Church of the Open Doors

WHEN CECIL WILLIAMS was 8 years old, he imagined murdering a police officer. It’s a jarring way for an influential minister to begin a memoir about radical hope and perseverance. But in a short lifetime of intense oppression, Williams had already internalized heartbreaking lessons of systemic injustice and the righteously violent tendencies that can follow. The budding young leader already nicknamed “Rev” and wise beyond his years also knew that if he could imagine brutality, he could envision a transformed society.

“Imagination is one of the most penetrating and incendiary forces I’ve ever experienced,” he writes in Beyond the Possible: 50 Years of Creating Radical Change at a Community Called Glide, co-authored with his wife and longtime collaborator, Janice Mirikitani. Building on their shared vision over a remarkable half-century, they lead what might be the most exuberant congregation in America. Glide Memorial United Methodist Church and the Glide Foundation are inextricable, legendary San Francisco institutions, the latter one of the city’s largest social service providers and the real-life shelter featured in the 2006 biopic The Pursuit of Happyness.

Writer Dave Eggers sums up Glide in the book’s introduction with a simple but uncomfortable truth: There are very few places in society where someone is not left out. Houses of worship are supposed to make a dream of inclusivity possible, but even the most inspiring visionaries live and lead imperfectly. Eggers proposes that because of the unconditional love necessary for a lasting marriage between two seemingly incompatible leaders—Williams, a black Texas minister with a solid upbringing, and Mirikitani, an agnostic Japanese-American poet from a broken, abusive home—Glide is one of the few radically accepting places where true unconditional love is practiced like the most dogmatic of faiths.

In Beyond the Possible, Williams and Mirikitani explain how overcoming profound personal grief inspired them to lead a compassionate revolution in San Francisco’s most poverty-stricken district, the Tenderloin. Williams was one of five black seminarians to attend the Perkins School of Theology when Southern Methodist University voluntarily adopted a desegregation policy, and later the budding civil rights leader marched on Selma. By the time he arrived at Glide in 1963, it was a dwindling, uninspired congregation of 35 conservative white Christians. The brash, bold black reverend didn’t know how to develop a diverse community—until he looked beyond the church building and into the faces of local residents who desperately needed someone powerful to upend the city’s sociocultural and spiritual landscape. In the mid-1960s, Glide’s leaders began organizing for civil rights and against police brutality. By the 1970s, they were performing landmark same-sex weddings. HIV tests have long been available on demand during services. As rampant homelessness reached pandemic levels, Glide expanded shelter and free meals programs.

Within weeks of his arrival, Williams had taken off his clerical robe for good. Soon, he was pulling the somber, stories-high crucifix down from the sanctuary where he intended to celebrate life, not mourn loss. By the time he’d convinced her to work with him full-time, Mirikitani—who was later named San Francisco’s second-ever poet laureate—had christened Sunday services “Celebrations” and infused weekly praise with her creative blend of poetry and theater. Former Sly and the Family Stone member John Turk brought his jazz Change Band in residence.

Every Sunday morning, Williams can still be found on the Glide stage—there is no pulpit to hide behind—enthusing, “Love everybody!” For him, it’s really that simple. Above all, God is love.

That simple, powerful message rightly inspires legions of loyal supporters. I moved to downtown San Francisco two years ago, unaware I’d be living blocks from a legendary church-charity. I only knew—through a crash course in suffering that shocked even this longtime urbanite and reluctant gentrifier—that every day I met scores of desperate people living on the streets, many of them regulars in the half-mile-long, thrice-daily Glide free meals queue that forms uncomfortably close to high-end boutiques and tourist attractions. The dissonance was too great to ignore; my desire to serve had never been so urgent. By my second volunteer shift at Glide, staffers already knew my name.

Beyond the Possible is the perfect title for an inspiring portrait of transformative love and a model for a jubilant revolution.

Brittany Shoot is a Sojourners contributing writer.

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