SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) - Usually her voice is soothing, but over the phone it sounds slightly worn. Wanika Stephens, or “Sister Wanika” as she is also referred to, recently lost her voice, but is on the mend. In fact, she powered through to deliver her weekly marathon show on KPOO-FM 89.5—Uplift! The Music of John Coltrane, from noon to four.
The daughter of Archbishop Wayne King and Mother Marina King, she is also the pastor at San Francisco's Saint John Coltrane Church, founded by her parents. The church, part of the African-Orthodox tradition, is celebrating its 50-year jubilee anniversary by hosting a year of events, which kicked off in February to coincide with Black History Month.
One of the longest running shows at the station, Uplift, has a 40-year history, some of which precedes Stephens’ hosting tenure. She follows in the footsteps of the station’s founder Joe Rudolph, the driving force behind KPOO, until he passed away in 2001.
Both the station and the church are institutions rooted in San Francisco’s Western Addition, which was traditionally a black neighborhood. Now they don’t even call it Western Addition anymore, she said. They call it “NoPa” (North of the Panhandle).
“When I look at the community now, I just don’t recognize it,” said Stephens. She grew up in San Francisco. “I kept looking for the black people. ‘Oh. I am the black people,’” she realized.
“I don’t see the diversity. It’s a little bit sad. This is where that was. It’s just not there anymore. It’s almost like it was all in my mind,” she said reflecting on the history of jazz and what that has meant for both the Fillmore District and Western Addition.
She grew up listening to Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles and of course—Coltrane. She does throw a curveball with one of the names she drops—Willie Nelson.
“Country and black music are related. They’re the music of the people. We tend to think of the struggle in different groups; the black and Latino struggle. But we’re all united in some form of struggle whether it’s the coal mine or sweat shops.”
With these types of music, Sister Wanika said there’s a connection to spirituality, which is also what this unique church has to offer.
Despite the city’s dwindling African-American population, Stephens said the Coltrane Church at 2097 Turk Street is thriving.
“Coltrane is a bona fide saint.” It sounds like hyperbole, but she means that in the literal sense. In the tradition of the Anglican Episcopalian Church, you do not have to wait 100 years to be canonized, unlike in the Roman Catholic Church tradition. Coltrane was canonized in 1982, but he died in 1967 at the age of 40.
“We understand he was a man,” she said, humanizing the legendary and accomplished jazz saxophonist. “He inspired people through the way he practiced music, composition and albums.”
She said it can be heard explicitly on selections from his years at Impulse Records, especially on tracks from the Transition album and songs from Meditations like “Father, Son, Holy Ghost”, “Compassion” and “Serenity.”
“When we’re listening to Coltrane, we’re listening to truth. He’s teaching people to think, transition to new beginnings. The message is a love supreme,” Stephens said.
The Coltrane legacy was further solidified when in 2001, then Mayor Willie Brown proclaimed July 20 as the official Saint John Coltrane Day in San Francisco. It was timed to nearly coincide with Coltrane’s “Ascension Day” (he passed on July 17).
The church has brought back Sunday’s Sound Meditation, held on the first Sunday of every month where the congregation, for lack of a better term, practices a guided meditation to Coltrane.
“I do preach from the gospel, but it’s done in a way where people feel welcomed.” And she does mean everybody: Atheists, and even a Jewish woman who recently found Christ.
Everybody’s welcome to attend regular Sunday service at noon, where you’re even encouraged to bring instruments if you play one; tambourines are provided.
Despite her observations of the changing and gentrifying neighborhood, our conversation ends optimistically.
“I’m encouraged by a coming together of a global spiritual community that takes you outside of race. We have to get beyond the race train. It’s about truth, not condemning people.”
If you want to get in on the celebration, there are a few more opportunities this year. Stephens couldn’t provide specifics, but said in July there will be an event timed to align with Ascension Day, followed by an event on Coltrane’s birthday, September 23.
In the meantime, feel free to shake a tambourine with a community of listeners at this historic church as you bask in the holy spirit.