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Portalhurst Presbyterian Church

Betsy Massie and I met not long after I began my faculty tenure at San Francisco Theological Seminary.  We had moved from the Warm Springs Indian Reservation to the campus in the summer of 1978.  In the beginning, my primary teaching responsibility was in the Department of Ministry where I administered the Shadow Program for first year students and the Internship Program for second and third year students.  In both programs, it was essential that I got acquainted with pastors up and down the West Coast, but especially the Bay Area.  I became well acquainted with pastors in the Presbyteries of San Francisco, Redwoods, San Jose, and Sacramento.  Betsy was pastor at Portalhurst Presbyterian Church on the corner of Funston and Taraval, San Francisco.  Portalhurst no longer exists.

Betsy Massie was one of my most reliable pastors in the Shadow program and as supervisor for interns.  I invited her also to be a leader for our Senior Integrating Seminar groups.  Betsy was unique on several levels.  She was one of the few women pastors available for my programs.  Betsy also was a “jock.”  She was the quarterback on the McCormick Seminary flag football team.  But her main sport was racket ball.  In fact, she was so good that she played on the USA National Team that competed internationally.  One year, the SFTS incoming class had a larger than usual number of young, single men.  Among them were 2 “studs.”  They played all sports–softball, flag football, basketball, and racket ball.  And they went weekly to a local court to hone their racket ball game.  They were so good that they put out the word that they were opened to taking on anyone who wanted to challenge them.  One noon hour at Alexander Dining Hall, I sidled up to the two guys and asked whether they were true to their word, that they would take on anyone who wanted to challenge them on the court.  They said, “bring him on!”  I responded, “the challenger is a ‘she.'”  They sneered at me, “you’re not serious.”  The match was set.  I even put up posters around campus publicizing the match.  The two guys knew nothing about Betsy Massie, just that she was a woman Presbyterian pastor from San Francisco.  On the day of the match, we had a crowd of spectators from the seminary.  The competitors agreed to a match called ‘cut throat’ which meant every man/woman for him/herself.  They competed against each other.  Best of 3 matches.  The first match ended rather quickly; the score was Betsy 15, the other two 3 and 4.  And the second match ended even more quickly; Betsy 15, the other two 2 and 3.  There was no need for a third match.  The guys had enough.  Afterwards, Betsy came up to me and whispered in my ear, “I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I’m pregnant!”  

I left SFTS to accept the call to my home church, the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown.  Betsy and I then became colleagues in the Presbytery of San Francisco, serving congregations in the city.  By then, Betsy was in the 12th year of her ministry at Portalhurst Presbyterian Church.  One day after I had been at the Chinatown church for about 2 years, Betsy asked if we could have lunch together.  We made a date for dim sum in Chinatown.  Betsy told me that after these many years at Portalhurst, she was discouraged.  The average age of the congregation had risen to 78; and she was doing a funeral almost monthly.  The congregation was dying, in her words.  She hoped that she could leave a different legacy.  The turning point of our conversation occurred when we reflected on the demographics of the Portalhurst neighborhood.  The Chinese population, in particular families, was growing.  The largest racial ethnic population of the student body at the nearby Hoover Middle School was Asian.  On a paper napkin at the dim sum restaurant, we drafted a plan to present to our sessions.  Portalhurst needed an immediate infusion of Asian families to change the profile of the congregation.  The plan would require the PCC to commission 10-12 of its families to transfer their membership from Chinatown to Portalhurst.  PCC would take a hit financially; but I believed that we could not only survive the hit but also be inspired by the missional challenge to look outward instead of focusing only on its internal struggles.

The following year, the sessions of both congregations prayed and deliberated and debated the merits of committing to the plan.  Portalhurst feared losing its identity and its control.  PCC feared being stretched beyond its capacity.  At a particularly critical town hall meeting, the following question was posed:  “Why not move the entire English speaking congregation to the Portalhurst site?  Our parking problem would be solved.  Our struggle with trying to get along with the Mandarin and Cantonese congregations would be resolved.”  At that critical moment in our process, we heard the voice of God:  “The mission of the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown is IN CHINATOWN!”  And in order to fulfill that mission, we needed to address the issue of parking as well as how to build a level of trust that the three congregations could work together collaboratively for the sake of the mission and outreach to Chinatown.  That was a critical juncture in the life and direction of the English speaking congregation. In the end, the English congregation decided both to remain in Chinatown and to commission 10 families to become members of Portalhurst Presbyterian Church.

The first months of courtship were brutal; at times we all wondered whether this was a huge mistake.  At our first church potluck to get acquainted with each other, one of the long time Portalhurst members came up to one of the Chinatown members and asked, “Have you ever had this dish, ‘Macaroni and Cheese’?  And when the plan was finally implemented, we faced one crisis after another.  The old-timers at Portalhurst resented the presence and leadership of the Chinatown folks.  They thought that the Chinatown folk were disrespectful of their “traditions.”  The Chinatown folk bit their tongue and continued to provide the needed leadership for this new church development.  

Betsy left Portalhurst to become the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of San Francisco.  And a new pastor was called, the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, his first position out of seminary.  Under his leadership, the congregation renamed itself to reflect the newly formed congregation.  Today, it is Covenant Presbyterian Church.  

4 thoughts on “Portalhurst Presbyterian Church”

  1. The only thing I ever heard about was that some (10) families from PCCSF went over to Covenant during a time when they were in dire need. So it had been just a simple factoid deserving admiration for the sacrifice. Cal, you have again provided the context which changed it from a “factoid” to a documentary. I see it akin to someone reading the Scriptures solo and not really getting much out of it, or with a group but not necessarily getting accurate/relevant input. In the PCC School of Discipleship classes, we get the tireless and dedicated study that the Pastor(s) do to provide deeper understanding as we read selected Scripture.

    What is the situation with Covenant Presbyterian Church now?

  2. My former congregation began at Portalhurst; we were there for 8 years before moving to the Mission district. Betsy was a most generous host to us. In fact, when we had our own building and had opportunities to be hospitable to organizations in our space, her name would be invoked because we could remember how open she was to us. Didn’t know she was also an athlete!

  3. Thank you Sharon for reminding me of this early history of your congregation. It further enhances my love and respect for Betsy.

  4. A great story! About many dedicated and patient parishioners, and three outstanding pastoral leaders of the Presbyterian Church in SF. Such leadership never needed more than now.

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