SPIRIT WILLING: Glide Memorial Church 

You won't find the Tenderloin on any map of San Francisco. But cruising in from the Marina or the Castro or the Mission district, you can always tell when you've hit the Tenderloin. Places that serve wine by the glass give way to places that sell wine by the pint, and the homeless look, sorry to say, at home. It's not exactly a neighborhood, because it's more defined by the dense concentration of peepshows, check-cashing establishments, and fernless bars than by living quarters. But to call it the Skid Row of San Francisco isn't right, either. On this slice of urban grit that stretches from the foot of Nob Hill almost to Union Square, the traffic of hustlers and dealers and down-and-outers mixes -- almost invisibly, if not peacefully -- with the multitude of elderly folks, people with AIDS, and immigrant families from Southeast Asia who occupy the efficiency apartments and SRO hotels tucked away above and behind the honky-tonk veneer of these vital, shabby streets. 

It's a bright Sunday morning as I steer toward Glide Memorial Church, a drab green edifice at the corner of Taylor and Ellis that stands as both a sanctuary from and a mirror of the Tenderloin that surrounds it on all sides. By the time I throw the car in the parking lot and follow the crowd into the building and up a flight of stairs, the place is packed. I'm stuck standing in the back, waiting for the ushers to bring out some more folding chairs. A three-piece band with electric guitar and keyboards lays down a rocking backbeat, and the stage starts filling up with colorful choir robes containing people of all ages, colors, sizes, and shapes. 

Most people in the audience leap to their feet and start clapping and swaying to the beat. The mix is one I don't often see. Dark ladies dressed in prim Sunday suits with hats, street guys from the neighborhood with faces that look like slept-in clothes, babes in camisoles -- and those are just the ushers. The front steps bubble with little kids. Huge gay presence, men and women (again, all colors). Spotlights hit long banners streaming from the ceiling that say "Justice" and "Dignity" and "Liberation" and "Love" and "Peace" and "Power." 

There's a commotion off to my right. A leonine bespectacled figure with a salt-and-pepper beard wearing a white robe with a metallic black shirtfront bustles up the aisle from the back of the church to the stage just in time to punctuate the ending of the song with a "Yeah! Aw yeah!" It's Cecil Williams, Glide's famous minister.

"Let's everybody stand," Cecil Williams is saying. "Now catch hands, hold onto someone. Hold on, catch hands." My right hand links fingers with a queer Irish-Canadian performance artist with a blue ring through his nose -- that's my friend Keith, who brought me here to Glide -- while my left hand presses palms with a giant short-haired sister wearing a T-shirt and rolled-up jeans. 

"Listen, now," Cecil croons. "Listen. Listen." 

The house settles into an active silence. 

"Let us pray." Heads bow. 

"Our father and our mother God, it's Sunday morning again." 

Did he say "Our father and our mother God"? 

"And we...we the people have come together again to try to find our way. Because some of us are in pain this morning. Some of us have gone through some awful experiences this morning. Some of us have lost friends and loved ones and we're grieving this morning. Some of us are trying to make sure that some way, somehow life means more to us than what it's been. 

"So we come together," he continues, "as a community, as a church, as a people, that we might stand up and...not only be counted but stand up and count." 

Hear that? Not just be counted but do the counting. 

"Stand up and count the blessings that we have, that we might count the miraculous lives that we've had, that we will count the going down and the coming up of our experiences. We're here, now, Lord. Let our hearts and our minds and our souls receive your spirit. Amen." 

A chorus of "Amen" ripples through the audience, as Cecil continues, "Hallelujah. Right on. Shalom. Salaam. Yeah!"

At Cecil's urging, everybody in the congregation turns to embrace anybody within hugging distance. I get rocked in the bosom of a church-lady grandma, I smell the shampoo in a blond college girl's hair, I feel the bony chest of a smartly dressed brother. Cecil leads the choir into an anthem with a groove as infectious as any Temptations classic. Everybody around me seems to know the words and sings along. For newcomers, the lyrics are projected on the wall over the choir. I can barely make out the words, though, because for some reason I seem to be crying.

Throughout the whole service -- the singing, the preaching, the joking, the announcements -- I can't seem to stop my tears from falling. Oh, wait a sec. Cecil's introducing Bobby McFerrin. McFerrin's in the house with his wife and kid. Like everybody else, I clap and crane my neck to see and hope he'll get up and sing something. (He doesn't today, but Keith has heard him sing at Glide, and Odetta, and Maya Angelou.) Otherwise, drip drip drip. What is all this emotion about? 

Throughout the "Celebration" (as Glide calls its Sunday services), an Asian-American woman floats back and forth across the stage, silently pressing notes into Cecil's hand or whispering messages in his ear. Her body moves forward, but her face always looks outward, scanning the crowd like a protective tigress -- only this tigress has a big ol' head of curly black hair swept to one side, a chic skirt slit to mid-thigh, and spike heels she sports as smoothly as Rollerblades. Her name is Janice Mirikitani, I learn, and she's Cecil's wife.

Watching them greet churchgoers afterwards -- Cecil with big bear hugs, Jan with animated conversation -- I'm more intrigued than ever. If the preacher had a black wife, people would think, rightly or wrongly, "Oh, okay, I know that story." If his wife were white, they'd go, "Yeah, I know that one, too." But for the African-American minister of a church to have a Japanese-American wife -- who's not just his wife but a published poet and the head of the church's social-service programs -- well, this just adds to the feeling that Glide represents a new configuration altogether.

Like many people, I'm basically allergic to churchgoing. In my Catholic childhood, going to church meant getting up too early and wearing awkward formal clothes I never wore anywhere else. It meant driving with my mother and sisters to the stunningly bland chapel on whatever Air Force base my father (who stayed home sleeping) happened to be stationed at. There I would be forced to kneel-sit-stand-kneel-sit-stand for an hour and a half, listening to a veiny pink priest mouth platitudes while a pathetic organist and droning voices performed hymns that bore no resemblance to the music I passionately cared about. Church was bo-o-oring. As an adult, I had more "sophisticated" reasons for being down on religion. The charismatic preachers always seemed to be thieves, hypocrites, megalomaniacs, or hate-mongers crusading against the rights of women and homosexuals. 

Spirituality is a different story. I wanted it as a child, and getting older only increased my hunger to find meaning in existence, to participate in something larger than myself, to touch spirit. I sometimes glimpsed it during sex, while dancing, being alone in nature, or doing civil disobedience. But I'd given up looking for it in church, until it snuck up on me at Glide.

Traditionally, black churches have served a different social function from white churches. The first free African-American institution in the United States was a Baptist church in Alabama, "legal in some respects before the Negro family," writes Taylor Branch in Parting the Waters. And as Noam Chomsky points out, dissident political activity in this country has largely been sponsored by churches (as opposed to, say, labor unions). That doesn't change the statistic Maya Angelou cites in Rainbow in the Clouds, the 1992 PBS documentary about Glide Memorial Church. Quoting gay Episcopal priest Malcolm Boyd, she points out that "Sunday morning at eleven o'clock finds the United States more segregated than any other time."

Glide dances to a different beat. "I've been to some churches that have a lot of progressive energy, but what's different about Glide is it's such a cross-section," says one longtime observer, a Jewish writer active in the Bay Area feminist poetry scene. "It's an unusual combination of celebs and street people, all of San Francisco's races, all this political energy -- and not much Jesus. The religion is the religion of power to the people."

In his autobiography I'm Alive, published in 1980, Cecil Williams describes himself variously as a "minister in revolt" and as a "dangerous nigger on the loose." From the beginning of his career as one of the first black students admitted to Southern Methodist University all the way to becoming what San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen calls "the man who helps keep the city from erupting," Williams has thrived on knocking down walls and welcoming the uninvited into the party of life. 

Founded by cattle-and-oil millionaire Lizzie Glide in the early 1930s, Glide Memorial Methodist Church had a lily-white and upper-middle- class membership whose numbers had dwindled to less than 100 when Williams arrived in 1963. He was one of four ministers hired to start the Glide Urban Center to deal with inner-city problems. They immediately started a citizens' group to deal with police brutality against minorities and a theological study group called The Council on Religion and the Homosexual -- and, mind you, this was years before a pack of colored drag queens launched the gay liberation movement by battling armed police outside New York's Stonewall Inn.

Named minister of Glide in 1966, Williams changed his title from "Minister of Involvement" to "Minister of Liberation." He shocked traditional churchgoers by taking down the cross in the sanctuary because he felt people were coming on Sundays "to worship death, duty, security, and exclusivity." Some old members left; new ones streamed in. The Black Panthers set up a breakfast program and passed out literature. The prostitutes' union, COYOTE, put in a phone and held meetings at Glide. When hippies took over the church one weekend for a happening and someone painted on the men's room wall "Fuck the Church," Williams took it not as offensive obscenity but as inspirational verse. Exercise your spiritual libido! tickle the tushie of your God-love! impregnate the house of worship with your passionate, orgasmic love for life! Stick it in and wiggle! Just say ooooaaaohhhh!!

At Glide, Cecil Williams discovered one of the secrets of the universe: diversity is sexy.

Of course, in America, where's there's sex, there's fear. And where there's fear, there's power. Williams didn't seem to be afraid of any of those things. As Jan Mirikitani told me, "Cecil believes in power. He's not a minister in denial." When publishing heiress Patty Hearst was kidnaped by left-wing guerrillas calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army, Williams was drafted into playing mediator -- or "midwife," as he puts it -- between the FBI and the SLA. Williams fielded middle-of-the-night distress calls from an increasingly paranoid Jim Jones for months before the cult leader left for his fatal mission in Guyana. Politicians routinely court Williams' favor. Last year Glide registered 2000 new voters, which is enough to swing any local election. During the last presidential campaign, Jerry Brown preached at Glide twice, and the Clintons made a much-publicized visit on Mother's Day. 

What's your agenda, I ask the Rev, in having politicians come to church? "I want to make sure that they get the message that there are people in the world they cannot avoid any longer -- the ones who've been hurt, maimed, told we're no good," he says. It's been a long day, and Williams is tired and soft-spoken. Stacks of memos clutter one end of the long work table in front of his desk. Framed photos of Martin and Malcolm look down from the walls. "When Clinton came here, he needed us. He needed a lot of people like us." 

I tell him my feeling that Clinton has backed away from his we-don't- have-a-person-to-waste theme now that he's in office. "I think so, too," Williams admits. "That's part of the problem with politicians. For some reason they always seem to have to back off." Why? "I don't know, man. You got ministers who do the same thing."

After the inauguration, Williams says, he and a dozen other community activists met with Hillary Clinton at the White House. "She said, 'You may find disagreement with us...' We said, 'Yes, we do.' She said, 'But you gotta understand. We didn't know. We didn't fully understand this office. Nor did we fully understand Washington, D.C.' She said, 'It's a horrrrrible place.'" 

We both crack up at the thought of Hillary making this confession. 
(Later, as I'm interviewing Jan Mirikitani in her office, Cecil pokes his head in to correct himself: "It wasn't Hillary who said Washington is horrible. It was somebody else in the meeting." Noted. But obviously it's a much better story if Hillary says it.)

"They're trying to change things," he sighs. "Most times they won't, though. Man, I'm-own tell ya somethin'," he says, lapsing into down-home Texan. "I think Washington is an evil place. I really do. I've talked to Feinstein and Pelosi, Boxer, all of them. I remember Ron Dellums. Left from here a black activist. He was gon' change Washington. After he'd been there three years, I flew back from Washington with him one day, and he sat there on that plane and cried. 'Man, I never seen any place like this,' he said. 'The way these blocs of power are used...they don't work for the people.'"

Making it work for the people. That's the kind of idealism that sounds good on the campaign trail, but it only works, if it ever does, on the smallest scale. That may be why Cecil Williams has wisely avoided running for office or expanding his base of operations beyond Glide, where the needs of the people are measured in soup-kitchen lines and met on a crisis-by-crisis basis.

The line starts forming an hour before mealtime and stretches in either direction down Ellis Street. Door monitors in orange-and-yellow safety-guard vests keep the lobby clear for the steady stream of visitors to Glide -- mothers with strollers picking up free diapers and formula, people on their way to computer training classes on the sixth floor, the activist lawyer who has an appointment to see the Rev. The monitors take their jobs very seriously. One of them, a small dude with thick, black-framed eyeglasses named J.B., paces up and down the meal line insisting, "I'm a professional! I'm a professional!" One dubious female onlooker says to another, "Professional what? Asshole? Yeah, professional asshole."

A tiny, very loud woman in a dark wig and nice dress barrels down the sidewalk yelling "Condoms!" That's Sanday Southworth, a former crackhead who's become Glide's most fearless safe-sex educator, pushing extra baggies of love-gloves into the purses of he-she hookers and hauling homeless guys in for HIV tests.

A tall, thin brother with a salt-and-pepper beard and eyes like angry beacons looks out from under his hooded sweatshirt and announces to no one in particular, "I don't actually see very much freedom."

Leaning on a parked car, the friend of a line monitor nudges him and says, "Check out number two," indicating a tall, handsome guy with shoulder-length hair who looks like Nick Ashford gone gray. "Isn't he a little fly for your line?" The monitor shrugs, and on a signal from the lobby he starts handing out tickets to everyone in line. The line is mostly guys, mostly black and Mexican, but not nearly all. Half look like they've been on the street a long time -- prematurely aged, mental cases, career drunks, down-and-out. The rest? You'd be surprised. An old Chinese couple. A young white guy with a mustache and baseball cap. A red-bearded vet. A couple of Eurokids, he with a guitar case, she in high-top sneakers. An ancient black woman in a white bridal dress and hat with white powder smeared on her face, like the women at an Olinka village funeral Alice Walker describes in The Temple of My Familiar. Guys who look like they could be me after three months without a paycheck.

They file into the building, drop their tickets into a locked wooden box, and go downstairs to the dining hall where Glide serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The daily total of 3,300 hot meals swells to 8,000 on holidays. Besides feeding hungry people, Glide gives 11,000 volunteers (80 per cent of them white suburbanites) a place to offer their time and resources. Probably more people enter Glide through the Ellis Street entrance than through the Taylor Street entrance on Sunday. It doesn't bother Cecil Williams if the people who come during the week for free meals or other social services don't show up on Sunday. "Everything we do here is spiritual," he says.

Out of 32 ongoing programs, the one that has gained the most attention -- aside from the food program -- is Glide's recovery program and daily support circles for crack addicts and other substance abusers. Glide's Facts on Crack grew out of Williams' determination to educate himself about the epidemic that had turned the neighborhood into a zombie zone. One of the things he discovered was that the 12-step model of treating addiction didn't work for African-Americans. 

"The 12 Step programs honor anonymity as a means to protect people. To a black person who has felt invisible and unheard all of his or her life, anonymity is one more way to remain faceless and hidden in society," he explains in No Hiding Place, the handbook on "Empowerment and Recovery for Our Troubled Communities" he published in 1992. "Then there is the adage that says 'we must admit we are powerless.' Well, people of color, women, and homeless folks have always known they were powerless. When some white person stands up and reads the first step in a 12 Step meeting, a black person hears the call to powerlessness as one more command to lie down and take it."

Another major obstacle is the 12 Step systems' focus on individual recovery and returning to mainstream society, which overlooks the communal traditions of African Americans. Glide offers a 17-week treatment program whose elements include a crash course in African American history, building self-esteem, active listening, and job skills, with daily doses of denial-busting. Williams tells every "generation" that enters treatment, "Your recovery is essential to the black community and to your extended kinfolk. And your recovery is important if we are going to have African Americans alive in 20 years." Glide takes addicts through four stages of recovery -- recognition, self-definition, rebirth, and community -- with an emphasis on telling the truth in public, trusting that "there is nothing in any of our lives that others haven't faced in some way themselves."

Williams took the gospel of recovery seriously, not just for the crack monsters in the basement but also for himself. He inevitably suffered from the ego-inflation of being in the spotlight all the time. Throwing open the doors of the church to the flower children and the Black Panthers, the farm workers and the American Indian Movement, Dick Gregory and Jane Fonda and Angela Davis brought a lot of attention to Glide. Famous people started coming out of curiosity. Bill Cosby, Leonard Bernstein, Marvin Gaye, Sammy Davis Jr., Roberta Flack, Quincy Jones, Dr. Spock, Willie Mays, Shirley MacLaine. Then more people started coming out of curiosity about the celebrities. "There was a time in the '70s when it got to be a trendy thing. People said to each other, 'Maybe I'll go to Glide this weekend. I wonder who's going to be there,'" recalls one observer. "It was kind of disgusting."

"In the early '80s Cecil went through a whole spiritual transformation," Jan Mirikitani acknowledges. "At some point, he kind of lost it. Glide became the in place to be. It got to his ego. He became Cecil Williams the magnet as opposed to Cecil Williams the minister. When he had to face that he'd become lost, then he began to deal with himself. That transformation was almost measurable. His sermons changed. He stopped yelling. He stopped trying to be spectacular, and he became substantive. He began to speak from his truth, from his heart. He really had to struggle with himself. It wasn't easy. It wasn't quick. It wasn't glossy and glitzy and all that." 

For Williams, what triggered the change was the intense alienation and loneliness he felt trying to know all the answers. "For years I took over other people's problems and, in so doing, short-circuited their power and tried to play God," he says. "I exhausted myself and lost myself trying to protect people from claiming the responsibility for their own lives." He started taking time off to ask himself some big questions: Who is Glide for? Who am I? How can I take care of myself while still being an agent for change in my community? 

Reading the works of Ernesto Cardinal and other liberation theologists from Central America, he found some kindred spirits. "They wrote of the importance of taking a 'preferential option for the poor,' meaning that when God chooses sides in the struggle between the powerful and the powerless, the accepted and the rejected, God can always be found with the poor." It strengthened his determination to let the rich and the privileged fend for themselves and to follow his own impulse to stand with the poor, the depressed, the mentally disturbed, the people on the edge.

What is it about Cecil Williams that makes him respond instinctively to people on the edge, to champion queers and prostitutes and crack addicts in recovery? In both his books, Williams talks about growing up in San Angelo, Texas, at a time when buses and bathrooms were still segregated and when white cops harassed black mothers in front of the supermarket for sport. And he recalls the nervous breakdown he suffered at the age of 10, when he spent several months in a delirium, fighting for his soul against racist demons demanding submission to the white man's system. 

Both published accounts present this nervous breakdown as a sort of shamanic initiation that explains Williams' natural identification with the underdog. But in our interview, Cecil mentions a more mundane source of his distress. "I had a breakdown because of feeling rejected," he says. "Here I'm eight years old and my mother calls me into the room. She holds up this little mo-riney baby and says, 'This is my baby.' I said, 'But I'm your baby! I been your baby for eight years!' She said, 'No, this is the baby now.' Whoo! That destroyed me, man." Whether it was external racism that brought on his breakdown or the internal trauma of being replaced in his mother's affections doesn't really matter. Whatever the wound was, it allowed him to understand other people's pain, to recognize in them the wailing abandoned child in himself, and to make Glide a home for every flavor of outcast.

Not that he turns celebrities away at the door. Uh unnhh, honey! He loves introducing Oprah Winfrey and Anita Hill or having Linda Ronstadt and Bono from U2 in the house. But it's worth remembering that the rich and the famous don't just show up at Glide to get VIP treatment and their names in boldface. They come like everyone else, to be ministered to. On the occasion of Cecil's 30th anniversary at Glide, Bono faxed a letter from London saying, "I know I only get there a few times a year, but Glide still feels like home to me. It's the one venue I don't mind queueing to get into." Acknowledging that the song "Love Rescue Me," from U2's Rattle and Hum movie soundtrack, was inspired by the Glide Ensemble, Bono wrote, "The land of street angels that we call your choir are proof God is the funky one." 

Poet laureate Maya Angelou asked Cecil to officiate at her wedding "to one of my husbands," she says with a girlish chuckle, probably aware of how Zsa Zsa Gabor that sounds. And when that marriage was over, it was Cecil who counseled her in her sorrow and renewed her faith in herself, as he did when her son, Guy Johnson, was paralyzed and the doctors were saying he would never walk again and might die. "Many of us walk around like we have oil wells in our backyards because of him," says Dr. Angelou.

Bobby McFerrin, who has attended services at Glide on and off for nearly 20 years, says, "Glide has something that's missing in a lot of churches: the sense of joy. There's this feeling of vibrancy and life and envelopment. It all boils down to the work Cecil has done on himself and with the community, how he opens up and shares, how he listens to the stories other people tell about themselves. We all carry our baggage. When you go to Glide, you bring your baggage. They have room for it. Yeah, they've got a big cloakroom."

Cecil himself appears on one of McFerrin's albums, doing a bit of preaching based on the 51st Psalm on a cut called "Create in Me." Along with everything else, he is, after all, a showman. He measures applause during his sermons like a human seismograph. He knows how to make news by taking the spotlight. And he's learned how to make community by yielding it. When it dawned on him how much time and money it would take to treat crack addicts properly, he brought the First Generation up one Sunday morning, turned to the congregation and said, "I need some folks willing to help these folks help themselves. Come on up, y'all." When he wanted to address the subject of incest, he said, "I want anyone who knows anything about it to come up and talk about it right now."

Jan Mirikitani was one of the those who told her story, at Cecil's urging. Raised in a Japanese-American internment camp in Arkansas during World War Two, she was sexually abused between the ages of 5 and 16 and forced to suffer in silence lest she bring shame not only on her family but on her entire race. "When I got up in front of the congregation, I was terrified," she says. "Afterwards, a hundred women and several men came up to me and said, 'I've been through this. Thank you for telling it.' That's what people in recovery do. They get up and say, 'I sold my child for crack.' They tell the most horrible stories, and you think, 'How can they admit that?' But when they do it in the celebration, for some insane honest reason, it is transformational. 

"I keep an extra set of makeup here," she confides, "because my tears roll every Sunday, and I never know when it's going to happen."

It's Sunday morning again, many visits after my first time at Glide. As usual, the place is packed to the rafters. Cecil likes to weigh in as head usher, getting as many people seated as possible. "Man, I've never seen white people fight over a seat in a church where an African American is minister," he teases. I've been here enough now to start recognizing people. That's Fran, who's been ushering here forever. That's Rosa, who used to do Stevie Wonder's hair and now works in the Women in Recovery office. Oh, there's that gay couple I saw at an art opening the other night -- only at the gallery, they were both in leather, and the blond one was on a leash. When heads bow for the opening prayer, Cecil says, "Some of us are strangers, and in our strangeness -- and there's plenty of that at Glide -- let us live in harmony."

You never know what's going to come out of his mouth. "I love to preach," he's saying. "I been preachin' since I came out of my mother's womb. I did a little preachin' while I was in my mother's womb." In the middle of preaching the 24th Psalm ("Who is fit to hold power and worthy to act in God's place?), he'll suddenly say, "Someone said to me, 'I hear you have a Rolls Royce and a Cadillac.' You can come outside to the parking lot and see my car. It's a Nissan. We have two. Jan drives a '90. I drive the '84." Or he'll refer to the struggles that go on between a 63-year-old Southern man and a 50-year-old feminist in touch with her feelings: "When Jan and I got married, we knew we wouldn't live happily ever after." This morning he's concerned because tickets to a Glide benefit concert aren't selling as fast as he wants them to. "I need your help," he says. "I want some of you to come to my office after the celebration and talk to me about how to reach more people."

In most churches, you feel like the only thing the church wants from you is your goodness. And if you don't feel like you have very much goodness inside, then you don't have anything to offer the church. At Glide, the invitation is to tell your story with all your human flaws. Everybody's got some of those, so everybody's got a lot to contribute.

"Being seen as perfect, good or respectable is not my concern," says Cecil Williams. "My concern is to create an open and honest community where it is safe to tell the truth. That is what people of all races and classes want today. Whether they're executives or homeless people, all people want to know, Who will care about me? Where can I go to tell my story and be myself?"

Commissioned for Vibe magazine in 1996, never published