Beyond the Possible, 50 Years of Creating Radical Change at a Community Called Glide, Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani Harper One Books, New York 2013
“You never know when the Spirit will knock at your door…”
I seldom read books by American pastors of any denomination. I have gotten over the cult of celebrity associated with most of our most esteemed preachers. Likewise, when I read a story about a church, be it a local church or denomination I am generally filled with skepticism and wonder when I am going get hit on for a financial contribution or political favor. I guess that I have seen the light in regard to how many church leaders run their business. Or maybe I am just a bit cynical having spent many years in the Mega-Church world and worked for a nationally recognized and now very politically active “evangelist” about 20 years ago.
When I received the note from the good people at TLC Book Tours to do a review on this book I almost turned it down but then thought well “what the hell? If I think it’s bullshit I can rip it apart.”
However I cannot do that, even after reading it. I had remembered the name of Cecil Williams from growing up east of San Francisco in the 1970s. At the time I thought Williams a bit too radical and not “Christian” enough. Of course I knew little of him or of Glide only what I saw on television news reports, many of which were not always the most complimentary of him. Since I knew little of Glide that impression was what I had for many years. However, over the years I would occasionally see Pastor Williams on different interviews and was impressed with him and what I heard. I didn’t necessarily always agree but he was impressive, not the liberal monster I thought him to be.
Of course the book is a memoir of Williams and his wife Janice Mirikitani and how their lives intersected with a dying church in the heart of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, a place ridden with drugs, crime and poverty. It was a place that most of the church members had departed from. It was a church, like so many that had seen better days. It was a church like the one that I was baptized in as a baby which as the neighborhood that it was located slid into poverty and change in ethnic composition saw the majority of its membership move away. Eventually, that Methodist church died and was closed. It was a fate that Glide Memorial Methodist Church was heading to when the last 35 members welcomed their new pastor, Cecil Williams in 1963. It was a moment of change. It was a moment when a fresh breeze blew through the church.
The book chronicles the stories of Williams, the son of a church janitor and his wife in Jim Crow San Angelo Texas and his early life under those laws. It tells of his struggles as a pioneer African American student at SMU’s Perkin’s Seminary and his part in the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s, including time in a Birmingham jail.
It also tells the story of a young Japanese American woman, Janice Miritikani who with her family had endured the pain and humiliation of being incarcerated after the attack on Pearl Harbor simply because they were Japanese. It is her story as well, a story that was not only about the prejudice that she experienced the dehumanizing experience of rape and incest covered up by family and cultural pressures, the story of a woman who prayed for God’s presence and struggled as God remained silent.
It is a story of love, faith hope, purpose and the endless possibilities that exist when one sees that which is considered “beyond the possible.” It is a book that tells of struggle of a community which many people did not consider redeemable. It is the story of a church and of people, not just Williams and Miritikani but the people who in turbulent times launched a church that has become a bastion of living the Social Gospel, speaking prophetically to those in power and working for the benefit of the least, the lost and the lonely.
Glide, the community is a place of acceptance and love, a place which serves and empowers those without power, without a voice. Providing care to the homeless, the jobless, the needy, the HIV infected and those suffering from AIDS, those battling drug and alcohol abuse, those rejected for their lifestyles and a host of others. The Glide foundation, which Williams has headed since his “official” retirement from the church is one of the top philanthropic organizations in the nation.
Now there are some that would not agree with Williams and the message of Glide. It is a church that welcomes people of all walks of life and faith. It is a church with a door open to all, even those who would come to the church intentionally to cause trouble as did a number of White Supremacists attired in White Power, Neo-Nazi and Neo-Confederate images, who ended up staying when their hate was met by love. It is a church where the rich and the poor worship together in a service called a “celebration.”
Glide is a strange animal. It is a by all definitions a politically and socially active Mega-Church with about 11,000 members. Those that know me well and read this site regularly know that I am not a fan of most Mega-Churches. To me most, regardless of their theological or political views seem to exist for themselves. However, Glide is a place that thanks to Williams, Miritikani and those that over the past 50 years have sacrificed to build reaches out to redeem the community where it resides and does not exist for itself. It may not speak the same language as the contemporary Evangelical Mega-Churches but it is reaching those who quite often would be unwelcome in those churches. It is the embodiment of the love of God, an incarnation of the love of Jesus to those that would be, and were in fact the same kind of people that Jesus himself went to in his earthly ministry.
This book is inspirational to read for anyone who has a heart for those disenfranchised and uncared for by the church or the world. I found it hard to put down. The message “you never know when the Spirit will knock at your door” was real to me as I read this book during the Season of Lent. Indeed it is possible for God and the people of God to go Beyond the Possible.
I highly recommend it to anyone and plan to visit Glide the next time that I go to San Francisco and hope that should I be involved in parish ministry after my Navy career is over that I can emulate the spirit and love that I saw described in this book.