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Cecil Williams Arrives at Glide

Rev. Cecil Williams describes the Tenderloin when he first arrived at Glide in 1964:

People called the Tenderloin District in San Francisco “the last circle of hell,” because no matter how quickly you drove through it, you couldn’t help seeing the poor, the addicted, the sick, the homeless, and the mentally ill, many of them lying if not dying in the streets. You couldn’t look away from wildly dressed sex workers of all genders (there were more than two) getting clubbed by the police. You’d see flophouses, whorehouses, drug and porno houses, runaway teenagers selling their bodies, cruising johns, and ex-cons. By reputation, the Tenderloin was a filthy, seedy, crime-ridden hellhole that nobody wanted to visit.

Yet the first time I walked through the Tenderloin on my way to Glide Memorial Church … I saw something else, too. I saw the most blessed place on earth.144

Whereas others had turned a blind eye to the Tenderloin’s “urban ghetto,” Williams saw something “raw and energetic [rising] up from the streets….: so many poor people—old and young; gay and straight; native and foreign—making a life in wretched surroundings.”145

The contrast between William’s description of the Tenderloin and the Glide Memorial Church he was soon to minister was extreme:

I had just left the smell of urine and grime in the streets. Here an aroma of pine-scented furniture polish filled the air…. I couldn’t believe how spotless everything was. The interior of Glide had the hushed and elegant atmosphere of a wealthy men’s club. Hardwood floors gleamed brightly as if they had never been scuffed.146

Williams also noticed that every door in the church remained locked and that the windows were barred.

In 1964, Glide’s congregation had dwindled down to 35 people—all white and mostly elderly. Bishop Donald Tippett warned Williams that the remaining congregants loved the church but they hated what the Tenderloin had become: “Keeping the church pristine and ceremonious means a lot to them.”147 Williams’ response was a rhetorical question: “Did a beleaguered church, a dying church, have to lock out the community to preserve itself?”148 Williams wanted to throw open the doors and “welcome people with unconditional love…a love that included all.”149

“Bishop, there’s one thing you should know,” Williams told Tippett.150 “If I become minister here, I’m going to turn this church upside down.” Tippett replied: “Brother Cecil, welcome to Glide Memorial.”

Glide’s 35 remaining congregants stubbornly resisted change and made Williams’ early experiences at the church frustrating and painful. He endured anonymous racist messages left with the church’s receptionist (e.g., “[T]ell that nigger to go home”), and overheard racists jokes told by his own colleagues.151 The congregants repeatedly walked out of his sermons and twice demanded to Bishop Tippett that Glide replace the radical, new reverend. Ultimately, all but about two of the original 35 members left the church, but Williams remained undeterred.

I was young and enthusiastic, and the early 1960s were already showing signs of great change and promise. I did not expect the congregants to join me in my dedication to serving the poor and disenfranchised. I did hope they would be intrigued enough to discover a new kind of spirituality through diversity…. Whereas Glide had been a “Sunday Church” before without much community involvement, soon it would be a church of action, of movement, of declaration, of confrontation.152

The “new Glide,” ministered by Rev. Williams, “was not going to shut out the world.”153

Cecil Williams radically transformed Glide in the 1960s, and Glide transformed Williams. He replaced his clerical collar and robe with an African dashiki and “dazzling red pants,” remarking: “Just as I am removing this symbol of traditional clergy, so may we all welcome the time of openness and change that is coming to Glide.”154 He grew his short-cropped hair into an “afro.”

Williams’ changes to Glide’s sanctuary and Sunday morning services were equally radical. He stripped the sanctuary of everything he thought represented traditional church hierarchy: the pulpit, the chancel, the altar, the ministers’ chairs, the choir, and—most controversially—the cross. Williams felt that the enormous, white cross on the wall behind the altar wasn’t serving the people. To him, the cross “wasn’t just a symbol of oppression—it was the oppression. Instead of standing for the unconditional love that Jesus brought to a new community, the cross made people guilty because Jesus died for our sins.”155 Williams asked the Glide congregation to see and feel the power of God/the spirit within them.156 Asked by theologians over the years if taking down the cross was his attempt to secede from the United Methodist Church, Williams answer has always been “emphatically no.”157

After Williams’ changes to the sanctuary, all that was left of the front of the church was a blank wall where the cross once hung and a carpeted stage. The sidewalls and balcony railing were decorated with banners highlighting the “values Glide stood for”: Justice, Peace, Freedom, Righteousness, Trust, and Community.158

Cecil William’s Sunday morning services evolved into a powerful phantasmagoria of spirituality, music, dance, art, and community. He called the services (and they continue to be called) “Celebrations.” The Glide Ensemble replaced the old choir with its repertoire of traditional hymns.

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 [was] steeped in protest and visions of a more just and loving world…. [and has] sung out against Apartheid, domestic violence, economic and social injustice, poverty and hunger.159

Williams’ longtime collaborator and wife since 1982, Janice Mirikitani, introduced a theater group and dance troupe to the Celebrations. Comprised of Glide community members, the groups performed choreographed pieces with powerful socio-political messages.160 Mirikitani was also responsible for introducing the famous Celebration light shows. After the cross was removed from behind the altar, Mirikitani had the idea to fill the enormous blank wall with images of community—replacing the cross, as Williams had hoped, with a community filled with the spirit. She invited a group of young Asian American photographers called the Red Lantern to take photographs of San Francisco street scenes that would be projected on the wall.161 Williams writes: “If you were addicted or recently out of jail or chronically poor or homeless, and you thought…that nobody cared, seeing images of people like yourself living from one moment to the next could be profoundly moving.”162 This was so crucial to Williams’ ministerial goals; he worked tirelessly to make disenfranchised people of the Tenderloin find a home in Glide. “I felt their unvarnished experience carried more honesty and more weight than any of the homilies the church instructed its ministers to present.”163

The light shows morphed into a powerful display of news clippings, sermons, songs, poetry, art—often mixed with strobe lights and collages of flowing lava and psychedelic kaleidoscopes. “You couldn’t look at that wall without feeling the vitality of the streets and the exuberance of political confrontation in one giant, ever-moving art installation,” Williams writes.164

Mirikitani also worked with Williams to change the format of Celebration bulletins from a “clutter of religious sayings” that nobody read to “provocative modern poetry” and lyrics of “rebellious show tunes” such as “Hair.”165

After losing the 35 members Williams encountered on his first day, the Glide congregation was somewhat slow to grow. By 1966, Janice Mirikitani recalls that only about a third of the pews were filled.166 However, the congregation that existed then prefigured the Glide that exists today. Sex workers and runaway gay teenagers were among Williams’ earliest devotees. As a young, gay man excitedly told Mirikitani: “The uptight people are leaving, and Cecil’s told everybody in the Tenderloin they’re welcome. And nobody’s ever let us in church before.”167 In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a Sunday Celebration could include:

Hippies in thrift store finery, jazz aficionados, prostitutes, immigrants, drag queens, refugees, homeless people from the shelters, Vietnam veterans, performers from the Mitchell Brothers (the city’s biggest porno theater), revolutionaries in army-navy gear, and…traditional churchgoers in their Sunday best.168