“I’ve never been on Backroads, but I’ve been on urban streets,” says Reverend Cecil Williams. “And I’ve been on urban corners. But never on Backroads.”
You might not think of San Francisco’s Tenderloin District as a Backroads destination, but there is one spot here that attracts visitors from all over the world. It’s a place where some inspiring individuals are really shaking things up. It’s called Glide Memorial Church. Sunday services here are called celebrations, and everyone is invited to join the party.
“I don't care what you got, what you believe, where you're goin' when you get there. The important thing is to keep on lovin' -- use the power of love,” exhorts Glide’s Reverend Cecil Williams. He’s a real live urban legend. His social and political activism over four decades has helped shape San Francisco, and has brought major, positive changes to the Tenderloin, and to his church.
“Justice, compassion and peace. You can’t do it unless you got all three there,” he says.
Glide Memorial has been around since 1931. It was the gift of a Methodist philanthropist named Lizzie Glide. But when Cecil Williams arrived here in 1963, he found a nearly dead church.
He recalls, “It was 35 people here. And no life at all. So I said, ‘I wanna bring life to the church.’”
Cecil revived the church with the help of Janice Mirikitani, who started working at Glide in 1965. They were married in 1982.
Janice says, “I never thought I'd walk in a church, because the church was just not the place that felt like a good place for me to be. I felt rejected by my traditional church. And when I met Cecil, I said, ‘This is a different place.’”
The church changed radically over the years, reflecting the people and the times.
“It was the antiwar movement, there was the civil rights movement. It was a time of movement. And I think that that's what Glide is about. It's about movements. Today we hope that Glide is about movement,” says Janice.
In the late ‘60’s, Cecil even had the cross removed from the sanctuary. He says he wanted people to recover from pain and suffering, not dwell in it.
“Some of the folks walked out on me. Some of the folks said, ‘You've gone too far.’ Some of the folks said, ‘My God, you must be out of your mind!’” he says with a smile.
Under Cecil’s and Janice’s leadership, Glide has been way out in front on controversial matters, including the struggles for gay rights and women’s rights.
Cecil agrees, “You know, we've always been out there, sort of searching for how we can free people. There it is: The church must free people.”
Today, Glide is something of an emporium of human needs, with nearly ninety programs that span three buildings and all age groups and situations.
Some of Glide’s programs focus on helping addicts kick their habits.
Every December, Glide gives out 10,000 bags of groceries, each containing the fixings for a complete holiday meal.
It’s almost impossible to follow Cecil and Janice around without folks stopping them, some needing to be comforted, others wanting to express their gratitude.
Janice tells Cecil, “You've worked very hard to create community here. You've worked very hard to say to people, ‘This is a place where you belong. You have a place here that is yours.’ And that, I think, is what community's about.”
Glide’s Ensemble is a microcosm of that community.
Cecil says, “It is a group of people who are committed to singing from their souls. And now we've got good musicians working with them. And I mean good musicians. That band is hot.
The Ensemble performs at Sunday celebrations and other events. It’s one of many ways Glide is lifting people’s lives.
A block away from the church, the Janice Mirikitani Family, Youth and Child Care Center provides a safe place for the children of the Tenderloin.
Janice says, “It makes me cry every time I come up here because you think about kids in urban America, particularly in an area that is blighted like the Tenderloin, and for them to have a rooftop playground is really phenomenal.”
The kids here come from all different ethnic backgrounds, and they share their cultures with each other.
Janice says, “When you learn it as a young person, we feel that that's the beginning of tolerance. That's when you really do create a world where people understand that we're all the same underneath the color of our skin. And we all beat with the same kind of heart.”
The center has programs for all ages, including the Glide Teen Choir.
Meanwhile, in yet another building, on the other side of the church, the Cecil Williams Glide Community House provides housing to people who might otherwise be homeless.
Cecil points to a success story, “When we walked in the door of this building, the woman that was standing there with application in her hand and her son standing close by said, ‘I want you to see this. I'm now going to college!’ She's going to college! My God, I never expected her to go to college.”
The building houses nearly 200 people, with another 2,000 on the waiting list.
From the rooftop patio, Cecil says, “Poor folks have an opportunity to look at the skyline, and can see a lot of the city.”
Lining the patio are several glass panels that represent Glide’s many facets: “Love”, “Compassion”, “Stand” [for justice] and “Walk That Walk”, which is Cecil’s signature slogan.
Janice’s and Cecil’s work has attracted national and even international attention. Other church leaders travel here to learn Glide’s successful methods. But the biggest impact is right here in the Tenderloin, where a neglected neighborhood is slowly being transformed into a vibrant, harmonious community.
Glide Memorial Church is located in downtown San Francisco, at the corner of Ellis and Taylor. Everyone is welcome at Glide, whether it’s for spiritual fulfillment, to help out as a volunteer or simply to enjoy some terrific music.
For more information:
Glide Memorial Church
330 Ellis Street
San Francisco, CA 94102