Pastor Stacy Boorn doesn’t need to look far for proof of women’s importance—it’s embodied in the landscape beside her periwinkle, lavender and magenta church, a prominent local landmark near one of San Francisco’s highest points.
“We’re in the shadow of Twin Peaks,” Boorn said, referring to the city’s famous bosom-shaped hills. “And holy places are often on mountaintops.”
Like the natural world itself, Boorn’s establishment of herchurch on Portola Avenue—still technically the Ebenezer Lutheran Church, whose first two locations were founded by Swedish immigrants in the Mission District in 1884—was organic. Its first seed was planted in 2003, when a second-grade class created a goddess mosaic on an exterior wall.
That seed grew to a sapling after Boorn, who wanted to soften patriarchal language that was alienating some of her parishioners, began inserting “-dess” after “god” in the liturgy. Unsure of how a congregation with men and women alike would respond, she alternated between “god” and “goddess” in the text.
She needn’t have worried.
“The older Swedish women read ‘goddess’ the whole way through,” Boorn said. “An 80-year-old woman came up to me and said, ‘I’ve been waiting for this moment my whole life.’”
The sapling grew into a tree, and Boorn felt emboldened to paint the church periwinkle—its very first version of purple—in 2008 as a nod to the goddess tradition, the women’s movement and marriage equality. To her surprise, the domain “herchurch.org” was still available, so she made a website and strung a banner on the facade that faces Portola Avenue, a major artery connecting the city’s east and west sides.
People began calling it “herchurch,” even as it’s still recognized as a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the name hadn’t legally changed. At a time when accusations of satanic influence have permeated many American institutions, a house of worship with such a nontraditional theological outlook is no exception.
With 4 million adherents, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is both the largest Lutheran body and the seventh-largest Christian denomination in the United States. However, it’s no stranger to controversy in San Francisco. Pastor and former San Francisco Police Department chaplain Megan Rohrer became the church’s first openly transgender bishop, only to be forced out less than one year later over alleged racial bias. Rohrer had previously been an associate pastor at herchurch.
Today, herchurch offers weekly Sunday services both in person and online, as well as a wealth of spiritual extracurriculars for a congregation that numbers around 150 active members. Activities include art and icon tours, BIPOC book clubs, “hericon” art-making classes and full-moon drumming circles.
As church attendance is declining almost everywhere nationwide, herchurch continues to attract new followers—one herchurch devotee The Standard met at a recent Sunday service had only joined two months ago. People come out of curiosity about what goes on in the purple-hued confection of a building and end up staying for the warm, fuzzy feelings.
Boorn has been in the Lutheran ministry for 36 years, the last 26 of them at herchurch. She grew up attending a Lutheran church in her native Schenectady, New York, and knew she wanted to be a pastor since the age of 4.
An artist, Boorn sees creative expression as a key element in the church’s spiritual practice—connecting to the divine feminine often involves symbols instead of words, she said.
“We honor holy women, and all women are holy,” Boorn said.
It would be easy to make many assumptions about herchurch: that it’s nontraditional, that the worshippers are all women or that everyone wears purple. Yet a closer examination reveals a more elusive truth.
This house of worship is one where creativity is respected as much as doctrine, everyone has a beautiful mother, and all birthdays and “great days” are celebrated. It embodies so much of what San Francisco is known for: acceptance, diversity and—well—positive vibes.
Before a recent Sunday service, herchurch congregants mingled over coffee, herbal tea and frosted cookies, talking about their shadow selves. Churchgoers could enter through a “Door of Possibilities”—a bedazzled artwork and literal door—and seat themselves in beige upholstered armchairs. While the pews are long gone, a giant cross still hangs above the sanctuary and is now filled with percussion instruments, artworks and colorful scarves.
Boorn rang Tibetan bells, what she called “incense for the ears,” before moving into a hymn called “Praise Our Mother” that was written by one of her flock.
The assembled group of around 30 church members included people of all races, men and women, toddlers and a self-described “crone,” people who use wheelchairs and even dogs. The service was punctuated by canine yips and a chorus sung by six people who donned colorful scarves before mounting the former pulpit.
At one point, percussion instruments were passed out to everyone, who shook and beat them in a rhythm that sped up to a frenzy before dissipating. One unbothered person crocheted in the back row. At the end, everyone who had a birthday—or an anniversary or a cat adoption—was sung to.
“God is so much more than one attribute—more nurturing, more loving,” said Jack Pantaleo, who attended the service with his Chihuahua mix, Cookie. “People can experience a God they never met before.”
There are 125 artworks in herchurch, many depicting women from Scripture or mystical Christian traditions—like the Black Madonna, Christ Sophia and Mary Magdalene—as well as contemporary women like former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The church runs numerous art programs in what it calls “The Art Womb,” a basement studio that used to be rented out to a preschool. With its cups of paintbrushes, smeared canvases and motivational sayings, it still gives off the vibe of a kinder academy, a place where everyone’s artistic talent is respected.
A piece titled The Sacred Cunt—which Boorn likens to feminist Judy Chicago’s body of work—stands on a side altar filled with tall glass votives in front of multiple depictions of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Catholic icon revered by many Mexican Americans. A world dominated by women is a beautiful vision in herchurch: Earth would be healed of her wounds, there would be no war and climate change wouldn’t persist.
When an emergency vehicle blared in the distance during the Sunday service, it sounded as if it were from some other world—a place far away from the cocoon of love and belonging created in the space—where emergencies still existed.
During the service, congregants recited the “Our Mother” instead of the traditional “Our Father.” The Gospel was a poem by Alice Walker, “We Have a Beautiful Mother.” In place of communion, churchgoers shared bread in honor of the one Mary Magdalene baked. But herchurch, for all its seriousness and sincerity, is punctured by intense moments of levity—even hilarity.
“If you drop it in the wine, leave it there,” Boorn said of the bread. “Don’t go fishing it out with your fingers.”
An equally opaque approach exists in defining what exactly is the divine feminine—even as it's the essential thread that holds the community together.
“What we mean by that,” Boorn said by way of explanation, “is that we don’t know what we mean by that.”
This capacious understanding of “divine feminine” allows the churchgoers to create a unique, personal version of worship.
“It’s awakened something in me,” said new congregant Faviola Alvarez. “It’s given me these older, wiser women to look up to.”
Yet Boorn would argue that deifying the woman is not something new—it’s rooted in ancient traditions, a phenomenon that University of California Los Angeles archaeologist Marija Gimbutas advanced with her “One Goddess” theory after discovering scores of female-body-shaped totems in her studies of pre-Indo-European cultures.
“More than 5,000 years ago, the deity was represented only in the female body,” Boorn said. “This is not New Age stuff.”
There are numerous theories as to the switch to a more patriarchal style of religion, predominant among them that a single historical development led to man-centric worship: the introduction of writing.
While scholars may argue over terminology and the validity of such claims, Boorn’s message seems to be working for the worshippers who gather between the purple and painting-covered walls.
In a world full of people claiming to know everything, herchurch is content with endless seeking.
“If you have any questions,” Boorn said at one point during the service, “well, we don’t have any answers.”
Julie Zigoris can be reached at email@example.com