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Portal Lutheran, San Francisco, California, USA
Portal Lutheran, San Francisco, California, USA.
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.
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 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.
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.
The date & time:
June 13, 2010, 8.30am.
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
Lively, quiet conversation during the organ prelude.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Good morning! Welcome to worship at West Portal Lutheran
What books did the congregation use during the
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
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?
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
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
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
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
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
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 this church your regular (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
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
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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