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'Are You There, God? It's Me, Millie'

Grace Cathedral
Amazing Grace: Still beautiful after all these years, Grace Cathedral is one of the city's holier churches.

Millie gets on his knees in San Francisco's churches

By David Mills

Everyone's got religion these days: The Promise Keepers are marching on Washington, and the Scientologists are sweeping the Oscars. And that's either a Mormon temple or Space Mountain glistening on the horizon. It's enough to make even a hardened atheist like Millie begin to wonder, "Am I missing out on something?"

Not one to let mass culture pass him by, Millie throws on his Sunday best, stuffs his pockets full of change and sets off to see what this whole "God craze" is all about.

First up is historic Mission Dolores, on 16th and Dolores streets. Built back in 1791, the Mission Dolores chapel is the oldest standing remnant of the Catholic mission network that at one time stretched from Mexico to Canada. The basilica, the big church on the corner, next to the chapel, was built in 1918 after the original structure crumbled to the ground in the 1906 earthquake.

Part museum, part house of worship (a tough act to pull off without descending into kitsch), it has a kooky diorama depicting the original mission, tatty church artifacts on display, even photographs of the pope's visit in 1987. (Imagine 8am Mass in Spanish with a busload of Japanese tourists wandering about.) It's like those weird shrine/museum/study centers that spring up in Eastern European villages every time a young nursemaid sees the Virgin Mother on the side of a barn. And it needs a paint job. (Note to Mayor Brown: How about a city referendum directing funds to clean up Mission Dolores and turn it into a historical landmark? Jose Medina needs something to do. Give it to him.)

Next Millie travels to the Richmond to check out the Russian Orthodox Holy Virgin Cathedral on Geary and 26th. Unlike most of the big cathedrals in the city, this one won't let you just wander in at any time of the day with a bag lunch and eat your sandwich in the back. The sign outside the door welcomes visitors to Mass but advises them to adhere to four rules. "Remain silent. Proper attire (gals in skirts). No photos. Don't participate." Too bad, because it's quite impressive from the outside, with big gold-leafed cupolas and fabulous old-country mosaics looming over the street. Possibly depicting Russian Orthodox saints, the mosaics look not unlike the Soviet Politburo of yesteryear, but in drag.

At 1850 Arguello at Lake, Millie pops in on services at Temple Emanu El. For its architecture alone, this house of worship is highly recommended. Inside, ushers help Millie to affix a yarmulke with jaunty flair and point to an open seat in the back. The temple is stunningly beautiful, with massive stained glass windows and beautiful chandeliers. Lots of talk from the very earnest rabbi about Guatemalan refugees and political asylum. Millie slips out the back and makes a mental note to return when someone else is playing.

Next up is San Francisco's historic Grace Cathedral at Taylor and California. On the day of Millie's visit, the place is buzzing with clergy and laypeople alike in fevered conversation. Seems the Episcopal Diocese of California Convention has pulled into town and set up shop at Grace. Up at the altar some active churchfolk are holding a hearing on new guidelines regarding the sexual misconduct of clergy. Millie catches good ol' Sue Bierman working the crowd in the adjacent conference center.

Outside, Millie crosses Taylor and sits in the small park across from Grace Cathedral. It's a beautiful, warm fall day in the city, and Millie needs a break from all these dusty old churches. Millie knows he should check out Glide and St. Mary's Cathedral, St. Peter and Paul's in North Beach, even one of those revivalist storefront evangelical scams along Mission Street. Surely they've got something to offer.

Instead, Millie looks around. Old Italian couples are out walking, little Chinese kids in school uniforms are chattering away on the swings, an overweight couple is getting snuggly on one of the benches. This is too good. Millie strips off his shirt, lies back in the grass and soaks up the sunlight. God is dead. San Francisco is heaven.

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From the November 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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