40 Years in America
From One Strange World to Another
Talking to guests before the nightly evening program at Washington Street, San Francisco.
We lived to witness. We slept to witness. We dreamed witnessing. Witnessing was the purpose of life. Would that there could have been more than 24 hours in the day to witness. In especially zealous periods we would in fact witness 24 hours. I remember those conditions, when we would witness throughout the night in two-hour stints. Our trinity would park a car behind the San Francisco Greyhound Station, and pairs would go out, while the next team would sleep. The least-favored time slot was 3–5 am, because then you would get to arrive home just in time for pledge, house cleaning, morning chanting, and then . . .out witnessing. At least if you got two hours of sleep you felt grateful! I remember (or was it a dream) witnessing with Tim Henry at the San Francisco airport in the middle of the night, and being so exhausted that I collapsed into a vacant wheelchair. He pushed me around, still witnessing! An often-repeated favorite Oakland story was of one pair out late at night. One brother found a good prospect and began talking to him, and turned around to find his partner semi-asleep, drooling on the floor. Those were the days.
When we invited guests to the evening program, we would have to warn them about the unfriendly people outside our house. This was at the height of legalized conservatorships, kidnappings, and the court case involving the "Faithful Five." "Oh, they just don’t like our community and our lifestyle, and they don’t want anyone coming over," we would say to guests. The scene outside 1169 Washington Street was like a wild circus. Picketers with big signs would be circling like vultures on the sidewalk, waiting for us to try to get people inside safely.
They would most often succeed in at least getting a flyer in the hands of guests, who would be a bit confused and alarmed by this screaming mob. We also had a band of "regulars" who would appear at crucial witnessing moments. They could be counted on to come up with the most inflammatory things to say! We always witnessed in pairs those days, so with a little luck (and lots of spiritual intervention) one of us would be able to draw the "nego" off, although they were pretty good at figuring out who was being witnessed to! Despite all this, people came in droves, people were sincerely moved, and so many, many people joined. I remember occasions when over 100 guests would attend weekend workshop at Boonville.
Our Spiritual Diet
We wanted to make really good conditions, and understand people in the world who did not have enough, so it was understood that we would always have "liquid breakfast." Orange juice and coffee were not a good combination, even in large quantities. Runny oatmeal passed as liquid, if a little gruelly. Some enterprising cooks, however, had a reputation for defying the laws of physics, and making practically anything liquid. Hearst Street in Berkeley was the place to be! A lot of people who worked in business missions lived there, and needed a little more substantial breakfast. Yesterday’s peanut butter sandwiches, last night’s pizza, all kinds of things would be tossed in the blender, and violá! Liquid breakfast!
One time we initiated an eat-breakfast campaign. Bring a guest for breakfast and you can have some too! This was a big hit, and there was some mighty hard witnessing on the streets of San Francisco in the early mornings. One sister who joined during this period was known as Suzy Pancake for many years.
Our diet, over the period of a year, was probably quite balanced, but we tended to eat one particular thing for a long time. There was the English muffin period. This one lasted a very long time, and it is only relatively recently that I can even face an English muffin again. Muffins became lunch-muffin pbj’s, dinner-muffin pizza, snack, etc. One time we received continual donations of little pizzas. It was remarkable the number of ways to serve and eat these things. Pizza lasagna, pizza soup, etc. The mention of pizza, English muffins, broccoli, and stinky cheese to those who lived in Oakland in those years, will bring smiles and groans.
The Heart of Oakland
In December of 1977, Rick Joswick was convinced that we should begin a musical group -- which became the Heart of Oakland Band. In those days, doing anything other than witnessing was more or less to defy the purpose for which we were created, so it took a great deal of talk and persuasion before we were finally given permission to practice. Rick, Joshua Cotter, Mark Ungar, myself and later Joe Taylor created a partnership which lasted several years. The band could rehearse whenever we wanted, so long as all our public responsibilities were fulfilled. In other words, we were to witness full-time, attend all weekend workshops (every weekend), attend all evening prayers and morning pledge (every morning), and after that we could use our free time to practice! We made a rehearsal room at Hearst Street , and every night, after 11pm prayer at Washington Street in San Francisco (where we lived), we would drive out over the Bay Bridge through Berkeley and practice till around 2 or 3am. Then we’d drive back into the city, catch a few hours sleep till the Red Red Robin came around singing at about 4:45, and then begin our day again. Consequently, it took us a long time to learn new songs.
This period was really a Godsend to me. I had played the piano from childhood, and was a professional musician before joining, but I had realized how shallow the whole musical industry was. I had decided that unless I found out what and who God really was, I did not want to play anymore. It was at that point that I came to America, and found the church. I had no desire to play piano; I just wanted to find the truth.
We "debuted" at a rally on Berkeley Campus, well attended by our ever-present negative faction. It was great! We played at most evening programs, and at weekend workshops. We wrote songs that became church standards, and we loved what we did. But the memory of those rehearsal periods understandably remains a little hazy.
The Heart of Oakland Band at Hearst Street, Berkeley, 1978
The red, red robin came around to wake us up for 5 am pledge every morning. This was followed by a period of house-cleaning, and then back to the main rooms for 30 minutes of chanting. This took the form of "Glory to Heaven, peace on earth, bring 120,000 right now," for about five minutes, and then on to a succession of other things to be accomplished. There we were in a large circle, dressed in our odd "prayer" clothes, swaying back and forth chanting loudly at about six in the morning. Guests would often be sleeping in one of our houses, either people returning from camp before going their way, guests graduating from camp and coming to the city for the first time, etc. No matter how quiet we tried to be, upwards of 60 or 70 people trying to be sincere about chanting could only be so quiet. From time to time a guest would wander in, looking completely confused!
Then on to our somewhat not-solid breakfast. Trinity leaders would then have to make teams for the day. In retrospect we could have used some good planning and scheduling software, because it was always a complicated process, with someone being lost in the fray once in a while. A general panic of "get out of the house, you are spacing out" now prevailed, as witnessing was IT. Off we went, to Powell and Market, Fishermen’s Wharf, Golden Gate Park, fanning out across the city to cast the net.
Lunchtime programs were tried, but sometimes resulted in members becoming stuck in the house again, so we often improvised, bringing guests for lunch wherever we were. If we had what seemed to be a great guest, we would take them to the house right away. I remember one time telling my trinity head that I had had a particularly wonderful guest for evening program. "Did they stay?" I was asked. "Well then, they were not great at all," was the somewhat caustic response to my reply. Then back for the evening program, the event we lived for. It was well organized, well run and generally really quite good. Members entertained, singing, telling jokes, doing magic tricks, and opening people’s hearts. Then Dr. Durst gave the famous Elephant Lecture.
I would like to give you a very brief introduction to the Principles that guide our foundation, Principles that allow us as individuals to realize our full value and to enter into the full value of relationship. . . .
This was followed by a slide show and then invitations to "go up to the land." The van would eventually leave, taking that night’s guests off to Boonville, and later to Camp K, along with their spiritual parent for the week. The house would then quiet down a little, with some late witnessing teams coming in. There would be a little free time, till evening prayer at 11. Time to crash out for most people, though there was always someone fasting, and other trinity members would stay up to prepare a fast-break for midnight. We would make something very simple for the one-day fasters (sometimes just leftovers), while three- and seven-day fasters would get something a little more lovingly prepared and special.
Finally, all was quiet -- the last people had gone to bed, ready to start all over again at five. It was a hectic schedule and an intense life, but we loved it, and we loved each other. We were at the center of the cosmic struggle for spiritual life.
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