The Rev. Cecil Williams arrived in San Francisco as the nation was in the middle of the civil rights movement, and over the past four decades at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood he has helped guide the city through racial and social challenges.
Williams, who is being honored tonight for his 45 years of service at Glide, has fought for civil rights for various minority groups at the church on Ellis Street.
“I made a choice years ago that I’d be different from any other minister, and would also be different in what I would do in a church, and I’m doing it,” Williams said today. “I’ve reached a point where I’m surprised at some of the things we’ve done.”
Williams came to San Francisco in the early 1960s, and joined the church, which he said was conservative and still segregated at the time.
As minister there, Williams drastically changed its policies and practices, and in 1964 helped to create the Council on Religion and Homosexuality, a coalition of religious and gay rights activists. In 1967, he ordered the cross removed from the sanctuary and urged the congregation to instead celebrate life and living.
By the end of the 1960s, the church was filled with a diverse mix of San Franciscans, and over the past few decades has been in the middle of battles over racial and social issues including segregation, gay rights, the crack cocaine epidemic, and the AIDS crisis.
“To be honest, I feel like haven’t been on the journey long,” Williams said. “So much has happened so quickly, time after time, event after event, march after march, meeting all sorts of people and confronting all sorts of issues. What a real short time it’s been.”
He said the church, which has more than 11,000 members, has been embraced by so many different groups because of its principles.
“Unconditional love and unconditional acceptance, those two factors have entered into everything that we’ve done,” Williams said. “People want to be accepted, they want to know they’ve got a place and they’re all right.”
Glide “is the most inclusive church in America,” he said. “We’ve got every element, every class, every race, every sexual orientation, you name it, it’s all there.”
Williams retired as pastor of the church in 2000 but remains heavily involved in the church as well as the Glide Foundation, which offers daily free meal programs and several services, including health, housing and child care, to homeless or at-risk residents.
The foundation serves nearly a million meals a year, and its holiday programs help more than 80,000 people.
Williams said the economic downturn in the past couple of years “really dealt us a serious blow.”
To help the foundation reach its fundraising goal, it scheduled a benefit concert for tonight at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House to mark the reverend’s 45 years of service.
The event, titled “From the ‘Hood to the House”, is scheduled to feature a spoken word performance by Maya Angelou. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Alonzo King LINES Ballet, and Glide Ensemble Choir and Change Band are also scheduled to perform.
“This gala is our way of being with people from all walks of life,” Williams said.
“It’s people from the ‘hood and the house getting together, the Opera House and Tenderloin coming together to bring about a better climate, to be able to participate with each other in a way where we don’t put each other down but rather lift each other up,” he said.
The event takes place from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the Opera House, located at 301 Van Ness Ave.
Tickets for the event range from $75 to $500 and are available by calling the Opera House box office at (415) 864-3330. Tickets will also be sold at the door.
For more information on Glide, visit www.glide.org.