One of the recipients at the recent National Caring Awards ceremony was the Reverend Cecil Williams who was honored for his nearly half-century’s work at Glide Memorial Church in downtown San Francisco. I have admired the Rev. Williams since those radical 60’s when you could hear the beat of the Glide Ensemble on the sidewalks of Market Street on Sunday mornings.
After his ordination as a Methodist minister, Cecil Williams was assigned to Glide, which was in the middle of the Tenderloin district and a gathering place for druggies, hookers, the homeless, and the chronically mentally ill. Glide was losing members as more and more people fled the inner city. It became clear to Rev. Williams that these poor people, many on the edge of society and in grave need, desperately needed something to lift them up. So he told them the good news: they could be loved, wanted to be loved, and that his church was founded on the basis of love for all.
In the late 60’s, Rev. Cecil Williams’ talk of love and brotherhood created a following of thousands. Crowds for Sunday services flowed into the street where people danced to great blues, soul, rock and jazz by renowned musicians. He invited internationally known figures like Billy Graham and Bill Cosby, and controversial speakers like Angela Davis and the Black Panthers. But it was the music that made Glide famous. One hundred singers, often accompanied by well-known musicians, would rock the place. Glide’s energy was so intense that lines of people holding hands would emerge from the sanctuary and snake into the street singing Start a Love Train.
Several years ago when the Rev. Williams reached mandatory retirement age for Methodist ministers, he told them he wasn’t leaving. He said his work wasn’t finished and that he was having too much fun. He still sponsors youth programs, healthcare programs, meals for the hungry and frail.
When he accepted his Caring Award, Rev. Williams summed up his work by saying if you take the risk to love fully, it will lift you up and turn you around. But first, you have to risk loving who you are in spite of your shortcomings, and only then can you reach out and love others. He said loving is what it is all about, and that it isn’t an original thought, it is an old story.
Years ago he told that story wearing a Dashiki and sporting an afro, but on awards night he was equally inspiring telling it in a tuxedo. At the end I walked up to the Rev. Williams and his lovely wife, introduced myself and told him he had been an inspiration to me since my youth. He looked up and down at my tuxedo with a Concho belt and bolo tie and said, “I knew there would be some old hippies in this crowd.” He patted me on the shoulder and said, “Love is still the answer.”