Noe Valley Voice February 2009

Obama Icon Raises the Ire of Local Priest

By Corrie M. Anders

Millions of Americans may view Barack Obama as a savior, but his saintly image on a giant prayer candle in a Noe Valley gift shop window has drawn the wrath of a prominent Catholic priest.

Father Tony LaTorre, pastor of St. Philip the Apostle Church, last month urged parishioners to boycott Just for Fun, a 24th Street store that has been selling the candles since December.

LaTorre claimed that owners of the store, whom he erroneously identified as Jewish, for years have been selling merchandise items that "mock and ridicule" the faith of Catholics and other Christians.

"And now for the last couple of weeks, in their front window, they have President Obama displayed with many of our devotional items in a very negative way, which again is considered to be mocking the Catholic faith," LaTorre wrote to his parishioners in a weekly church bulletin distributed in late January.

"I am urging all you Catholics, for a change, to stand up for your faith and stay out of 'Just for Fun,'" he wrote. "But be sure to poke your head in the store and tell them why."

The harsh condemnation stunned David Eiland and Robert Ramsey, co-owners of the 22-year-old store.

"I'm not angry. I'm just flabbergasted," Eiland said. "He's done this before, and I think it's mean-spirited and bizarre, frankly."

Eiland said he has no plans to remove the window display or stop selling the candles at the store, located at 3982 24th Street less than three blocks from St. Philip's at 725 Diamond Street.

"Let's not make too much of this. It's a candle of hope, I guess. It's funny and people like it. It's a novelty item, and I'm not going to read too much into it," Eiland said.

Halo on His Head

The candle, which comes in two sizes, one 28 inches tall, depicts Obama wearing a white clerical collar, brown frock, and a heavy rosary dangling below the waist. A halo shines above his head, and he clutches a crucifix in one hand and a staff in the other.

The image, made by a local graphic designer, was created by digitally morphing Obama's face onto a traditional statue of St. Martin de Porres, a 16th-century friar who is revered as one of the first black saints in the Americas.

Eiland said the 12-inch Obama candle was the store's bestselling item over the December holiday season. Buyers took home more than 650 of the smaller candles at $14.95 each. The larger candle has a price tag of $395.

"It certainly saved our sales at Christmas, let me tell you," he said. "We're talking thousands and thousands of dollars in sales in a time that was very bad."

Interviewed less than a week after the printing of the bulletin, LaTorre said he had gotten a "very positive" response to his message, adding that parishioners were "very, very appreciative of the fact that it was brought to people's attention."

On the other hand, Eiland said the store during that same week had seen a constant stream of St. Philip's church members, "who said we don't agree with it and we're so sorry."

Not a Joke in Pastor's Eyes

Father LaTorre, who came to St. Philip's from St. Charles Church in San Carlos in July 2004, defended his public stand.

He said he found "it hard to take in a family-oriented neighborhood that people have to walk by and look at this large religious candle. Some people might think it's cute and a joke. Maybe they look at it and have a chuckle, but Catholics say it doesn't make any sense to them," LaTorre said. "It's offensive and it's hurtful."

While "Catholics are joked about and made fun of," LaTorre continued, he doubted people would appreciate the image of Obama holding a menorah or a statue of a Buddha wearing rosary beads.

"And Barack Obama is not even Catholic, and he's got a rosary around his neck," LaTorre said. He stressed that his complaint was "not a political statement" against Obama, pointing out that "I voted for him."

In his bulletin, LaTorre singled out Just for Fun as a Jewish-owned store. He later recanted, saying that he had gotten misinformation.

LaTorre explained, "The only point I was making there" was that "if I were to put up a statue of Moses and make some comments about that, that would certainly be unacceptable, and I'd have everyone on my neck."

But then he added, "It's a very popular Jewish store, and here they can provide right here in the front window the religious symbols of another faith and get away with it."

Store Has Rabbis and Nuns

The store owners say LaTorre is wrong about their religious affiliation--but what does it matter anyway? They're running a gift shop.

Ramsey said he was raised as a Baptist. Eiland said he is the son of a Jewish father and a mother who was a Methodist-Lutheran. In Jewish culture, children take the religion of the mother, not the father.

"I'm a big supporter of all the synagogues," Eiland said. "I'm also a big supporter of St. Philip's"--giving merchandise to charity auctions for the parish school.

Eiland said LaTorre had complained in the past "about all the Jewish things we carried for Hanukkah" and that "we had nothing for Christmas."

The store, which carried a gag toy of a punching rabbi until it was discontinued recently, also sells the once trendy boxing nuns--two puppet figures dressed in traditional habits.

"In its heyday, our biggest sales were to the nuns at the Catholic church further down 24th Street," Eiland said. "They thought it was hilarious. He [LaTorre] complained about that."

Ironically, a San Francisco resident from a devout Catholic family dreamed up the Obama candle. Designer Johnny Oliver said a "little Photoshop magic turned Saint Martin de Porres into Santo Obama."

"Many hardcore Catholics are Spanish speakers, and I'm Mexican myself. They get a giggle out of it," said Oliver, a real estate agent who took on the candle sideline after the slump in the housing market.

Oliver, who now sells the candles in 10 stores across three states, said he had gotten very little flack from the Catholic Church or ardent believers.

"I mostly got it from my mom," he said.

Here is the text of Father Tony LaTorre's appeal to St. Philip's parishioners in a church newsletter, published in late January.


For a year now, I have not shopped at the general merchandise store called "Just for Fun" on 24th Street because of the anti-Catholic, anti-Christian merchandise they sell. In fact, I am rather appalled that in such a family-oriented neighborhood any retailer would be so bigoted and so hateful to carry such merchandise just to "make a buck." They carry merchandise that depicts our beloved saints in not so saintly ways. They sell "Jesus" merchandise that mocks Jesus (and let me remind you that Jesus is the Son of God, the Creator of all, Jews and Gentiles alike).

And now for the last couple of weeks, in their front window, they have President Obama displayed with many of our devotional items in a very negative way, which again is considered to be mocking the Catholic faith.

I am sorry the owner of this store, who happens to be Jewish, feels the need to mock and ridicule the Catholic/Christian faith. I am urging all you Catholics, for a change, to stand up for your faith and stay out of "Just for Fun." But be sure to poke your head in the store and tell them why. It is time that our faith, our beliefs, and our Lord are respected.

--Father Tony