One of the most controversial and radical religious and social leaders of his time, the Rev. Cecil Williams has been an influential figure in San Francisco public life for the past half century. Combining spirituality, left-wing politics and unstinting social activism he has been a inspirational spokesperson for the poor and margininalized in the city and across the country.
He was born on 22nd September 1929 in San Angelo, Texas, one of six children. After graduating from Huston-Tillotson University in 1952, he was one of the first five African American graduates of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University three years later.
He bacame the pastor of the GLIDE Memorial United Methodist Church at Ellis and Taylor in San Francisco in 1963. Its mission has been to “create a radically inclusive, just and loving community mobilized to alleviate suffering and break the cycles of poverty and marginalization”.
Diversity and compassion have been at the heart of Williams’s work. People of all races, ethnic backgrounds, social classes, cultures, ages, faiths and sexual orientations are welcome to join in the Celebrations held every Sunday at 9am and 11am to “experience the energy of spiritual liberation coupled with the fusion of jazz, blues and gospel performed by the renowned GLIDE Ensemble choir and the Change Band”. An example of this is contained in the following video:
It is the practical demonstration of his belief in diversity that has earned him both veneration and notoriety. In 1965 he became the first minister to perform same sex marriages long before the battles of the past decade and he was also instrumental in forming the Council on Religion and Homosexuality in 1964. The church provided healing and comfort for the LGBTQ community in 1978 in the aftermath of Harvey Milk’s assassination, and it was the first in the US to offer HIV testing after Sunday services during the AIDS epidemic of the eighties.
In 1967 Williams courted further controversy by ordering the cross removed from the church’s sanctuary, stating that it was a symbol of death and that his congregation should celebrate life and living instead.
His contribution to the struggle for civil and human rights is unquestioned and prompted him to host political rallies in which Angela Davis and the Black Panthers spoke in the seventies. He has also arranged lectures by Bill Cosby and Billy Graham. Other prominent public figures that have frequented and supported the church’s work include Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams, Maya Angelou and Warren Buffett.
Under his leadership, GLIDE Memorial became one of the most prominent liberal churches in the US, and now boasts a diverse congregation of over 11,000 members. It is the largest provider of social services in the city, serving over 3,000 meals a day, providing AIDS / HIV screenings, innovative adult education programs, creative arts and mentoring for youth, computer and job skills training, drug and alcohol recovery programs and giving assistance to women dealing with domestic violence, homelessness, substance abuse and mental health issues. GLIDE Health Services was hailed by House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a model for national healthcare in March 2008.
Williams retired as pastor in 2000 in accordance with United Methodist Church rules. However, the local congregation and affiliated non-profit foundation hired him in the newly created role of Minister of Liberation, thus enabling him to continue officially serving the community and church.
He was married to school teacher Evelyn Robinson from 1956 until their divorce in 1976. They had two children, Albert and Kim.
He has been married to Janice Mirikitani, who co-founded the GLIDE Memorial Church with him and who has worked with him on many social programs, since 1982.
The church is credited with helping Will Smith and his son get back on their feet in the 2006 film, the Pursuit of Happyness. His autobiography I’m Alive was published in 1980.
In recent years he has received numerous honors and awards, including Southern Methodist University’s Most Distinguished Alumni, the National Caring Award and an appointment as Chairman for the Northern California Dr Martin Luther King Jnr Birthday Observance Commitee at the personal request of Dr King’s widow.
The challenges for Williams and his church are no less demanding than they were when he became pastor neary fifty years ago, and are best expressed, along with a restatement of his original vision, by the GLIDE website:
“a suffering economy, poverty, drug abuse, violence, and despair continue to persist in San Francisco as they do across the country. By working to combat these problems, GLIDE serves as an oasis in a desert of hopelessness, marching to the edge where victories for social justice are won. GLIDE is a place where old, destructive ways of being are thrown out and new ones created. Where names are named and love is celebrated and a simple call goes out to all races, classes, genders, ages, and sexual orientations: It’s recovery time. It’s time to love unconditionally”.
I trust we can all say “Amen” to that.