PORTSMOUTH SQUARE STORIES
SUNDAY MORNING GO TO CHURCH
I wake up to the “Hallelujahs” and “Praise the Lords” coming from Portsmouth Square. Gazing over the window sill by the side of my bed, I see Killer Diller, Ralph, and other neighborhood African American men gathered along one of the series of park benches. A group of stout, gray-hair women, in long colorful dresses and big, Sunday hats of all colors, sizes and designs, stand in front of them, on the asphalt walkway between the lawns. The women had draped their gray and beige and brown overcoats carefully over the green backs of unused benches. They pick up their tambourines and guitars and sing gospel music. Killer Diller and Ralph look real nice, in their cleanest white shirts then, nice ties, and their best suits. They start singing with the ladies, raising their hands, sometimes jumping straight up from the benches, and shouting “Hallelujah” and “Praise the Lord.” It is raucous, it is lively, and it’s the only activity in the huge park on an early Sunday morning.
I watch and listen some more from our window. Perhaps kids can see things clearer as we have new eyes. Even from a block away and four stories up, I see Killer Diller and Ralph and the ladies as sharply as if they are right in front of me. Later, Dad says this is a Negro church. I like their worship -- celebratory, fresh, and fun. They get up... and dress up... for it.
This doesn’t happen every Sunday morning, but every few Sundays, and when the weather is nice. Before the cold rains anyway. Somehow, Killer Diller and Ralph and the others always know when to go, for they are always praising the Lord and waking me up on those Sundays. There are no Negro women in our neighborhoods, just the Negro bachelors who live in the Bachelor Hotels with all the other bachelors - lots of Filipinos and lots of Caucasians. Chinese men didn’t live in those Bachelor Hotels - I guess because Chinatown is nearby and they have a community. I wonder where these Negro women live.
The Chongs Go To Mass at St. Mary’s Church
Of course, the Chongs go to church at St. Mary’s on Sunday mornings. So they wear fresh new clothes and shiny black shoes. Sonney’s hair is perfectly combed, with a clean line parting the left side. Maxine and Marie’s hair are brushed out and fluffy, with a red or yellow ribbon across the top of their heads. The Chongs all leave together and walk up Clay Street hill to St. Mary’s. Dickie and I watch them from our windows and shout hellos and good-byes. They wave back before starting the hike uphill.
One time I ask to go so I can see what Mass is all about. I had attended a Sunday school at a Presbyterian Church for awhile. My parents took us to that church. There, they tell stories in English, from the Bible by placing stick-em figures of men wearing Arab clothes and head rags, lambs, camels, burning bushes, and the Ten Commandments on a stick-em board. They told us that God is this all-powerful being who knows everything you’re up to, so you better be good. Kind of like Santa Claus, I thought. The Sunday school is downstairs in the basement and is all kids. The adults go to the church upstairs.But I don’t know what a Mass is. When we get to St. Mary’s that Sunday, to my surprise, Sonney leaves me with Maxine and Marie and goes up front to help the priest. Sonney dresses up in a white smock with another kid. Maxine says Sonney is an altar boy.
Sonney and the other altar boy silently carry and move things around, like the prop men on a Chinese Opera stage. The Priest, Father McGuire, speaks a strange language, which everyone but me seems to understand and can respond to. It ‘s stranger sounding even than the Chong’s Loong-du dialect and is probably stranger sounding than Mandarin. It’s not a dialect of Chinese, that’s for sure, even though it’s very musical. Not even the strangest Chinese could sound like that, I thought. Later, Sonney said its Latin, an ancient language from Italy. You have to learn it in Catholic School, but not in Public School.
It seems in Mass, there are no stick-em boards with stick-em stories from the Bible told in English. You have to be Catholic already and go to Catholic school to understand Mass. Kids don’t go to a separate room either for special instruction. In fact, to tell the truth, I don’t know what is going on.
Most of the people seem to be the kids who go to St. Mary’s Catholic School. There are a few parents. There’s a lot of kneeling, standing, and sitting down, over and over. I follow best as I can. A bunch of people go to the front and kneel in front of a banister while the Priest, Father McGuire, places a round cotton swath on each of their tongues. Maxine had warned me that I shouldn’t go up to do that because I am not baptized and I am not Catholic. That is OK with me - I don’t want a cotton wad in my mouth. The part I like best is when Father McGuire walks down the aisle swinging a huge metal ball on a chain with fragrant smoke pouring out of it. He wears a colorful cap onto his head just so. The cap looks a lot like the caps worn by Chinese Opera players, only the colors are not so gaudy. This procession feels mysterious and magical, all at the same time.
Later, Sonney explains that they worship Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died to save the world from something called “Sin”. Sonney says sins are the bad things you do, like stealing or lying. Most of the big sins are listed in the Ten Commandments, Sonney says. We have to be forgiven or we go to Hell or a place called Purgatory.
Now, I know what Hell is because our Sunday school had some very graphic stick-em stories about that place, with naked blonde men and women burning in flames as little red devils with black goatees, black horns, and black spear-tip tails and gold forks torment them. That was the very reason my Dad and Mom decide to stop going to the Presbyterian Church. Dad said all the Minister talks about is everyone going to Hell. Dad didn’t see the point of going to some place special on his day off to get depressed week after week - and then donate money on top of it all!
Later, Sonney explains that Purgatory is a kind of a Hell. If you’re not real bad, but you’re not real good, you get to go there instead of Hell. After a couple of thousand years of being burned in flames, if you’re good, you get to go to Heaven. However, if you go to Hell, you’re stuck forever, he says. Sonney himself wasn’t planning to be spending time in Hell or Purgatory.
Well, I certainly wasn’t planning on going to Hell. I wasn’t bad-bad, just naughty once in awhile. I figured I’d end up in Purgatory because I wasn’t Catholic and wasn’t baptized and didn’t go to any church on a regular basis.
Sonney says that when the Priest places the round cotton swath on people’s tongues, they are eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus Christ.
Later, I tell Darryl about this blood and body of Jesus stuff and he says that sounds pretty weird. I find that I agree with him.
I decide to play with Darryl on Sundays instead, and maybe not worry so much about sins and confessions and the differences between Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. Dad is right, why spend your Sundays being depressed.
But sometimes, I go to Mass with Sonney, Maxine, and Marie because I like being with them. After awhile, I find I actually enjoy Mass. I feel good afterwards for reasons I don’t totally understand. Usually, when I don’t understand something, I try to figure it out, or ask Sonney or Darryl a lot of questions to see what they think. But, this time, I don’t try to figure it out. Just enjoying Mass is OK, I feel.
I start to recognize the rhythms of Father McGuire’s Latin. I learn what you’re supposed to say back in response. It sounds like music after awhile and feels kind of magical. So, I join in even though I have no idea what I’m saying. I get to know when to kneel on the prayer bar, when to stand, and when to sit. But my favorite part still is when Father McGuire marches down the aisle with the swinging metal ball on a chain pouring out fragrant white and gray smoke and making people cough. This didn’t happen every Sunday, unfortunately, so you have to show up a lot to catch it when it does.
I ask Sonney one day how you become a Catholic, since I want to increase my chances of making it to Heaven. Even though Purgatory may be only 2,000 years long, compared to all eternity that still seems a long time to burn. Truth is, I tell Sonney, I like going to Mass. It feels good and I feel clean and refreshed afterwards. I say the only part I can’t do is the bread and wine and that’s because I’m not a Catholic. So, I figure this is maybe OK, maybe I should go all the way and become one. “But how.” I ask Sonney.
Sonney says you have to go to something called “Catechism”, say a lot of Hail Mary’s regularly, confess to a Priest weekly to be forgiven for your sins, and then become baptized in water. I said how do you find time to do all that. Sonney said that’s part of the reason for going to St. Mary’s instead of to public school.
Well, I talk to Mom and Dad about going to St. Mary’s, and especially the stakes involved for my soul. But they didn’t want to spring for the tuition for St. Mary’s Catholic School. They explain I was learning all I needed for free in Public School and doing quite well at that. They didn’t feel my becoming a Catholic to increase my chances of getting into heaven was really a serious issue. Dad said something about I’m just a kid and I can worry about that stuff when I’m an adult.
Well, then, it didn’t seem to me that I could ever become a Catholic, since I’m resigned to public school and now had non-Catholic Chinese School right after
that. Where would I have the time to learn Catechism, say Hail Mary’s, and confess to a Priest? I mean I didn’t even know how to do these things.
Saved 9 Times in One Summer
But one summer, I learned that going to Catholic School isn’t the only way to get to Heaven. There are a lot of Chinese churches all over Chinatown. There are always a lot of Caucasian missionaries going all around Chinatown who specialize in saving Chinese souls.
I asked my Dad one day why there are so many of them. More specifically, why there aren’t, for example, lots of Caucasian missionaries running around North Beach specializing in saving the souls of Italian Americans. Why weren’t there specialists saving the souls of Negroes, like Ralph and Killer Diller who didn’t have a church building, who could only worship when the Negro Ladies bother to show up and it wasn’t raining in the Square. Where were the missionaries who want to save the souls of the Filipino men who live in the International Hotel, the Royal Hotel, and the Clay Hotel?
Dad said when the Communists took over China, they kicked out all the American missionaries. He thinks a lot of them ended up in San Francisco Chinatown since there are not too many cities in America with a lot of Chinese and since they prefer saving Chinese. Many of them even speak really good Chinese, in several dialects, and can write Chinese even.
One young Minister saves my soul nine times. At least once a week and one time, several days in a row. His name is Reverend Stephen. He roams Portsmouth Square looking for people to save. He talks to the winos and tries to approach the mothers going shopping in Chinatown. Most of them ignore him. So, he stops kids a lot, not just our club, but lots of other kids. He always asks us if we want to go to Heaven or to Hell. (Of course, we want to go to Heaven.) He asks us if we would like to accept the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior so we can go to Heaven. (Ask it that way, of course we accept.)
So, Reverend Stephen asks us to get down on one knee right in the middle of the Square. He reads from a small Bible for awhile, talking about how God the Father sent his only begotten Son Jesus to die for the world and to save us all from Hell. He then asks us to recite the Lord’s Prayer line by line with him. Reverend Stephen then announces we are saved, we’re going to Heaven, and Praise the Lord! He tells us each time that Jesus now lives in our heart. Do we know where our hearts are? (We didn’t the first time, but are able to point to it thereafter with accuracy and sincerity.)
Reverend Steven’s church is across Brenham Place Alley, at the top edge of the Square. But he never invites us to Church service, Sunday school or to visit or to play there. I don’t think he even remembers that he has saved us several times already. I didn’t mind being saved almost every week by Reverend Stephen. It always feels good and safe, I mean reciting the Lord’s Prayer and having Jesus living in my heart. This feeling reminds me kind of like after Mass at St. Mary’s. I feel saved, as in I’m not going to end up in Hell or Purgatory.
I asked Reverend Stephen once about Purgatory. He said there wasn’t any such place. It’s either Heaven or Hell after death, and that I was saved, so not to worry.
So, I feel pretty safe about making it to Heaven after having been saved about nine times. Thanks to Reverend Stephen, even though I’m not a Catholic.
The Secret of the Mormons is Revealed in the Last Lesson
Two Mormon missionaries, Roger and Mike, come to our apartment to tell us the story of Joseph Smith and the Mormons. They’re young men in their twenties and wear business suits, white shirts, and ties. They set up a tripod with a stick- em picture board and colorful stick-em characters: Joseph Smith with his beard and golden tablets, angels, fires, wagons drawn by oxen or horses, lots of other men in beards and hats, women in bonnets and long dresses, and temple buildings. The Story of the Mormons is to be told over seven visits. Dad and Mom stop joining us after the first two visits, but don’t mind that we continue.
Roger and Mike invite us to their Chinatown Mormon mission, way over on Powell Street, in North Beach. They asked our Dad if we could visit their Temples around the Bay Area. Mormons don’t have churches, they have temples. They seem to like them huge. There is one in Oakland on a hill they drove us to one day that was definitely extra large size. You could even see it from San Francisco if you know where to look. I notice the walls of this Temple and the outside gates and pedestals don’t have a lot of detail. They look rather plain and unfinished when you’re smack dab in front of them, unlike Catholic churches which have a lot of details on the front and doors of the church.
I ask Mike and Roger about this, and they said the Temple is built to be seen from far away. It really is impressive! Makes you feel like you’re part of something important, strong, and protective. This Temples has an inner room that only baptized Mormons could go into. So, we ended up waiting a bit while Roger and Mike and the local Mormons go into the inner room.
One day Roger and Mike asks us to “fast” on Sundays. We didn’t know what to “fast” is. It sound like running to us. Fasting is when you don’t eat for an entire day, they explain. They recommend Sunday, because it’s the Lord’s Day of Rest anyway. They say fasting is good for the body, allows it to rest after working all week digesting our food. Roger and Mike said juice is OK and maybe an apple or banana in the afternoon, if you’re really hungry and can’t stand it. Maybe in the first few weeks, have a light dinner after six o’clock, they add.
Dickie and I think that just fasting is a funny word for doing nothing and taking it easy. We think it should be called “slowing” instead of “fasting.” But we’re not in charge of Jesus words. I thought that Catechism and Salvation are pretty unusual words already and conclude that religious words simply have their own unique way. But Dickie and I decide to try fasting anyway, since everything else with the Mormons has been pretty comfortable. But, it’s kind of tough, and Mom doesn’t think its a good idea for us skip meals because we’re growing boys. So Dickie and I stop after two Sundays.
The 7-part Mormon stories about Joseph Smith and the Angel Moroni who gave him the golden tablets grow more interesting week after week. The idea of a lost tribe that ends up in America and Jesus visiting the Indians is fascinating. The trek to Utah and the Great Salt Lake is brave and miraculous. Everything is building up to the seventh and final story, when the secrets of the Mormons are
to be revealed to Dickie and I. Dickie and I are really curious and just so anxious for the seventh and final story.
However, at the end of the sixth visit, Roger and Mike said if we want to hear the seventh story, we have to be baptized as Mormons first because only Mormons could know the secrets of the Mormons.
Dickie and I talk it over with Dad and Mom. They said it was up to us. Dickie and I talk it over for awhile. Well, we both like Roger and Mike. They’ve been real nice, taking us out on field trips to Mormon temples and all. The Mormon stories are interesting, but so are the Catholic ones and the Presbyterian ones, I tell Dickie. Dickie hasn’t been to other churches before like I have.
But we both conclude that until we know the mysterious Mormon secrets, we couldn’t really know if we wanted to become Mormons. And we didn’t want to become Mormons just because we were dying to hear the final installment, as anxious as we are and as much as we want to know the last story. I mean we didn’t want to be trapped if we didn’t like the seventh story or the secrets were, well, really not that special.
After all, as Dad pointed out when we asked him about it, being a Mormon is serious business. Roger and Mike had told us that Mormons give 10% of all your money to the Mormon Church. This is called “tithing”, and you have to do so for the rest of your life! Dickie and I didn’t have enough extra money to save for college, after our chips, comic books, cokes, and ice cream. And college is something we really needed to do. We didn’t think we could tithe, or would want to over college.
Dad also pointed out that at age 18, you give up two years of your life, at your own expense, to be missionaries, just like Roger and Mike. Being a Mormon is pretty serious, we agree. It isn’t as easy as Reverend Stephen saving us on the Square. He never asks us to do anything, nor to give money, not even to go to his Sunday school. Even at St. Mary’s, you could place however much money you wanted to in a basket that was passed around – or no money at all. And you didn’t have to become a Catholic to keep coming to Mass.
So, we go back to Roger and Mike. “We would like to hear the final story before deciding.” we say. Roger and Mike’s response is that the Mormon Church wouldn’t allow that. Well, Dickie and I think about it, and decide it’s a pretty silly problem Roger and Mike got us into. They get us fascinated by the stories knowing we’re not Mormons, knew we would be dying to hear the 7th installment, and now can’t tell us because we’re not Mormons. Yet, they probably know there’s a real good chance we would decide to be Mormons after hearing the 7th installment, since we’ve been hanging around them and are really interested in Mormonism.
Well, Dickie and I decide not to get baptized just so we can hear the stories. So, we never got to hear the final installment of the secrets of the Mormons. Roger and Mike drop by once in awhile to ask if we had changed our minds (“No.”) and we say “Hi” in passing on the streets. Sometimes we see them with other kids when we bump into them. Dickie and I guess that others have completed the 7th story and now know the secrets of the Mormons.
As for us, after awhile, we stopped thinking about what those secrets might be
Anyway, Mormons, Catholics, and the Presbyterian Sunday school – that’s all Sunday morning stuff. There’s other things to do on Sunday besides going to church and worrying about whether you’re going to end up in Heaven, Hell or Purgatory.
Or is Reverend Stephen saying the right stuff, that so long as Jesus lives in your heart, you’re going to Heaven. Or do Killer Diller and Ralph know the real truth? It seems simple for them. They sit in the Square on sunny Sundays, all dressed up, and sing noisy, fun songs and dance while some ladies play guitars and beat on tambourines. The rest of the week they do what they want, which is to drink wine, smoke cigars, and hang around each other talking the whole day long.