Every Sunday, the drums pulse and the brass rise and fall as the GLIDE Ensemble and Change Band take center stage with their signature opening song, “Pass Me Not Oh Gentle Savior.” Calling all who have ears to hear, they beckon San Francisco (and indeed, the world) to the corner of Ellis and Taylor for a transcendent spiritual experience that heals and saves lives. Touching thousands of people every year, the GLIDE Ensemble and Change Band draws together those with disparate spiritual paths and life circumstances to sing of liberation, truth telling, love, and hope.
Dreamed into reality in the late 60s by Rev. Cecil Williams, music remains one of the pillars of GLIDE’s ministry. Starting with the “Happening” a contemporary worship service that brought jazz music into the sanctuary and hippies dancing in the aisles, music has always been a part of the movements of justice GLIDE has embarked on. Gone were the dirge-like hymnals; in was the joyous, explosive gospel music of the black church alongside the rich traditions of jazz, rock, folk, and blues.
This music, steeped in protest and visions of a more just and loving world, spirited GLIDE’s participation in the Anti-war and Civil and Human Rights battles of the 60s and 70s. The music has bolstered our work with the Black Panthers and the United Farm Workers, been proclaimed alongside Gay Liberation and Marriage Equality, and sung out against Apartheid, domestic violence, economic and social injustice, poverty and hunger.
From its humble beginnings on Christmas Day, 1966, when it was only 10 singers and jazz legend John Handy, the GLIDE Ensemble and Change Band has grown to include more than 100 voices and eight musicians. Beginning with the first choir director, Faith Winthrop, the GLIDE Ensemble and Change Band has benefitted from the direction of such talented leaders as Donnell Hickman, Ronald Sutherland, John F. Turk, Jr., Clifford Coulter, and Vernon Bush, and has teamed up with a host of notable musicians such as Sammy Davis Jr., Leonard Bernstein, Marvin Gaye, Bono, Bobby McFerrin, Maya Angelou, and Joan Baez.
Much like today, the Ensemble embodied an activist spirituality that provided the congregation and the community an antidote to the layers of repression that characterized many of their previous church experiences. A new world was emerging right outside GLIDE’s door and Cecil, his rag-tag, multi-colored singers, and Change Band brought that energy right into the sanctuary. This tradition is carried into today, where no one is rejected; everyone is accepted. Anyone, regardless of vocal talent, is able to join this egalitarian body and break the mold of a stale and sedate church every Sunday.
Beyond Sunday, the Ensemble and Change Band have brought their music out into the community, from prisons and the projects to stadiums and television, from the streets of the Tenderloin to the silver screen. They have sung before both presidents and the homeless, celebrities and nobodies. From Market Street to as far away as Shanghai, China, the GLIDE Ensemble and Change Band has taken our embrace of social justice to the world.
Perhaps more than anything, the gift of the Ensemble will always be its ability to summon forth the powerful feelings of community, support, faith and love from the sanctuary every Sunday, week in and week out, without exception. For many, it may just be GLIDE’s greatest gift of all.
You can order the GLIDE Ensemble’s newest CD, recorded in celebration of Rev. Cecil Williams’ 50 years at GLIDE and the life changing work he and Janice Mirikitani have given to San Francisco and the world, by going online to www.glide.org/store or by stopping by Freedom Hall after Celebration on Sunday.