Cecil Williams is an activist and pastor whose work positively impacted the Tenderloin and the City of San Francisco. He pastored for decades at the celebrated Glide Memorial Church on the corner of Ellis and Taylor. Rev. Williams was responsible not only for expanding his church, but for using it as a catalyst for change. Today, Glide operates numerous programs aimed at connecting and giving back to the community. One of their current programs, Serve a Meal, recruits volunteers to serve 2,000 free meals a day to those in need. Other programs run by Glide include HIV/Hepatitis C services and testing, a free legal clinic, a childcare center, and the Glide Walk-In Center which provides assistance to clients in obtaining shelter and other critical needs (Glide).
Williams was born on September 22, 1929, in San Angelo, Texas. From a young age he felt drawn to the ministries. According to an interview done by the National Public Radio, at the age of two Williams’ mother told him that she knew he was to be a pastor and even gave him the nickname “Rev” (National Public Radio).
Williams said in a personal interview, “I wanted to certainly be a spokesperson for the people in our communities. But, before I even got to that point, my mother designated me a minister.” At the age of 12, he decided to take a year off of school and instead focus on strengthening the skills he needed to work in Methodist ministry. Williams graduated in 1955 from the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, one of the first African Americans to graduate from the university. In 1963, the Bishop of his church appointed him as pastor at Glide Memorial Church. At the time of his arrival, the all-white congregation was comprised of a mere thirty-five members.
Williams is known for being radical and going against the grain. Many of his values are based on the principles of Liberation Theology which focuses on empowering those facing oppression. Its core principles are empowerment, unconditional love, and acceptance. These principles are at the heart of Williams’ work with Glide and other influential activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr.
Williams once said, “One reason people stand up and begin to say ‘no longer,’ is that they get angry and put out. When you disenfranchise people, then you also begin to understand those people are going to come back again. And when they come back, they are going to come back quite different from what they left. And that’s the way a revolution starts.” Rev. Williams emphasized that revolutions do not take a single form but instead start with people who are “dissatisfied” and who “are unable to live life fully.” This disturbance is important in the success of a revolution and making change in our world.
During a personal interview, Williams discussed his early days as a new pastor and how experiences with his new congregation shaped the church and its ideals. Williams knew that those who attended his church were there because they were missing something in their lives. One Sunday during his sermon, he hung a small mirror around his neck and said to his small congregation, “I want you to know that I’m mirroring your life so I can catch up with you. You won’t have to live this way any longer. You don’t have to go through these trials and tribulations.” This was an example of his unconditional love and acceptance. He refused to “stand idly by” and decided that change needed to occur in his community.
Williams also became known for inviting homeless people and people of the LGBTQ community into his church. It perplexed many people that a pastor would openly support same-sex marriage. However there were many fellow community members who supported his controversial decision. The Reverend explained, “I had a support system. I had people that were with me, who walked with me, stood with me, and would not let me do this by myself.” His biggest supporter was his wife, Janice Mirikitani, a sensei, poet, and activist. Her parents were put in Japanese internment camps when she was just a baby. Her perspective on race and social justice created an understanding within their relationship. During their interview with NPR, Mirikitani recounts that when she first met Williams she saw him inviting members of the community into the church who were looked down upon. From then on, Mirikitani supported his goal of bringing all members of the community together.
Rev. Williams is universally known for his warm heart. He once stated, “I don’t love people to death, I love people to life.” His words as a pastor are powerful and it is easy to see why he is able to initiate positive change everywhere he goes. Williams has always believed in the future of revolution among the youth. He believes that as long as there is inequality there will be the potential for change. Rev. Williams is a revolutionary legend who continues to make change in the city of San Francisco and the larger global community.
— Erica Mitchell; additional research by Kristen Williams and Isabel Tayag
“The Controversial, Yet Popular, Reverend Cecil Williams.” NPR. 5 Apr 2013.
“Reverend Cecil Williams.” Personal interview. Mitchell, Erica. 18 May 2016.
“Volunteer with Glide.” www.glide.org/serveameal.