By HÉLÈNE GOUPIL
Early Sunday mornings, Maitri Ratanasene, a thin man usually dressed in discreet colors, leaves his home in the Lower Haight and walks past sun worshippers at Dolores Park on his way to the Second Church of Christ, at Cumberland and Dolores Streets. The white beaux-arts church is at the center of a heated argument between church members who want to replace the building, and preservationists who think destroying a 92-year old-building is sacrilegious.
On a recent Sunday, the hymns sang by a heavy-set man on stage resonated in an empty auditorium. Apart from two volunteers, no one had shown up for the English service. The earlier Spanish service brought out some fifteen to twenty people. The peeling paint on the ceilings betrayed the church’s need of a major renovation.“We don’t need this big church,” Ratanasene says quietly. The 37-year-old is the church’s Sunday school teacher and their second reader, which means he reads passages of the Bible during services. The argument about whether to preserve or build takes on a different cast when seen from a worshipper’s point of view.
With construction estimates as high as $4 million, the congregation of some 60 people can’t afford to fix the church. Instead, they’re offering to raze the building and build a smaller church and condominiums they could rent. Church members use the building only for their Sunday services—the city limits the number of hours the building can be used because it hasn’t been retrofitted.
Pamela Osgood and Rita Goldberger, two volunteers at the church, are tired of seeing preservationists come in and ask about the history of the building. They only care about the building, the two agree, not the church and its community.
Ratanasene says the building isn’t important to him.
“I like seeing old buildings too, but I also think that if you tell somebody that you can’t do something that you at the very least offer a solution,” referring to the fact that preservationists are denouncing the plans but not offering to help with an alternative.
For Christian Scientists, matter is an illusion, so the physical building isn’t important to Ratanasene. It’s the faith within these walls that matter.
On Sunday Nov. 9, the church celebrated the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Second Church of Christ and Ratanasene was reelected for a third one-year term by board members. “I got elected,” replies the soft-spoken man. “I didn’t want to do it actually.”
Unless he’s asked about his faith, Ratasenese doesn’t talk about it. It’s a very internal religion, he explains. Besides, being a religious gay man isn’t easy in San Francisco.
“I’ve had people yell at me at Starbucks,” he said referring to a time he was practicing reading for the following Sunday service.
Ratanasene understands that some churches haven’t been fair to the gay community but his church accepts who he is. The Christian Science church takes no official stance on homosexuality.
He joined the church 15 years ago after being brought up Buddhist. At the time, he was in Washington working as a loan officer when he noticed free newspapers that explained concepts of the religion. He read them and discussed them with a co-worker.
One day, he left the office suffering from stomach flu. He had read that the Christian Science faith believes that diseases can be cured through prayers, so he decided to give that a try.
An old lady welcomed him in her reading room, a place of worship for Christian Scientists. She asked him a few questions, closed her eyes and prayed without him hearing a word. She then looked at him and said that he was cured.
“I thought these people are out of their minds,” he laughs. “Then it dawned on me that I didn’t have a fever, I wasn’t shaky anymore. I was so shaken up by the whole thing, I stopped reading the newspaper.”
A few weeks later, he went back to the reading room and purchased the Science and Health textbook written by Mary Baker Eddy.
“Ironically, I ended up calling in sick to read the book,” he says.
Since he joined the church in 1996, Ratanasene chooses not to watch commercials or TV shows about medicine, and asks his boyfriend to hide the Advil in a separate drawer so he doesn’t have to see it. He continues to see practitioners when he feels ill and says that he’s been able to forgo traditional medicine.
But his church here has declined in members. It has gone from offering two Sunday services to a full auditorium to delivering one in English to an empty room, and one in Spanish to a few parishioners.
“At first it was hard,” he says about reading to an empty church. But he sees the process of practicing to read during the week and then doing it on Sunday as part of the exercise.
“We’d like a small church that’s not ostentatious,” he says referring to their building plans. Neighbors usually complain when a big temple or religious complex is built, not when churches want to downsize.
Ratanasene believes that in the end preservationists will probably succeed, but the thought of having to change churches doesn’t worry him. Letters from neighbors who are for the preservation of the church were accepted until Nov. 17, but a public hearing hasn’t been scheduled yet. Christian Scientists are happy and healthy people, he says.