This article captures an important moment in the Episcopal Church’s response to the American countercultural movement centered in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. It profiles the Rev. Leon Preston Harris (1906-85), a priest whose ministry at All Saints, Waller Street, was significant for its introduction of Anglo-Catholic practices, welcoming racial and social minorities, robust engagement with the nearby community, and a period of extraordinary growth in membership and attendance.
Fr. Harris was born in a clergy family in Murphysboro, Illinois, and received his theological training at Nashotah House. He was ordained to the diaconate in 1932, and to the priesthood in 1933 by Bishop Ivins of Milwaukee. He served parishes in Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, and Paso Robles, California, before his call to All Saints in 1949. He served there until retiring in 1971, but remained an active presence in the parish as rector emeritus, along with his wife, Eleanor “Bunny” Chalmers Harris (1915-88).
By John W. Alcorn
From The Living Church, November 24, 1968, pp. 8-9, 12.
All Saints Church, in the center of San Francisco’s Hippieland, is a true catholic church in that it possesses those authenticating marks and signs of the Catholic Church. Among these are the preaching and teaching of fundamental Christian doctrine without equivocation, the practice of catholic liturgy in the beauty of holiness, and a loving zeal for souls.
This type of church is not the kind that moves out of an area that is no longer “nice.” It does not seek aberrations of sensationalism to fill up the church temporarily, by wise-cracking denials of fundamental Christian doctrines like the Holy Trinity and the divinity of our Lord. The strength of this type of church through 2,000 years has most certainly been its firm knowledge that it was founded upon the solid rock established by Christ. Here I quote from the Rev. Leon Harris, rector of All Saints for some 20 years, at the commencement of his three addresses over radio station KCBS, San Francisco, upon his ministry to the Church in Hippieland: “One of the fundamental principles of the Gospel is that Christians have duties of love and service to all men. We are bidden by the divine imperative to ‘Go into all the world.’ Therefore we are not to restrict our deeds of well-doing to those whom we like, or with whom we find ourselves in agreement in matters of dress, hair style, politics, or even religion. I believe that no Christian congregation can rightly consider itself to be true to its commission from God if it is self-centered and indifferent to the needs of the community which surrounds its place of worship.” It is hard to understand, but some professed Christians find fault with that statement. All Saints has lost a number of families because Fr. Harris feels that his duties as a priest are to serve all sorts and conditions of men. Other Christians, however, living in affluent sections of the city, have become substantial members of All Saints.
The past three years have brought many changes to the lower-middle-class neighborhood in which All Saints Church is located. About three years ago an influx of bearded, long-haired, barefooted or sandaled, and beaded hippies began to be increasingly evident. Soon this became a flood. For at least two years the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco has been known all over the world as the Hippie Capital. All Saints Church is only a block away from either street. Haight Street is crowded day and night by these people; their costumes are very colorful, the sound of bongo drums, guitars, flutes, and tambourines is continuous, and incense permeates the air.
Although these hippies are not all alike, it can be said generally that they are intelligent young people of middle and upper-class homes. Most are high school graduates, and many have college degrees. Most are members of the hippie community because of spiritual crisis and a profound need which they felt was unmet in their former environments. They are in reaction against a social order which they have come to regard as phony, selfish, materialistic, and dishonest. This is how Fr. Harris sums up their attitude. He is not referring to the deviates, parasites, exhibitionists, exploiters, and drug pushers who have infiltrated the movement, but of the real hippies as he knows them. They present a challenge and opportunity to the Church. Theirs is an urgent and naked need. Fr. Harris has found that the intelligent hippie is basically religious, and it is his conviction that the Church should spread an umbrella of understanding over these alienated and confused people—to extend the hand of fellowship to the thousands in need of help, but without pushing. The cardinal sin, as the hippies see it, is trying to force one’s opinions on another person. As they say it, “Everyone should be free to do his own thing as long as he harms nobody, but nobody should force his thing on anyone else.” So the Church’s message must be so presented that the individual is encouraged to discern it for himself without feeling that it is thrust upon him. Thus Fr. Harris’s first step, and the only one that could properly be taken for a long time, was to establish channels of communication through which mutual friendship and trust could be created. Here are some of the ways that All Saints Church has tried to do this:
The Church has provided facilities for innumerable meetings of citizens of the community for purposes of fostering mutual understanding and promoting public service. These have included forums, lectures, dramatics, art exhibits, dances, concerts, poetry readings, and classes in many subjects including mental health, nutrition, preparation for parenthood, child care, and crafts of many kinds.
For a long time a group of hippies, called the Diggers, was given the use of the parish kitchen to prepare a meal which was served daily in Golden Gate Park, free of charge, to everyone who cared to come—and hundreds came. This meal is no longer provided, but a free bakery is operated on Tuesdays and Fridays every week and the bread is given away—as much as half a ton in one week—to everyone who wants it.
Nearly two years ago an office was set up in one of the church buildings, for community service. For a long time it was open 24 hours every day. At present it is manned for 14 hours daily by volunteers from the hippie community. From this office are directed, under the aegis of the church, not only the free bakery, but also a free store, an employment bureau, a recreation center, a missing persons bureau, an emergency housing program, a counseling program, and many special events which are held on the premises for the benefit of the entire community. It was not expected that this would result in a spectacular number of conversions, nor has it. It has been done in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, to meet needs simply because needs exist, and these are God’s children. The program has generated friendship, respect, even deep affection. It is very possible that the seed planted now will in future years bear fruit beyond our imagining. It must be added that Holy Communion is celebrated daily and the value of the sacraments is never overlooked.
What of Haight-Ashbury’s future? No one knows. But what we do know is that All Saints Church is a terrific witness to the enduring life of the Universal Church which sees souls to minister to in every place. It is not to be expected that everyone feels sympathy for the philosophy of this young peoples’ movement, but all Churchmen should be immensely proud of All Saints Church on the firing line in carrying out our Lord’s Great Commission. Commendation must also be given to Fr. Harris who in the face of tremendous social pressure turned facilities of the church over to the hippies for self-help activities.
Richard Mammana is the archivist of the Living Church Foundation.