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People of Faith Cecil Williams

Albert Cleage James Cone Warith Deen Mohammed Thomas Dorsey Frederick Douglass Olaudah Equiano Prathia Hall Daniel Payne Howard Thurman Sojourner Truth Henry McNeal Turner Denmark Vesey Cecil Williams


Cecil Williams

Photo of Cecil Williams "I went to every bar and flop joint I could and said, 'I'm asking you to give yourself the opportunity to see why you belong on Earth,' Nobody else ever said that to them, 'you belong here.'" --Rev. Cecil Williams quoted in San Francisco Focus, July 1996

Cecil Williams was born in San Angelo, TX in 1929, the same year that Methodist philanthropist Lizzie Glide broke ground for the construction of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, CA. Born the fifth of six children, Cecil was raised in the segregated South. Buses, drinking fountains, theaters, trains, rest rooms and every other shared public facility were labeled "men," "women," and "colored." Williams grew up feeling like an outsider - rejected, and unacceptable.

However, this damaging message was mitigated by the nurturing love of Williams' immediate community. His mother, a strong black woman who commanded respect, told her son again and again, "You are going to be somebody." As a boy, Williams was nicknamed "Rev" - short for "reverend" - the highest praise and heaviest pressure that a family could place on a son. In his community, he was somebody; simultaneously, the white community said that he and everyone he cared for was nobody. This dichotomy was too much for young Williams to take. At the age of ten, he was diagnosed with a nervous breakdown. For several months, he felt depressed and engulfed in blackness. Williams finally lifted the fog of pain and rejection after a dream he had: a young white boy and an old white man were at the foot of his bed. They wanted him to accept his station in life and go along with the system. Young Williams resisted, and reversed their control over him.

He woke up the next morning feeling like a new person, vowing never to accept anyone else's definition of his being. Back in church, he felt a certain relief, but Williams imagined himself a minister before hundreds of people of all colors, ages, and descriptions. Williams held on to this vision through college, then seminary.

Today, his church is San Francisco's largest social service provider. Glide feeds 3500 people a day. It sponsors computer training for adults, runs programs for HIV and Domestic Violence, and treats substance abusers. More than 17,000 people volunteer in its programs.

"The true church stays on the edge of life, where the real moans and groans are. Most church folk settle in, get comfortable and build doctrinal walls to protect themselves from anyone who thinks or looks differently than they do." --Rev. Cecil Williams, USA Today, 11.22.95


KEY MOMENTS OF FAITH

GLIDE AND THE COUNTERCULTURE

In 1963, Williams went to Glide United Memorial Methodist Church. Glide then had a small, white, affluent congregation. These congregants didn't share Williams' vision of inclusiveness. Soon they left the church. Williams remained determined. In 1964, he helped create the Council on Religion and Homosexuality, a bold move even by today's standards.

He opened the church to jazz music, gays, hippies, addicts, the poor, poets, and anyone else who wanted to come. He hosted political rallies and services, including a Hooker Convention, speeches by Angela Davis, and the Black Panthers. When Randolph Hearst's daughter Patti was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, Rev. Williams tried to negotiate a deal.

A MEETING GROUND FOR THE COUNTERCULTURE

In the 1970s, Glide ensured its status as the meeting ground for the counterculture. The Vietnam War continued to escalate in the early 1970s and Glide remained central in the anti-war movement. Everyone from Bill Cosby to Billy Graham came to Glide to speak about the issues of the day.

When gay activist and City Supervisor Harvey Milk was murdered by fellow Supervisor Dan White in 1979, Williams and the Glide community opened their doors to the city, comforting and healing those who were frightened, grieving, and potentially violent.

TENDING THE CRACK EPIDEMIC

The mid-1980s saw the emergence of "Crack" - cheap cocaine sold at $1-$2 a hit. Rev. Williams' son and daughter were claimed for a time by the drug. But instead of calling for more police or street vigilantism, Williams led marches. He set up a microphone for drug dealers and drug users to tell their stories. He invited those affected to join with his congregation.

"All of those gathered stood up together," he said. "The Glide staff, black community leaders, addicts, prostitutes, and grandmothers - poor, wealthy, illiterate and educated - we told our stories of recovery. We told our stories of faith and our stories of resistance."

A FORTRESS AGAINST HIV

Glide became active in the fight against HIV. Glide offered free testing and employed a team of outreach workers who combed neighborhoods to get the message out about prevention and care. Glide, a pioneer in AIDS activism, was the first church in the U.S. to offer HIV testing after Sunday services.

THE MILLENNIUM: NEW CENTURY/NEW CHURCH

As the 21st century begins, Cecil Williams envisions a new church that no longer rejects members of our society: "I want the church to be the church. And it seems to me, if it's going to be the church, it's got to stop turning its head away from poor folks. It's got to stop turning its head away from black folks, from brown folks, yellow folks, red folks, poor white folks. It's got to stop turning its head away from gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender. It's got to stop turning its head away from children who are in desperate need. It's got to stop turning its head away from women, who are going through all kinds of situations where empowerment is critical at this time. What I'm seriously saying is, it's time for the church to be the church, and you always start out with those who are less fortunate, those who are in greater need. Middle class America has got to recognize that it's got to go to the bottom to help folks help themselves."