CHAPTER: Church of the Sojourners, San Francisco

Finding Intentional Community; Your Journey Home, by James Werning (Wipf & Stock Publishers)

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Church of the Sojourners

Imagine taking everything in the suburbs—the traffic, the stores, the homes, the schools, the hospitals, the parks, the businesses—and compressing them into a fraction of the area. Squish everything together and suck out the empty space, and that’s what you have in the Mission District of San Francisco, where Church of the Sojourners resides.
Where I’m from, people give you a good five-foot clearance on the sidewalks. Here, I’d step up to the crosswalk and the next folks would already be rubbing my shoulders. It’s hard to get away from people in this city. The Sojourners folks we met during our four-day visit thrive in this vibrant, multicultural environment. Meanwhile, each of their four homes has a feeling of peaceful sanctuary. These people are very good at protecting their nests.
One member assured me that city life is nothing special, especially if that’s all you know.
“My daughter is a city kid,” this parent said. “She rides the buses alone and walks alone. Of course, I can’t get her to go camping, because nature feels a lot scarier to her than the city. But there’s a lot of value in the diversity of people and experiences here. You have to be vigilant, though. You can’t say, ‘Go out and play. Be back by noon.’ You don’t do that here.”
As for me, I loved every minute of it . . . from the moment we stepped off the B.A.R.T. and got picked up at the Chinese Donut Shop by a Sojourners member, until three mornings later when we said goodbye. It’s exciting to dive into the flood of people on the sidewalks, all lapping the shores of eateries, coffee shops, hair cutters, laundromats, and boutiques. Alluring spices and aromas tempt you to exchange your earnings for a tantalizing meal. Restaurants place chairs right on the sidewalk, like traps to tumble you into their patronage. Everything is so close. You feel as if you could reach right through the glass and tap the hair stylist on the shoulder.
All this is just three minutes away from your place of sanctuary at the Church of the Sojourners.
If you want to stretch your legs and “get away from it all,” do what I did. Walk south about fifteen minutes, up ridiculously steep streets, past gorgeous old Victorian homes, to the summit of Bernal Heights with its panoramic views of the bay, downtown, and the distant Golden Gate Bridge. Enjoy watching people walk their dogs on the lush, green turf, if the wind doesn’t blow you away. Pause to snap pictures for tourists from France or Japan. On your walk home, enjoy the bursts of flowers, palms, and succulents that dangle over the sidewalks. Admire the brilliantly painted Latino wall murals. If you’re not paying attention, you might walk for blocks and blocks, not sure if you are lost or not. You might pass a few homeless camps on the sidewalks. Then you see an iron lattice railing with potted ferns at the top of a narrow stairway, and suddenly you realize that you are home.
This was my first morning at Church of the Sojourners. And it only got better.

Church of the Sojourners, San Francisco
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My favorite experience at Church of the Sojourners was caroling in the neighborhood after dark. Our visit came a week before Christmas, so about fifteen of us took up candles and songbooks and hit the streets. First, we knocked on doors and sang to a few delighted friends of the community. Then we engaged patrons and shop owners at tiendas and taquerias along busy 24th Street. Several drivers stopped to take photos, sing a few lines with us, and wish us a merry Christmas. Down the quieter side streets, we received bright smiles and toothless grins from street people and folks spending an otherwise dreary night at the lavanderia. Then we returned home for hot tea and warm conversation.
This experience was an unforgettable highlight of my holiday season.
Being in the city puts Church of the Sojourners shoulder-to-shoulder with many people in need. They have a long history of helping Spanish-speaking immigrants. Members teach classes in San Quentin Prison and work for open adoption among Latino families. They frequently participate in peaceful protests and prayer walks for victims of violence. They share food, clothes, and friendship with street people.
“Sometimes an outreach can become an in-reach,” says Sojourner’s member Zoe Mullery. “I came here in severe crisis twenty-one years ago. I needed someone to listen to me and tell me the truth about myself. I had met Debbie, one of the founding members, and I still had her phone number in my wallet. So I gave her a call and we met. For two full hours, I just spilled my guts. I let it all out. She was a great listener. She didn’t just pat me on the back and say, ‘Everything’s fine.’ She reflected things back, including the things she thought needed correction. The next day I got an invitation from her, so I agreed to stay with the community for a week. During that time, every one reached out to me. I was messy. I was crying a lot. Jack, one of the pastors, agreed to mentor me. It was a very slow and painful process, but the community nursed me through. I stayed on, but for me it wasn’t love at first sight. It was a very bumpy road. I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ But in time, the church was able to minister to my need, and I received that.”

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One of the most difficult challenges for some people in communities like this is strangely enough . . . dinner.
It was certainly a struggle for Zoe, who was assigned a dinner group when she first arrived. “Everybody ate together regularly with their own small group of five people. I’d say, ‘What if I want to have dinner with someone else tonight? What if I just don’t feel like it? What if I want to eat at eight instead of at six?’ It felt very constraining and sort-of arbitrary and small. It felt unfree in the way that I was used to feeling free. It took me a long time to recognize how small commitments like dinner, over time, allow you to bond with people.”
“Eating meals together is kind-of a foundation of Christian life together,” Zoe explains. “Breaking bread together is very significant. It’s part of family life. You just need it. It builds up that ineffable thing that a family is.”
This simple and surprising truth is even supported by modern science. Research shows that children who eat together regularly with their families are healthier, less likely to be obese, at lower risk of abusing alcohol and drugs, and perform better at school than kids from families who don’t eat together.
I observed this health-building practice in action at Church of the Sojourners, where households regularly pray, talk, laugh, and eat around their tables. Joan and I certainly enjoyed sharing these sacred moments with our hosts. My understanding further deepened as Zoe started talking etymology, a topic I rarely discuss in mixed company. (Just kidding!)
“The word companion has at its root the word ‘bread,’ or pan,” explained Zoe. “So a companion is someone with whom we share bread. We share a similar journey and destination with our companion. That’s a very different story than a lone traveler with an individual destination.”
As she explained this concept of sharing bread, the story of Christians in the early church took on new meaning for me.

And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart . . .—Acts 2:46 (KJV)

Similarly, I was reminded of the many examples of companionship that Jesus gave us.

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread and blessed it. Then he broke it in pieces and handed it to the disciples, saying, “Take this and eat it. This is my body.”—Matthew 26:26

As these revelations took root in my heart, I knew that I had discovered the very core and center of Church of the Sojourners.
Where is that center?
At the dinner table.

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Church of the Sojourners has about twenty-five members and four houses in the Mission District of San Francisco. This area gets its name from the nearby Mission Dolores, built by Spaniards in the seventeen hundreds. Sojourner’s families and singles have private rooms with shared kitchens and common rooms. The core, covenanted members pool their finances together, as did the early church in Acts 2:45 and 4:32. Members get a small allowance for personal needs, and they share resources like cars and appliances.
“The number one resource we share together is time,” says member Lee Kuiper. “We like doing a lot of things together. This might seem kind of odd in a place like San Francisco where everyone is pursuing their own path to truth, where they’re on their own individual journeys. So commitment in Church of the Sojourners means investing and building a relationship with the person down the hall. We commit to come to dinner with our households. We commit to prayers and Bible study. Our commitment has a lot of lived-out realities, and if you want to be a participator in this community, when the rubber meets the road, you are showing up. You are physically, emotionally, and spiritually present.”
Households eat meals together on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday nights. The whole community has a meal together on Friday night, which includes a Bible study. Their Sunday evening church service also includes a meal. Households have prayer and meditation in the morning before going to work or school. Community meetings are scheduled for Tuesday nights, and Wednesday nights are used as a date night or free night.
The community practices a quiet and contemplative time of Sabbath Sunday mornings. Everyone is encouraged to have a quiet time to connect with God in whatever way they think is best. Sunday afternoon worship begins at 4:30, and includes communion and a shared meal. They don’t have a church building, but they sit in a circle in one of the homes.
“We have a time for affirmation at these services,” says Zoe. “It’s a time of speaking appreciation and encouragement to the people around us. It’s acknowledging God’s active presence in each other’s lives. It can be quite remarkable. It’s a very encouraging time.”
For the record, the Church of the Sojourners is, in fact, a bona fide church, in the legal, non-profit, 501(c)3 sense of the word. The rationale behind this, according to Zoe, “is the idea that a church is people who are deeply invested in each other’s lives. Our church is not just Sunday worship. It’s being deeply committed, deeply there for each other in extraordinary ways. So the whole vision and theology around this community is that church can be more than how traditional American Christianity imagines it to be. Our community grew out of the deeper, bigger vision of what church should be.”
Church of the Sojourners takes its stand against Western culture’s hyper-individualism by covenanting with one another to be present and committed to each other with a strong sense of permanence. They are committed to stability. They have seen how American transience is destabilizing to families and churches.
“I love our covenant,” says Zoe. “I think it’s really beautiful. It talks about abandoning ourselves to God in service to one another. It’s that kind of self-sacrificing love that we’re trying to live out with particular people in a particular place. This is not a big theoretical concept. This is very practical, and that’s why I love it.”

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A common joy mentioned by members of Church of the Sojourners is the practical love and support that ebbs and flows throughout the community. Parents appreciate the many blessings that surrogate aunts and uncles bestow upon their children. Singles like having families to plug into and children to play with. The young appreciate the experience of the elderly, and the elderly receive valuable support from the young.
“The sense of extended family is very important to me,” one member said. “I don’t feel isolated. I can’t imagine not having these people around.”
Lee spoke about one memorable birthday celebration.
“Rebecca, my housemate, was turning ten years old,” he said, “and she was big into Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. So we planned a city-wide scavenger hunt, where we’d have people from the community stationed throughout the city playing different gods and goddesses. I was supposed to be Poseidon, and I was out at the Pacific Ocean. Before Rebecca and the others arrived, I received a text message of what I was to read as Poseidon. So the kids showed up and I walked out into the waves, which were really big and choppy that day. I was really acting the part. I was shouting, ‘Come into the ocean and play. Have fun!’ The waves were crashing and the kids were all excited. Then just as I raised my phone to read my part, Rebecca threw her arm up and it hit my hand, and my phone went flying up into the air, and it was gone. Immediately gone. I lunged and grabbed in the water, but it wasn’t there. The waves had just sucked it away. Obviously, I abandoned the Poseidon script, but we still had a lot of fun that day.”
Just for the record, that’s why Lee’s phone service went so quickly from five bars to sand bars.
Lee has more to say about both the ups and the downs of living in community: “It seems to me that the longer I stay a part of this community, the wider and deeper range of emotions I experience. I’ve had moments when I expect people to be there for me, and then they don’t show up. It can be hard, because community has the expectation that these people that surround you are going to be God’s palpable, practical hands and feet, to be there for you, to serve you, to love you. But yet there’s something that’s lost in translation at times when people’s sin and people’s brokenness get in the way. That helps keep me grounded in my personal relationship with Jesus Christ, because the community is not my savior. Jesus Christ is my Savior.”

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Stability is an important value to Sojourners members, who have covenanted to be together for as long as God allows. They understand that God’s richest blessings for community don’t happen overnight.
“I really enjoy watching the kids grow up,” says Zoe. “I also love watching the spiritual growth, how people grow and change over time. I like seeing trajectories. I like seeing long stories, and this is a good place to see long stories. I love being a part of that. I love having people to worship and pray with, day after day, in both mundane and spiritual ways. That’s very satisfying to me. It feels like a rich life. Rich is the word that always comes to mind. It feels rich. When you have rich food, it has a lot of flavor. There’s a lot of stuff going on. It has a lot of content, a lot of meatiness, a lot of complexity. Even when life here is hard, it’s not boring and it’s not meaningless. I feel like our life here is chock-full of meaningfulness. Even when things are at their hardest, I never feel like it’s without purpose. I never say, ‘Why are we doing this? Why are we beating ourselves up?’ It always feels like we’re trying to do something that matters. We may be struggling or failing at that, but we’re trying to live lives that are giving to God in the best way that we can imagine. We’re trying to do that. We may not be very good at it. We may even be terrible at it. But our intentions are to do something that matters. That just really makes life rich to me. It’s meaningful. Yeah. It’s rich.”
Jesus said, “The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.” (John 10:10, NLT)
That’s exactly how I felt that night while singing Christmas carols to grinning folks out on the streets. I don’t remember seeing any silver or gold out there, but I do know that it sure felt rich.