This story was originally published in our June 2014 issue.
To meet with Rev. Roland Gordon, pastor of the Ingleside Presbyterian Church on Ocean Avenue, is like meeting with a friend. Once you get to know him, he insists on being addressed simply as “Rev. G.”
Take a walk with him and there is always someone eager to greet him, someone like Jesse Waters, proprietor of Waters Construction and Plumbing across the street.
“He knew my dad,” Waters said. Waters told the reverend that the replacement cross he is making is almost ready to be installed atop the roof near the main entrance of the church. The two shook hands and chatted for a few minutes.
Ingleside Presbyterian Church has a dusty exterior and is in need of some paint and a few repairs. The building was built in the 1920’s to serve all of the Protestant denominations in the area. At one point, nine denominations worshiped there. Yet as for the congregation of Ingleside Presbyterian, it was founded over a century ago in 1907.
Today, with membership at 75 people, the Ingleside Presbyterian community has been going through lots of transitions. The economic shift and the skyrocketing price of real estate continue to impact the neighborhood, just like the rest of San Francisco.
“We are in the midst of a renewal,” Rev. G said. “We had over 500 in our congregation, and, as you may know, when I got here in 1978, there were only four members.”
Officially praised by three former mayors, a former California governor and a member of the U.S. Senate, Rev. G, a native of Gary, Indiana, believes that the outreach his church provides will continue, even amid uncertainty.
“Our work with the San Francisco Food Bank helps families and our afterschool programs at the community center aim to prepare kids for their educational future,” he said.
Growing up in a family of nine, Gordon lost his father when he was a child. “I know poverty,” he said.
The Church and the People
When walking into the front door of the church, a visitor first sees a grand staircase to the choir loft. The faint aroma of sacred incense fills the air. Unique to this church is that almost every bit of wall space is covered with an ongoing collage.
Even parts of the ceiling were covered, with the exception of the sanctuary itself and main altar of course. Referred to by former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, as “a gem” and “treasure,” “The Great Cloud of Witnesses” as Rev. G calls it, features heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.
“It all started from a picture I had put up of boxer Mohammed Ali,” he said. In his work with youth Rev. G wanted to show that the African American community was able to accomplish many great things. And, for young people not to give up or fall into the trap of drugs and violence.
Rev. G believes that service to God is by serving all of humanity. “It does not matter what a person’s background is or what religion or status they are, he said, love is the common ground,” he said. “If people are genuinely motivated by good and love then no matter what the barrier we can talk the same language.”
For Rev. G, there is an unspoken language or understanding that is part of faith and that love that is mentioned in the Bible and the Gospels.
“He is a great man of faith,” said fellow Presbyterian minister Carieta Grizzell. She met him as a young seminarian at San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo back in 1978.
Grizzell recalled when he accepted the assignment that summer to be an assistant pastor at Ingleside, hired to preach on Sundays for a weekly salary of only $50.00. Starting a basketball team was one of the first steps in addition to those Sunday homilies.
“What he did there was remarkable,” she said, because the congregation had dwindled down to only four members.” From that initial summer preaching job, Rev. G eventually became the pastor of Ingleside Presbyterian Church.
After the great Earthquake and Fire of 1906, many families who lost their homes found refuge in the Ingleside. At that time around the turn-of-the-20th Century the Ingleside was considered the outskirts of the city. As the neighborhood became more established, by the end of World War II, many families left for the growing suburbs.
Yet once again, Ingleside would be a refuge for the displaced when families of the Fillmore District who lost their homes and businesses to the shortsighted efforts by city’s “Urban Renewal” and settled in Ingleside. From the late 1940’s through the 1960’s the plan for renovation and renewal of the Fillmore District went wrong. Many left the city, never to return.
But those who stayed settled in Ingleside. And for a while, the Presbyterian Church on Ocean Ave was a gathering place for the African-American community. As inflation grew and gasoline was rationed in the 1970’s families were moving to the suburbs. This migration to the suburbs left Ingleside to become one of the neglected areas of the west side of the City. That sense of neglect remained until the 1990’s and the digital
Even as the neighborhood has changed dramatically since his arrival and attendance has gone up and down, “Rev. Gordon has remained steadfast,” said Grizzell. “He has been consistent in his reaching out to ‘the least, lost and left out’ of the community,” as she expressed it. “Providing programs that feed, educate, and uplift people is not easy.”
Rev. Grizzell will be celebrating the receiving of her PhD of Ministry Degree this year at Ingleside Presbyterian. Rev. Gordon has done great work at Ingleside Presbyterian,
and continues to do so,” Rev. Grizzell said. “I believe God is blessing him and will continue to bless him and his ministry to the community.”
Rev. G is thankful for all the friendships he has made over the years. “I want to pass on this legacy, especially ‘The Great Cloud of Witness’ to a successor,” he said.
Rev. G said he hopes he can get historical landmark status for Ingleside Presbyterian.
“That is something among many things I am working on,” he said. “It will take a lot of work to laminate and preserve all the pictures and clippings.”