Report From the Field: Researching a 150 Year Old Church

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One of the themes I’m developing in Devoted, Book Three of the Oaktown GIrls series, is being separated and then coming back together. Not new stuff for romance, I realize — but perhaps this is a new spin. One of my main heroines, Kate, is an Irish expat — and undocumented worker living illegally in the US. She is doing her best not to get shipped back to Ireland by ICE. Which lands her in a Sanctuary church here in Oakland.

Oakland is, indeed, a sanctuary city, but my story is not in any way about politics. Rather it’s about the experience of a frightened, vulnerable young woman who is separated from her lover, LIzzy, just as she’s about to move in with her. Lizzy finds her a wonderful old church to stay in, which I’ve loosely based on my own church, First Unitarian Church of Oakland. For the record, FUCO, as it’s known, is not a sanctuary church simply because it lacks the requisite shower. But it has many nooks and crannies that make it a fabulous place to partly set a novel.

Imagine filtered sunlight streaming into a darkened sanctuary on a weekday morning, and mysterious music coming from a piano in a far off room. Piano music that is somehow haunting, irresistible, and played by a beautiful, intensely shy gender queer person who haunts Kate’s imagination.

Recently I got a great tour of FUCO and learned some pretty incredible stuff. For instance, the room where I’ve spent countless hours practicing with the choir was once the site of Mark Twain’s paid speeches — and the signing of the document that, incredibly, became the charter for the United Nations. US presidents have attended this church, and thousands of hours have been spent helping hearts heal and uniting those who feel separated or afraid.

All I know is that it’s marvelously atmospheric — and will help frightened Kate find a new, temporary community including Catalina, a warm-hearted mother figure and fellow sanctuary guest who is avoiding being sent back to Mexico. She and Kate have many long talks while she teaches Kate the fine art of making tamales.

Devoted, Book Three of the Oaktown Girls series, will be out in early June. Driven, which is book One has just been released — and Committed, Book Two, is due out in February. Stay tuned!

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Suzanne FalterComment