Some of you who haven't been paying attention might wonder why Margaret and I would fly to California for the San Francisco Black Film Festival. The reason of course is that Margaret helped create a documentary ("Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons") that was featured at the festival. In fact, three of us went: besides Margaret and me, Darius Gray, the other main force behind the documentary. I came along in part because we figured out that I had enough frequent flyer miles that I could basically go for free--or for no more than a $5 fee. And since I love San Francisco and love traveling with Margaret, it seemed like an obviously great thing to do.
One problem: After we had booked our tickets, I got word from my editor that my book on Shakespeare needed to be finished by June 23--about a week after our planned return from San Francisco. Margaret and I decided I should come anyway, not only because we had already used up frequent flyer miles to get my ticket, but because it might provide a welcome break from the intense effort we knew I would have to be putting in to meet the deadline.
The three of us left together on the evening of June 12 and were picked up at the San Francisco airport by Ron McClain, a remarkable man who lives with his family in Oakland. (We stayed with the McClains during our time in California.) Brother McClain has been serving as a director of Church Public Affairs; I believe he's also a temple sealer. And to round things off, once upon a time, before joining the Church, he was a Black Panther.
[See Margaret's comment on this entry for one episode I forgot to mention: running into some of our MTC missionaries at the Salt Lake Airport--on their way back from a visit to San Francisco to get visas.]
Friday, June 13, Margaret and I took BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) into San Francisco and walked about 7 or 8 miles seeing the sights. It was a lovely day--sunny (I got a bit sunburnt) but not too hot. Most of the neighborhoods we walked through were beautiful, with lots of flowers (including bouganvillea). We started by dropping a copy of the documentary off at the Museum of the African Diaspora, where it would be shown the following day, then walked to some historic sites and museums, including a museum in the Bank of California with Kirtland Safety Society banknotes signed by Brigham Young and others and a Wells Fargo museum with lots of interesting things about stage coaches and other aspects of the old West. We walked through Chinatown, then found Portsmouth Square, now filled with Chinese men (playing mah jong, we think) but once the center of old San Francisco. The American flag was first hoisted in this square. Sam Brannan, who started the first newspaper in the city, walk down the street near here announcing the discovering of gold. Robert Louis Stevenson used to hang out in the square, and there's now a monument to him.
We continued walking to Coit Tower, a fascinating building rising from a high point in this hilly city--and also mentioned in an episode or two of the TV show Monk. I took the elevator to the top and had a magnificent view of the city. After leaving Coit Tower, we saw Lombard Street from a distance (famous for being impossible zigzaggy) and walked to Ghirardelli Square--we smelled chocolate in the air as we approached and then got free samples at the Ghirardelli factory store. We proceeded to Fisherman's Wharf, had a seafood lunch, and then continued to the pier from which a ferry departs for Alcatraz, only to find it was all booked up for the next couple of days. We ended up deciding to wait till another trip to San Francisco some day to visit Alcatraz.
Saturday was the day Margaret's documentary was shown at the film festival. While she and Darius made sure things were ready, I did a bit more sightseeing (in the Mission District), and after the showing, while they were filming an interview for "special features" when the documentary is released as a DVD, I walked up Columbus Avenue to see a couple of spots recommended by Margaret's San Francisco friend Connell (actually the very person they were interviewing). I stopped in the City Lights Bookstore, famous as the place where Allen Ginsberg read "Howl" and for other associations with the Beat writers. Then I went to XOX Truffles and bought a variety of some of the best chocolate truffles known to humankind. That evening Margaret, Darius, and I went out to dinner with Steve Evans and his wife--Steve Evans being one of the major Mormon bloggers (it would require another paragraph to explain that phenomenon).
As for the documentary itself, it was a great success, showing to a sell out crowd and followed by a question-answer period that revealed how deeply engaged the viewers had been--viewers with quite various backgrounds, some Latter-day Saints, most not, some black, some white. I made it to the museum in time to see the last part of the documentary (I've seen it in its entirety quite a number of times) and to listen to the question-answer period. I also chatted with some of those who had attended and gave a passalong card and the articles of faith to a woman who said she had been to Ghana a couple of times and had been fascinated on her most recent visit to learn that lots of people there are joining the Mormon Church. She wondered what they found so appealing and wanted to know more. I gave her the cards and suggested they would provide a way to make contact with the Church and pursue her interest. There was such a strong spirit--THE Spirit was so strong--that it didn't feel awkward or hard at all to share what I believe and feel and care about. It occurred to me later: "A perfect love casts out all fear."
A young man named Freud was in charge of the equipment and had been frustrated by some serious technical problems as things were being set up. In response to his rough edges, Darius befriended him, and he--Freud--was so impressed by the film that he asked if his wife could see it. Yes, he was told, it would be shown the next day in Oakland. Ron McClain had arranged to have it shown at the Visitor's Center of the Oakland Temple; as interest grew, it was moved to the adjacent stake center--with care taken to make clear it was not being sponsored by the Church.
On Sunday evening, a great crowd came, mostly members but also Freud and his wife, as well as a woman scheduled to be baptized within the week, as I remember. The local mission president and his wife were also there. Again, the Spirit was very strong. The question-answer period showed again how deeply engaged people were. Between the showing and the question-answer period I had noticed Freud and his wife going out to the parking lot. Afraid they were leaving, I gave Freud a hug and thanked him for coming. He said they were coming back in; they were just taking something out to their car. During the question-answer period, someone asked how the film had been received at the film festival. Margaret turned the question over to Freud, who stood in that Mormon chapel and said that it was very well received by a sell-out crowd and that they considered it "one of the gems of the festival." Bridges of understanding and love were built that weekend. It amazes me to think how quickly and how strongly bonded we felt with people we had never known before, with people very different from us, at least in superficial ways. Something deep in our common humanity had been touched.
Margaret and I had decided that it would be in my best interest to do no more sightseeing on Monday. While she went into the city to a modern art museum and other sights, I stayed at the McClains' with my laptop, working all day on my book. I had also been working on it during our flight to San Francisco and at various moments on the other days. Though arguably, the trip had cost me a day and a half I would otherwise have had to work on the book, I believe that in some ways the trip saved me. I had become so tense, so wound up, that a breakdown of some kind was a real possibility. The trip--besides being wonderful in its own right--was refreshing, renewing, gave me perspective.
P.S.: This was also the weekend that Tim Russert died. We watched some of tributes broadcast about him. We were moved by his goodness and impressed by his abilities. We felt genuine loss at his death.