Glide’s “Co-Founders”: Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani

Janice Mirikitani joined the Glide staff in 1964 when she responded to an advertisement for a temporary typing job.169 She was an atheist and wary of organized religion. Cecil Williams describes Mirikitani at the time as “tough,” in part because she is the survivor of a traumatic childhood: She and her family lost everything during World War II while incarcerated at the Japanese-American concentration camp in Rohwer, Arkansas; and for 11 years, she was the victim of sexual and physical abuse wrought by her stepfather and other men.170

Mirikitani at first found Glide to be an “odd new church” with an equally odd assortment of young people roaming the halls: “I was amazed to see gay runaways wandering around, many of them fledgling drag queens. These guys would spend the night on the streets in polished nails and makeup, sometimes in full drag, and walk into Glide scrubbed up and baby-faced.”171 Sex workers, both queer and heterosexual, volunteered at Glide during the day, typing, answering phones, and running errands.172 Mirikitani developed a strong connection to them:

[H]ere we were, all these people on the fringes of society working together, making a community from our shared brokenness. Even when you feel like a nobody living in the margins of society, as I did, seeing other people making a place for you can change your whole perspective…. You didn’t have to believe in God or Jesus or church to feel a community forming around you and supporting you.173

Mirikitani was hired to work under Glide’s groundbreaking Citizens Alert program (described in detail later). She transcribed taped interviews of victims of police brutality, most of them from San Francisco’s most vulnerable communities. Mirikitani’s role soon expanded to an assistant and ultimately collaborator of Cecil Williams.174 Among her many other talents, she was a writer and poet and became Glide’s go-to for authoring church bulletins and press releases. “At Glide there was no chain of command, so whenever I realized that something was needed…I went ahead and did it.”175

In the mid- to late-1960s, members of the Glide congregation suggested that the church offer free meals to the homeless and poor residents of the Tenderloin. Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani answered the call and organized a food program at Glide Memorial Church.

Williams was turned down when he asked the Glide Foundation Board of Trustees for financial support and staff to run the program.176 Some of the ministers were already concerned with “unkempt street people” attending Sunday Celebrations; they opposed the idea of hungry strangers snaking through the former hotel/apartment building to access the dining room. The Board suggested setting up a soup kitchen instead—something Williams felt carried a “stigma of charity and assembly lines.”177

Williams and Mirikitani decided to forge ahead without support. “Fundamentally,” writes Williams, “it was a matter of unconditional acceptance. If some of our people were starving, and other people wanted to share the food, we were going to share the food.”178

Mirikitani oversaw the remodeling of the dining room and kitchen, which had fallen into disrepair after a long period of disuse. The first free food service provided at Glide was a Monday night potluck dinner for 50, with meals prepared at home by Glide volunteers.179 A note in a Sunday Celebration bulletin in 1968 invites volunteers to support the “Glide Free Meal and Communal Celebration,” sponsored by the Task Force for Free Meals, by cooking, baking, washing dishes, picking up groceries, donating money or food, and/or entertaining.180 Williams writes of those early meals: “Glide made people feel welcome, as though they had been invited to someone’s home. Because Glide was their home. That was the ambiance we wanted for Monday night dinners.”181 Mirikitani adds: “Cycles of chronic poverty are extremely difficult to break, and homelessness is such a hard fact of survival that we feel if people can go to a warm and friendly place like Glide and get a good meal, life may be a bit more manageable.”182

When more volunteers were lined up, the dinners increased to three times a week. Still receiving no support from the Board of Trustees, Williams and Mirikitani raised money from grants, foundations, and fundraisers hosted by celebrities such as Bill Cosby, Marvin Gaye, and Sammy Davis Jr.183 In 1981, when Dianne Feinstein was mayor, she asked her human services director to help expand Glide’s food program to three meals a day, seven days a week.184 The dining room is nicknamed Mo’s Kitchen after Mo Bernstein, a businessman who transformed the “mom-andpop operation into a fine-tuned restaurant model with a hiring plan for food servers and preparers from Glide’s own population.”185

Williams and Mirikitani refer to Glide’s food program as “From Fifty to a Million” to describe the progression from those Monday night potlucks for 50 to serving over a million meals a year in 2018.186

Cecil Williams writes that he and Mirikitani bonded soon after meeting: “Both of us believed in radical, not gradual, change. And both had a drive, a zeal, a passion—mine to build a church of love that would start a revolution; Janice to give voice to populations who had been silenced.”187 Williams describes himself as “the minister, the speaker, the firebrand, the galvanizer, the power broker” and Mirikitani as “the architect, the facilitator, the organizer, the orchestrator.”188 Together, Williams and Mirikitani have left an indelible impression on both Glide and San Francisco’s underrepresented minority communities. They are known as the beloved “Founders” of the current Glide.