Sunday Morning Improv
Presents an interview with Cecil Williams, pastor of the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, California. Popularity of Glide Memorial; Appeal of jazz music to church members; Preaching of personal philosophies.
By PT Staff published July 1, 1995 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
The Reverend Cecil Williams is a local hero in San Francisco. His church,Glide Memorial, is an urban refuge for the spiritually disenfranchised of every race, class, and sexuality. Here's a taste of what San Franciscans can't get enough of: a faith steeped more in heart and soul than in scripture.
pt: How did Glide Memorial get its start, and how do you explain its popularity?
cw: When I came to Glide, about 30 years ago, there were about 35 people, all white, middle class, and very, very anti-anything occurring, any changes taking place. They didn't even want poor white people in the church.
pt: How did you react?
cw: Well, the third Sunday I was there I decided I was going to do something drastic, traumatic. I just pulled off my black robe and said, "I will not wear a black robe again until the church becomes alive." So I did something you don't do in a church: I stepped across the altar, with the Bible and all the candles and the cross, and started preaching in the aisle. And the folks got up and left.
pt: Interesting beginning.
cw: Very interesting beginning. So the next Sunday, I just walked over to the door, stood there, and started preaching. They had to pass by me if they were going to get out, and they stayed. It was horrible, just horrible.
But in three months, I brought in a jazz group on Christmas Day, and immediately I said, This is it. John Handy and his jazz routine were playing the organ: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." The place was crowded--jam packed. And that was it.
pt: Explain the appeal of jazz.
cw: I'm a folk preacher. A folk therapist. A folk musician. I come from authentically that which is of my experience. Therefore, the music is strictly from the soul, strictly improvisational.
So, it's always new. When the musician starts improvising, he never can go back to what he did last Sunday. That's what's frightening to a lot of people who can't let themselves go. But it's also very invigorating and very releasing because it opens you up to be yourself.
pt: There's tremendous vitality in your services. Is it the music that lets that in?
cw: The music certainly plays a major role. You can be free enough to comfort each other, to touch each other, to embrace each other, to engage each other, to not be afraid of each other. The music certainly has that very strong element.
Go back to folk songs, gospel, jazz, and spirituals. See, all of that came out of tremendous pain and hurt, rejection, loss, alienation, and abandonment. What I'm doing is I'm expressing my pain and hope at the same time.
pt: Do you consider the church Pentecostal?
cw: We have those characteristics, but they come from me, from my own experience. I don't go and study other folks. I come from where I came from, as a kid, in the little black church I grew up in. And some of the things they did I rejected, because I could see that it was a manipulation and an exaggeration. My struggle is never to fool folks; to keep it authentic--who we are and who we are becoming--rather than to mimic or to translate what others do into my own terms.
I'm not interested in being an intellectual or in being traditional, conventional. I'm not interested in having great wisdom. I'm not interested in those facets of the evangelical movement. I don't have to get stuff from them.
I got my own stuff. If it hits you, okay. That's why I've got so many different races, classes, and such a mixture of theologies and philosophies at Glide. I've got agnostics, atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims the whole spectrum.
pt: You say you draw a lot of what you know from personal pain and personal loss. Is that something you can talk about?
cw: Sure. First of all, I was the fifth child in a family of six, five boys and one girl. Bless that poor girl. We were very poor; it was the 30s. We survived off of the food and the little work that my father could get working on the roads or whatever the WPA provided. We were always in line to get food.
The survival of our family really depended on the survival of the other black families in that community. We had that village aspect about us, that African sense about us. We always shared what we had with each other. We were able to make it because there was really a total family, a village.
pt: A community.
cw: That's critical to me, the community. When I was 12 years old, I had a mental breakdown; I went berserk for a long time. I felt rejection from the white community. Couldn't understand why the pigmentation of my skin kept me from doing. Everybody always told me "You're going to be something." And of course, I began to raise questions about why it is that white folks treat us the way they do.
The breakdown was very vivid. I just all of a sudden felt like I had been overcome by a train.
pt: What did they call it in those days?
cw: They didn't say I was crazy. We had one physician, he was black, and he just said, "Your son needs rest."
Within three months I began to heal. And the healing came about through community, again. When I would get up at nighttime and start walking the floor, either my brothers, my sister, my mother, my father, or members of the community would come in and pace the floor with me. They would just say, "It's nothing there." And I'd say, "Oh, yes there are. They're coming to get me. They're coming to get me." Very paranoid. And they would say, "But we love you. We're going to stay with you. Don't you worry." And they would rock me and touch me and embrace me, and it was an incredible experience.
pt: When did you know you were healed?
cw: One morning I got up and said, I feel better and I know now what I must do with the people that I've been seeing at nighttime--the aliens, I called them--I must make friends with them. I made friends with them, and they have been my friends ever since.
pt: What did you take away from that experience?
cw: Several things: One, I have excessive energy, tremendous energy. The other thing is, I have a sense of people. I can feel them, pretty much so, in a short time. I think the third thing is that I'm not afraid of death. I'm just not afraid of anything.
So, I crept through the crack.
pt: Do you think that "You have to go through darkness to come to light?"
cw: It's not religion if you don't.
pt: Having that experience at 12 years old is pretty extraordinary.
cw: That was one experience. One experience. See, out of that experience, plus any racism or barriers that may be put up, you get a tremendous sense of resistance. The more you push me, the greater I am. You can't hold me down. And the church helped me do that. My family helped that. The whole issue of struggle is critical in my life. Resistance, finding ways to resist. That does not mean you do somebody in to get it. No, it means finding ways to be human in what you do, but making sure that you get it done.
pt: You're in a community that's known as the epicenter of the AIDS crisis. What do you tell people when they ask you, Why am I being cut off in the middle of my life?
cw: The church has a large number of people who sit there every Sunday with blotches on their bodies. We don't try to hide it. That's critical. What we say to folks is, "Death is a reality, but life is a reality also. You got to live at this time in your life like you've never lived before. And therefore you've got to find those values in your life that fulfill what you need to do. Now, what is it you need to do?"
pt: You have created such a safe place for people to be accepted, and for people to find spirituality in their own way, no matter who they are or where they came from.
cw: When people get up on the stage and say, "I've got AIDS," or "I'm in recovery," gosh, it's hard for them. It's like that story touches every person's story. You know, they open their entire humanity up. Storytelling is very important in life. Telling the truth is critical. It's like, again, the melody. The melody of jazz music is the truth, for me.
cw: Yeah. If you got the truth, you put it out there, and everybody says, "Oh, my God. That's me." And then they improvise also. They take off, as well.
But I am noticing that we're getting more and more people--and I don't know how to handle this--who come to me saying, "Would you pray for my son? Would you pray for my daughter?" I've been saying, "Pray for them yourself." But they don't want that because they think I've got something that's greater than what they have. I keep saying, "I don't! Not really. I got the title 'minister; but I don't want to exploit you. You do it, too." I think the way to solve it is to do it together. We're going to pray in community, you see?
pt: Do you feel frustrated that the number of people you can reach, by definition, is finite if you are in one place and one community?
cw: No. I need this. It helps me to keep my grounding. I need to be in touch with the people. You've got to look in their eyes, and you've got to feel what they feel. You've got to engage people. All that we do and believe in is engaging people to touch, to heal, to look at each other's eyes, to feel with each other, to cry with each other, to moan, to groan, to rejoice, to be happy.
pt: How literally do you take the words of the Gospel?
cw: I take from some of those beautiful stories--there's great poetry in the Old Testament and the New Testament. And I'm not interested in trying to prove whether this paragraph is as it was or as it should have been or should not be. My pursuit is to find the truth for me in those stories and make them apropos.
The important thing is that people wrote them. These were inspirational stories, and you got to see them that way. If you don't, you'll get in trouble.
So I'm not going to spend a lot of time trying to find out whether or not Mary was a virgin. What do I care about Mary being a virgin?
PHOTO (COLOR): Glide Memorial Service
PHOTO (COLOR): Reverend Cecil Williams