this is some church we got.