Noe Valley Voice March 1999

New Pastor Rolls Up Her Sleeves at the Noe Valley Ministry

By Kathy Dalle-Molle

Keenan Kelsey is BUSY.

It's midafternoon on a Friday in late January and the Noe Valley Ministry's new pastor is sorting through papers, finding lots of bent paper clips and broken rubber bands in the drawers of a battered wooden desk in her second-floor office. Kids playing in an anteroom across the hall shout and giggle, and one after another there are phone calls and people knocking on Kelsey's door -- furniture deliverymen, a Gen-Xer looking to buy tickets for a concert, a drop-in visitor.

But Kelsey is bubbly, calm, and self-assured. It's been a long road for the 54-year-old Larkspur resident -- from social justice activist to pet shop owner to recovering drug addict to Presbyterian minister -- but she knows the Noe Valley Ministry is where she belongs.

"Noe Valley Ministry and I have a lot to give each other," she says. "The idea of working in a place where I know all the individual members, and in a neighborhood like this, that's very appealing to me."

Kelsey was one of more than 80 people who applied for the Ministry's pastor position, and after a yearlong process, which included interviews, written statements, and preaching before the congregation, Kelsey was elected pastor by the 42-member church on Nov. 15. She assumed her full-time duties on Jan. 10.

Although she was immediately drawn to the Ministry's "wonderful intimacy," Kelsey felt a little apprehensive about becoming pastor of such a small church. Having served previously in pastoral jobs at the Presbyterian Church of the Roses, an 850-member congregation in Santa Rosa, and at Old First Church, a 350-member congregation in San Francisco, Kelsey feared she might be "too traditional" for the Noe Valley Ministry. But the Ministry's nominating committee said they wanted her for exactly that reason -- so she could help them look to the future and expand their presence in Noe Valley.

"The members want to grow as a church," she explains. "That's part of my charge -- to help create our identity here and to keep the doors open so more people can come and experience a faith community. The members made a conscious decision that they wanted to stretch themselves and have a full-time pastor. It's a big financial stretch for them." (Joan Huff, the Ministry's interim pastor for the past two years, worked part-time.)

Part of the challenge, says Kelsey, is making people aware that the Noe Valley Ministry is actually a church -- a Presbyterian church.

"When I tell people that I am the pastor at Noe Valley Ministry, their first reaction is, 'Is that a church?' The second reaction is, 'What kind of church is it?' They think if it's a church, it must be some far-out New Age Zen kind of complex religion. Then their third reaction is, 'Oh, I've been to a lot of concerts there.'"

The gray and white Gothic Victorian church at 1021 Sanchez St., built in 1886, was known as the Lebanon Presbyterian Church for most of its history. But since 1977, it's been the Noe Valley Ministry, functioning as both a church and community center. The building now houses an art gallery, a senior lunch program, and two long-running concert series. The Ministry also rents out space to a nursery school, the Jewish temple Beyt Tikkun, the Noe Valley Voice, and to dozens of support groups, healing fairs, and exercise and dance classes.

Kelsey points out that Noe Valley Ministry (the church) holds Sunday services at 10:30 a.m., and has many others features found in the typical church. But it also reflects the spiritual melting pot of the neighborhood's residents.

One of the church's cherished traditions is the prayer circle. In the middle or at the end of each service, congregants form a circle and take turns sharing prayers and personal thoughts.

Another unique practice occurs during the summer, when instead of the church pastor preaching a sermon, members talk about their individual "faith journeys." "At the service," Kelsey explains, "one person shares his or her faith journey, and the sermon and the service are grouped around that person's faith journey.

"There is a strong sense of community and support here, which is unique," she continues. "There's a sense of connection. Even for our tenants and other people who use the Ministry building, that there is a church here should be a positive thing. I would like to strengthen that relationship. This is a building of faith and I'd like people to feel that what goes on here has something to do with people's spiritual enjoyment and spiritual self."

Already Kelsey has begun to reach out to the community. She has attended meetings of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association and has joined with the group working to improve relations among shop owners and James Lick Middle School students.

"As a pastoral presence in Noe Valley, I want to be involved in this issue," she says. "It may be that part of the solution ends up being a teen program at the Ministry or use of the building for some sort of project we work on with the school."

Kelsey also has met with pastors of several other churches in the area, including Bethany Methodist, Metropolitan Community Church, and Congregation Sha'ar Zahav. Together, the churches organized a blanket drive this winter, asking neighborhood residents to drop off new or used blankets for distribution to the homeless. "This is about neighborhood churches deciding we need to start working together," she says. "Metropolitan Community Church called the meeting, and I was one of the first to respond."

One issue she's glad she won't have to wrangle with, though, is the cell phone antenna flap, which pitted the Ministry against its neighbors for several months last year. In late 1997, Pacific Bell Mobile Services and Cellular One had made a tentative deal with the Ministry to rent space in the church steeple to install antennas and other communications devices. But when the nursery school and nearby residents got wind of the plan, they questioned the equipment's safety.

"Pac Bell withdrew its offer," Kelsey says, "and I'm very grateful that this whole issue was completed before I came on board, so I can do some healing among our neighbors. It was a viable difference of opinion, and the money we would have received for allowing the antennas to be installed would have been a wonderful gift for the Ministry -- for what the church could do as a church -- but it was not meant to be. It's a non-subject now."

Kelsey came to the Presbyterian Church as a midlife career change. Religion had been important to her as a child, growing up in Pelham, N.Y., and even as an English major at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. But she drew away from the church when she married right after graduation, moved to Washington, D.C., and took a job as a writer on the Journal of Forestry. Both she and her husband gravitated toward social justice and activist causes.

"Activism became very important to me," she says. "I participated in freedom marches, protested the Vietnam War, helped organize the first Earth Day, and lobbied for gun control. I never rebelled against the church, but it was more that it didn't seem important. It just didn't become part of my habit."

In 1971, her husband received a job transfer and they moved to San Francisco. A couple of months later, she, her husband and sister bought a pet shop that sold all sorts of animals -- from iguanas and ostriches to foxes and birds.

"It was quite an interesting adventure," she says. But after a year, her husband and sister wanted out of the business, so Kelsey sold the shop and all the animals except the birds. She then created a bird shop -- Marina Pet Shop and Aviary -- which she ran for 10 years out of a Union Street storefront.

"I realized there was nobody concentrating on birds in the city at that time. Now there are, but my shop was really the first all-bird shop. It surprised me by how well it did. I had a lot of fun."

During the time she owned the second store, Kelsey divorced her first husband and met her second husband -- while selling him a bird. She gave birth to two children, Megan, now 21, and Sean, 18. In 1982, after Sean was born, she sold the Aviary and started a freelance writing and editing business.

But the 1980s were a time of personal struggle for Kelsey. She became addicted to cocaine, and "my marriage disintegrated as we faced the demons of addiction." By 1990, she was in recovery, and the church had come back into her life.

"I went into recovery primarily through spirituality," she says. "I used the 12-step system, but I also had a group of supporters and a women's group in Marin and I did a lot of praying and a lot of therapy, and I reached back into my youth....

"When I was growing up, my sense of God was really strong. It is astonishing how much I remember from Huguenot Memorial Church in Pelham: numerous hymns, some Bible stories, many prayers, youth group activities, but most of all, warm feelings of love and acceptance. Church was safe for me, predictable and comforting, in a world that often felt unpredictable and dangerous. I recently found some of my childhood poetry, and I am amazed at how much of it centered on God or was written as prayer."

It was Megan, Kelsey's then pre-teen daughter, who led her back to the organized church in the late 1980s. "She wanted to join the youth group at Old First because she had a friend who belonged." Kelsey said okay, but at first she wouldn't enter the church, preferring to wait outside when picking up Megan.

"I didn't want to go in there," she says, "but pretty soon I did, and then I got put on a committee, then I became a member of the congregation, and finally I was ordained as an elder."

Kelsey also celebrated her first anniversary of recovery with the church. "I've always felt accountable to that church community because of that.

"At the time, I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. When I came out of addiction and into recovery, there was a real sense of having lost a lot of time and I really wanted to do something."

She considered becoming a teacher, a social worker, even a lawyer, but ended up applying for the master's program in social work at San Francisco State. She was put on the waiting list, but began taking classes in the meantime.

In June 1991, she was attending a workshop on AIDS organized by Old First. The church hall was packed, and Kelsey looked up at the podium, "and I realized that all these church leaders -- from Night Ministry, chaplaincy, Open Hand, Larkin Street, and others -- were doing what I wanted to do....

"All of the things I think I'm good at and passionate about and love, these people were doing them and doing them within the church. The moment was really profound because I realized I could do what I wanted to do and I wouldn't have to be alone."

Two months later, Kelsey entered San Francisco Theological Seminary. She hasn't looked back since.

"I went into the seminary thinking I would do social justice ministry, but I came out really committed to the parish, really committed to people on their journeys of faith and knowing that what I can do best is empower and be a catalyst and encourage spiritual soul nurturing."

Both of her parents died while she was in the seminary -- her mother the first year, her dad the second. "That was hard, really, really hard," she says. "But my church and school communities and some very supportive friends and family helped and encouraged me."

She graduated from the seminary in 1995, receiving a prize for being the most gifted preacher in her class.

Now, settling into her new job at the Noe Valley Ministry, she sometimes looks around and wonders, "How did I get here? It's just amazing to me that this is what I'm doing. I like being part of people's lives and having that connection with God. I don't want to sound too New Age, but I really do believe that there's a mystery in what happens in a faith community, and I feel real privileged to be trusted and to be part of people's lives. I hope that spills out into the community. I really want that to happen."