Ingleside church seeks to preserve inspirational symbols as area demographics shift 

click to enlarge The Rev. Roland Gordon shows off many years of cutting and pasting images and stories throughout Ingleside Presbyterian Church. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • mike koozmin/the s.f. examiner
  • The Rev. Roland Gordon shows off many years of cutting and pasting images and stories throughout Ingleside Presbyterian Church.

Step inside Ingleside Presbyterian Church and thousands, perhaps millions of faces, some of the same person, greet you.

It started 35 years ago, when Roland Gordon, then a seminary student who preached on Sundays, cut out a picture of his hero, Muhammad Ali, and glued it to the wall of the church basketball gymnasium. Little did he know what that would ignite.

Black youths from the neighborhood who in those days attended after-school programs at the church at 1345 Ocean Ave. gravitated toward the legendary boxer's image. Ali's success story became an inspiration for the youths, who were regularly exposed to trouble and faced with choices on how to lead their lives.

Seeing this, Gordon began collecting, cutting out and pasting images and stories of other prominent black leaders.

"These guys might not read their black history book, but they read the wall," Gordon, 70, now the church's reverend, said of the youths who came to Ingleside.

Over the past few decades, Gordon has covered not only the church's gym, but the lobby and practically every room except for the church sanctuary, with pictures of famous black figures, as well as those of other races. Some, like former Mayor Willie Brown, President Barack Obama and Michael Jackson, have entire rooms to themselves. Over the years, however, basketball games, water leakages and time itself have caused wear and tear on the images.

Now leaders in the Oceanview-Merced Heights-Ingleside community including District 7 Supervisor Norman Yee are looking to raise money to preserve the collages that they see as educational art, even for the mostly Asian population that has settled in the neighborhood in the last five to 10 years.

"At the base level, it's to help preserve what [Gordon] has done so future generations can see it," Yee said.

According to The City's Invest in Neighborhoods initiative, within one-fourth of a mile of the Ocean Avenue commercial district -- the corridor between Phelan Avenue and Manor Drive -- the Asian and black populations represent 47 and 7 percent, respectively, as of February 2013.

No recent estimate has been made for how much it would cost to preserve the collages and Gordon knows little of what that would entail. His efforts have involved simply finding inspirational pictures and articles, to putting up a ladder or renting a lift to get the collages toward the ceiling of the gymnasium.

"I really feel like I was called to preach. You have to be almost insane, it takes so much time," Gordon said. "'This ordained clergy, wasting time cutting,' they said, then this starts to take shape. The kids need images."

While the church's sermons still draw mostly black members, its after-school tutoring and food pantry programs in the last decade have received mostly members of the Asian population that started buying many of the homes in the Oceanview-Merced Heights-Ingleside community. Many black residents have since moved to the East Bay, Vallejo and the Peninsula.

In 2000, most participants in the church's Thursday and Friday food pantry giveaways were blacks and Latinos. Currently, however, 85 to 90 percent of participants are Asian, said Christina Ridad, 86, who coordinates the food pantry program. With the clientele shift, Ridad said she has trained volunteers to cater to preferences. Often, Asian participants are less inclined to take items like winter squash and spaghetti sauce since they are not part of their traditional cuisines.

"Before, participants were quiet," Ridad said. "We learned that we have to ask them if they like it before giving it to them instead of them taking it and leaving it outside because they don't like to take it."

Churchgoer Walter Quinn, 76, who moved to Pacifica, said he is one of the few black former San Francisco residents who can still make the trip to Sunday service, since he is in closer proximity than other people who moved away.

"You have people that you go to church with and you form a relation with them," he said, "and next thing you know, they can't come because they had to move out of The City."

Indeed, the membership of the church, built in the 1920s, has declined since the neighborhood's demographic shift. A decade ago, the church had 130 to 150 regular members, but now it's down to about 75 people for Sunday service. The sanctuary capacity is 400 people.

Gordon hopes that preserving the face collages for museum or historical landmark status could help drive membership back up.

"Hopefully when I leave out of here, the museum and art things will get a better mix of people in here," he said. "It's going to come back, it's gotta come back."

And while the campaign for preservation begins, Gordon said his collages are not yet complete. A sabbatical of a month or two, he said, would get him close to finishing his project.

"Sometimes a place would be vacant for years, sometimes decades, and when the right thing came, I knew right where to put it," he said. "It's like I was called to do this project for posterity."

About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong covers transportation, housing, and ethnic communities, among other topics, for the San Francisco Examiner. She covered City Hall as a fellow for the San Francisco Chronicle, night cops and courts for the San Antonio Express-News, general news for Spanish-language newspapers La Opinión and El Mensajero,... more
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