Cecil Williams, Whose San Francisco Church Became a Haven, Dies at 94

The Rev. Cecil Williams, a charismatic minister who turned a fading church in the gritty Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco into a vibrant hub of worship, activism and social services, died on Monday at his home in the city. He was 94.

His death was announced by the Glide Foundation, an offshoot of the Glide Memorial Church, which he transformed over 60 years as its pastor and spiritual leader.

Mr. Williams preached the need to be “radically inclusive,” which he said meant creating a community to alleviate suffering and break the cycle of poverty.

“The reason this place is what it is, is that there are those of us who love unconditionally,” he said in a recorded sermon. “We don’t put no barriers up. Everybody is alike even though we’re different.”

He added, “We’re going to break all of the barriers and let you know that we love you and accept you.”

That open door extended to people with drug addictions, the homeless, and the L.G.B.T.Q. community. He performed same-sex weddings decades before they were legalized in the United States.

“Cecil helped build the lesbian, gay and transgender movement,” said Randy Shaw, the executive director of the nonprofit Tenderloin Housing Clinic and author of “The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime, and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco” (2015). “At the same time that police were arresting gays and lesbians in bars, they had a home at Glide.”

Mr. Williams was a whirlwind inside and outside the church. He was a founder of the ministerial Council on Religion and the Homosexual in 1964 and welcomed to the church groups like Huckleberry’s for Runaways and the National Sex Forum. He hosted events for the Black Panthers and lobbied to free Angela Davis, the leftist activist and professor, from prison in 1970.

He made Glide a home to the antiwar movement and was chairman of Citizens Alert, a 24-hour hotline for people who had been harassed or beaten by the police, especially those in marginalized communities.

In 1974, Mr. Williams acted as an intermediary between the family of Patty Hearst and the radical group the Symbionese Liberation Army, which had kidnapped her.

Fifteen years later, he convened a conference to find solutions to the crack cocaine epidemic that was devastating the Black community.

“We’ve been through slavery, but this is a new kind of slavery,” he told The Oakland Tribune in 1989. “I’ve seen on the streets how our brothers and sisters are suffering. We’re here today to pick up the pieces.”

With his wife, Janice Mirikitani (she was the poet-laureate of San Francisco from 2000 to 2002), Mr. Williams built Glide into a citadel of social services that include free meals, child care and H.I.V. and hepatitis C testing; an intervention program for battering cases and another to help women recover from various kinds of trauma; a legal clinic; and a walk-in center for those in need of housing, hygienic help and emotional support.

The Glide Foundation has also built 52 units of low-income federal housing near the church in partnership with another foundation.

“The true church,” Mr. Williams told USA Today in 1995, “stays on the edge of life, where the real moans and groans are.”

Albert Cecil Williams was born on Sept. 22, 1929, in San Angelo, a segregated city in central Texas. His father, Cuney Earl Williams, was a janitor at a white church, while his mother, Sylvia Lizzie Best, was a teacher who later owned an employment agency. His maternal grandfather had been enslaved.

His mother told Cecil early on that he was going to be a minister. By some accounts, she nicknamed him “Rev” when he was as young as 2 years old.

“Someone’s going to be the reverend in this family, and you’re it,” he recalled her saying, recounting the remark in a joint memoir with Ms. Mirikitani, “Beyond the Possible: 50 Years of Creating Radical Change in a Community Called Glide” (2013).

At 12, he had a terrifying nervous breakdown that was caused, he wrote, by “the contrast between my family telling me I was the ‘Rev’” and actions by white people that “confirmed I was powerless.” When he recovered, he focused on becoming a minister and leading a church that would embrace people of every color.

Mr. Williams received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Huston-Tillotson College (now University) in Austin, Texas, in 1952. That year, with four other Black students, he integrated the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He graduated in 1955.

Over the next eight years, he served as a pastor at churches in Hobbs, N.M., and Kansas City, Mo.; was an instructor at Huston-Tillotson; and studied at the University of Texas, Austin, as well as at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif.

In 1963, when he was appointed to Glide — then a part of the United Methodist Church — Mr. Williams knew that people referred to the Tenderloin as “the last circle of hell,” with its many homeless, poor and troubled people and its flophouses and brothels.

Yet, as he walked through that downtown neighborhood for the first time, he wrote, he had a different vision: “I saw the most blessed place on earth.”

Mr. Williams made changes at the church, which had been a conservatively run institution founded as the Glide Memorial Evangelistic Center in 1929 by Lizzie Glide, the wife of a wealthy cattleman. (The name was changed to the Glide Memorial Methodist Church in 1939.) He removed all of the crosses from the sanctuary as a message to emphasize life, not death. “We must all be the cross,” he said.

A compelling speaker, Mr. Williams added a rollicking choir and a house band. He boosted membership from double figures into the thousands. Along the way, he became one of the most prominent religious figures in San Francisco, through his social programs and fund-raising. He had “a personal relationship with super-wealthy people,” Mr. Shaw said.

Mr. Williams worked with Dianne Feinstein during her tenure as the city’s mayor, from 1978 to 1988, and was a friend to fellow San Franciscan Nancy Pelosi, the future House speaker, who called him a “spiritual giant.”

Glide raised more than $50 million through annual auctions of lunches with the billionaire investor Warren Buffett, including $19 million in 2022, his last. (Mr. Buffett’s wife, Susie, had tipped off her husband to the church’s myriad good works.)

Mr. Williams is survived by his daughter, Kim Williams, and his son, Albert Jr., both from his marriage to Evelyn Robinson, which ended in divorce in 1976; a stepdaughter, Tianne Feliciano; three grandchildren; and one step-grandson.

Ms. Mirikitani took a job at Glide as a temporary typist in 1965 and rose to church program director and then president of the Glide Foundation in 1982, the year she and Mr. Williams were married. She died in 2021.

Mr. Williams retired as pastor in 2000 but remained the church’s spiritual leader in other roles and chief executive of the foundation. He formally stepped away from the church last year.

Marvin K. White, the church’s minister of celebration, or senior minister, said in an interview that Mr. Williams’s physical decline over the last decade served as something of a message to the congregation.

“When I came here as an intern, he was able-bodied and wandered the pews,” he said. “Then he was on a cane, and he took up less space. And then he used a walker, and I had to help him stand up. He was visibly wobbly, and the congregation would lean forward as if he was going to fall. Then, he was in his final shape, in a wheelchair.

“Every time he stepped back and made himself smaller,” Mr. White said, “he asked us to fill in the space.”

#Cecil #Williams #San #Francisco #Church #Haven #Dies

About The Author

Leave a Comment