I am trying to remember the first time I met Reverend Bertie Pearson. I don’t think it was in the basement of YamaSho, when we were doing karaoke to bad ’90s tunes while swigging from a large sake bottle. Likewise, I think it was before the 4th of July party in Sebastopol, when we spent the day lounging atop several colorful floaties in one very pristine swimming pool. Rather, it was precisely where one might imagine meeting a Reverend, I suppose. I believe we first met at Grace Cathedral.
EpiscoDisco was a monthly arts and music event that took place at Grace Cathedral from April 2009 to August 2010. It was an evening of DJs, bands, and installation and video artists. The artwork was generally site specific – referencing the cathedral or other aspects of the Episcopal tradition – though none of the creators were typically religious. Neither were the partygoers. Alcohol and revelry were welcome.
I remember walking up the steps of that magnificent church one EpiscoDisco night and there stood Bertie, tall and sharply dressed in a black suit, indistinguishable as a priest save for the white collar. With a cherubic face and parted hair slicked back into place, he evoked a stylish, bygone Gatsby-esque character, though bobbing along to a techno beat and drinking from a blue plastic party cup.
I was fascinated. Who on earth was this party-boy-preacher-man who, I later learned, played in bands and was married to an ex-model turned scientist? How had he single-handedly created an event that lured hundreds of people from all across town to church on a Saturday night? Wasn’t any number of the things we were doing on said night somehow ... sacrilegious?
Bertie now has a new monthly event called Sound and Vision, held at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist. At four months old, it is similar to EpiscoDisco but has an even stronger focus on the art, and favors more live music than DJs. The launch of this series seemed like good motivation to get the backstory on this reverend promoter. And so, some time and many social encounters after our first introduction, I find myself at church on a recent Sunday morning.
Having dragged myself out of bed to see the Reverend do his thing, I’m seeking the other side of Bertie – the pious and spiritual version that seems so contrary to my understanding. I did not grow up with religion in my life, and my grasp on it – beyond some undisputed historical facts – is limited at best. Turns out, Bertie is as patient and forgiving a teacher as they come.
We meet in his office the afternoon following his sermon, and I immediately unleash a barrage of questions. As he enthusiastically walks me through the history of the Episcopal tradition, the process of ordination, and the day-to-day life of a priest, it becomes clear that what I saw as a schism between a religious man and social fixture is in fact not a divide at all.
Hailing from Austin, Texas, Bertie came to the Bay Area by way of UC Berkeley. Starting college with a double major in English and studio art, he finished with a degree in history and philosophy. He always knew he wanted to be a priest, however, and had announced his vocational desire to his father at the age of seven. “When the popular kids wanted to play wedding on the playground, I always wanted to marry them,” he says. “I memorized the whole speech early on.”
We talk about his wife, Rahel, and how they met backstage at Mezzanine in 2006 when his band was playing a magazine party and she was modeling in the fashion show. He tells me about his current band, The Altars, and how the deeply religious lyrics he writes are sung by a friend for whom the words take on a lovestruck, non-deistic meaning.
As I plod on, asking about his life as a musician versus his life as a priest, marriage versus celibacy, alcohol versus abstinence, I begin to realize that it’s the very phrasing of my questions that pits one generalization against another. By presenting my inquiries in opposition I am creating this dichotomy, and this duality is a projection Bertie faces often.
He feels he lives an integrated life. “I think that because people cast religious people and people who are involved in music in stereotypical ways, they think it must be this very bifurcated life,” he explains. “But it never felt bifurcated to me. The whole time I was DJing and playing in bands I never missed church on a Sunday.”
As the youth coordinator at the Diocese of California, Bertie started EpiscoDisco so that those close to him could experience a sacred space on their own terms. “Most of my friends are not people of faith,” he reflects, “but I found that a lot of them got what I get out of church through art and music.” He wanted them to be able to come into a church and feel like they didn’t have to be on some sort of hypocritical version of good behavior, or worry about doing the wrong thing. “They could make the cathedral their own for that night,” he adds.
EpiscoDisco came to an end when Bertie left the Diocese to become Priest-in-Charge at both the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist and Holy Innocents Episcopal Church. Being a parish priest was always the ultimate goal, and he’s grateful to be with people at “the most vulnerable points in their lives.” He says he loves writing sermons as well as the social justice and outreach work he’s able to do through the church.
A week later, when we meet at his house and thumb through his collection of records and rare first edition books, Bertie talks about Sound and Vision. The bands in this new series span from electronic to folk to indie, and while nothing is particularly mainstream, everything is “pretty San Francisco oriented.” The art, too, showcases mostly Bay Area talent, some of whom he approaches while others seek him out to participate. Local musician Danny Paul Grody played Sound and Vision’s first show and is now helping curate the music for upcoming events.
As the sun begins to set and I reluctantly pack up my camera, I ask Bertie what aspect of his life he feels is most misunderstood. His answer, particularly for a secular, nonbeliever like myself, feels like a good one to go out on. He says people sometimes assume a person of faith can’t respect other metaphysical worldviews, but he feels that “God, or the divine, or whatever you want to call it, is so much greater than our tiny brains can ever encompass.” For this reason, he claims, “There’s room for an infinite number of understandings of who we are and why we’re here and what it’s all for.” To that I say, amen.
Sound and Vision takes place the last Sunday of every month at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist from 6-9:30 p.m. There is a suggested donation of $5-$20 but no one is turned away. If you’re interested in performing or showing work at a Sound and Vision event, or have general inquiries for the Reverend, email firstname.lastname@example.org.