Greetings from Alcatraz Ave: Meet Father Aidan McAleenan

| July 14, 2014
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By Andrea L. Hart

On one end, you’re in Oakland. At the other, you’re in Berkeley. If you keep going, you’ll end up back in Oakland. If you trip, you’ll fall into Emeryville. It’s an interesting mash-up of municipalities with a rich history of activism and commerce. When I moved here 10 years ago, there was only one restaurant within a short walk and the newspaper once referred to Alcatraz as a “corridor of violence” between South Berkeley and North Oakland gangs. Now it sports a bicycle collective, a cupcake shop, several cafes, two yoga studios, a weekly farmers’ market and about five more spaces with permits to open in the next six months.

With headlines constantly barking about evictions in San Francisco and plans to turn West Oakland into a playground for the rich and techie, I wondered what was happening to my neighborhood. To get a sense of my neighbors’ perspectives, I talked to people from 10 blocks of Alcatraz Ave. about their lives, their impressions of the recent change and their ideas about how we might endeavor to “do it better.”

Father Aidan McAleenan
Priest, St. Columba Catholic Church

Years in the Neighborhood:

St. Columba: 116
Father Aidan: 5

Before coming to St. Columba:

I was [in San Francisco] from ’86, and I was an illegal alien for my first five years. I worked for Catholic Charities in the city, but I didn’t have papers. It was a lot easier before 9/11; now it’s really hard. I worked in the Tenderloin for 15 years in homeless housing. I opened the first AIDS hospice with Catholic Charities in 1988, when nobody was doing that work, when everybody was dying.

About the church:

St. Columba in the world of churches has a huge reputation in terms of social justice. If you’re homeless on San Pablo, you don’t care what theology anybody is. Or what version of God. You just want help. People come Tuesdays/Thursday and they get fed and helped. We helped people get set up for the health care act.

About how the neighborhood is changing:

It’s a little weird here because we are literally surrounded by Berkeley, one block that way is Emeryville. Then, you have of course the condos. All these condos around here have really made a huge difference. So while it is a unique community, it’s changing and it could lose some of its appeal and who it is.

I’ve seen the change quite dramatically. A lot of this building work [across the street] is new. The guy who owns [our] block, he says, “Father, we’re gonna stop this, aren’t we?” And I says, “No, we’re not.” He says, “Father, they’re gonna sell liquor.” I says, “It’s wine and beer and I’m Irish. What do you want? I want to be able to go out. I live here alone.” So they’ve ended up opening. And they’ve flourished. And it’s really wonderful.

About how the church has transformed:

We did the remodel of the church in eight months ourselves and we ended up saving a million dollars. The people really love it. The congregation is getting bigger. There’s a vibrancy. I’ve actually noticed, since we’ve done the remodel, our collection plate’s going up.

This is an African-American Catholic parish so I got the artwork [for the front doors] from West Africa. People were just blown away. We’re probably the only Catholic church in America that has a black Jesus. People love coming in and seeing a church that looks like them.

If you go to San Francisco to St. Patrick’s on Mission Street, it has 32 windows, 32 saints; that’s the 32 counties of Ireland. It’s all green and it’s all Shamrocks and it’s all very Irish. The [Irish] would’ve felt at home there, but African Americans traditionally haven’t been able to feel that same way. People come from Vallejo, San Francisco, San Jose – that’s the radius which people pass to come to a place they feel comfortable in.

About the crosses:

Father Jason started [placing the memorial crosses] about ten years ago. It’s a huge symbol. You look out [and see] people just coming and stopping. Sometimes you see people crying. It’s a very powerful image. Last year, there were, I think, over 100. The year before was 121. It becomes a media focus point when something big happens.

The biggest focus is at the end of the year. When I got here, the guy who was organizing putting the crosses in [and] putting the names up says, “I almost feel funny just pulling these out of the ground on December 31.” I says, “Well, let’s do a ceremony.” So now we do an ecumenical ceremony. About 60 congregations of Jewish, Christian, Muslim – everybody who does anything with God or goddess, they all come and the mayor and the police chief come. We call out all the names, we carry all the crosses in as a congregation of the people and lay them in front of the altar. It’s a very powerful moment. The mayor’s often said, “The whole of Oakland should be here to really see this and feel it.” More than anything else, feel it. Feel how intense it is. It is a wonderful way to use that space to be a witness to what is.

How do we keep what’s good while still changing?

I think it’s important to keep the Afrocentrism. Even if the physical faces of the people coming here [change], I think there’s a real need for that within our tradition. I think it’s a real gem in the neighborhood and in our little Catholic world. So to keep that and still be a force for good in the community – with the crosses, the social justice, the restorative justice. And making sure what we do in here makes a difference out there. We need to use our voice and our muscle to do the right thing.

To meet more Alcatraz Avenue neighbors, check out the rest of the series!

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KQED Pop is a daily blog edited by Emmanuel Hapsis that critically examines the social and cultural impact of music, movies, television, advertisements, fashion, the internet and all the other collective experiences that make us laugh, cringe and cry. We focus on local, national and international experiences with a Bay Area lens. We don’t do reviews.
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    Fr. Aidan is a nice man who is known to speak before thinking. I
    cringe when I hear him say, “We’re probably the only Catholic church in
    America that has a black Jesus.” There are too many Black Catholics who have fought for years to have their identity represented in almost
    every Catholic archdiocese in this country. Just talk to any Knight of
    Peter Claver, go to a Sankofa gathering, or order the Josephite calendar
    for your parish. The Jesus in St. Patrick’s parish is raised on a cross
    with Oakland in the background. That is in his own deanery!