Archive: All That Glitters…

A firsthand account of one man’s experience visiting the notorious Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco.

by Robert Wood, Good News Contributing Editor

“The color of wet sand,” I mused as Glide UM Church rose before me. It was a mid-October Saturday morning, bright with sunlight and unwontedly warm for San Francisco at that time of year. I was approaching the building from the south, the “tenderloin” section of town that runs right up to the church. Beyond it lies the better hotel district.

Along the street faded signs offered rooms for rent beginning at $3 without bath. Porno shops were here and there; one extolled itself for having the largest selection of “appetizers” in the Bay area, while across the street and down a few doors another was going out of business.

As I passed the entrance to an alley, I noticed two drunks asleep in the shadows, their empty bottles around them. Pages of old newspapers scudded up the avenue ahead of the wind … thrift shop employees unlocked their doors … a woman in a rumpled bathrobe emerged from a cluttered doorway to check out the daylight. Somewhere in the distance I heard the wail of a police siren.

Infamous Glide! I expected to see the marks of degradation and consequent ruin everywhere. Ceiling paint will be flaking off, restrooms will be dirty and well-provided with colorful graffiti, I fancied. Without a doubt, I’ll run into some shocking perversion in a back corridor.

But it was not so. The outside appeared to be freshly stuccoed. Inside I found the restroom not only spotless but without a mark on the walls. This in spite of the fact that the facility is available to the passerby, and so helpfully advertised on the street for the non-English speaking by photographs of a bathroom stool and a lavatory.

“Nice,” I said to myself, regarding it.

Approaching a desk near the entrance, I inquired whether any activities were scheduled for the day. None. But I heard voices down the hall, and bent on unearthing some evidence of Sodom come to church, I headed in that direction. The man keeping the desk barked at me, “Come back here. You can’t go in there.”

Aha! So it was Sodom! I explained again that I had some time to kill and was hoping the church would have something planned. He told me gruffly that that meeting was not open to me but that I was welcome to return the next day, Sunday, when things were planned to run from 9:00 till 1:00.

With that I left. As I did, I stopped to read an announcement on the window: “Glide is a church of the people that works for social change by joining the community struggles day to day and in the streets.” Next to that was a poster inviting me to the Coyote Hookers [prostitutes] Masquerade Ball to be held across the street at the Hilton. Queen Ida and her Bonton Zydeco Band were to be featured.

Disappointed at not finding Glide resembling the mouth of hell, I returned to my car. But tomorrow! Ah! Surely the Sunday service would give me something to write home about.

Reasoning on Sunday morning that the more unusual I appeared the more anonymity I would enjoy in an assembly of oddities, I wore a poncho I’d purchased a year earlier in Ecuador. It was comfortable in the chilly building, and I snuggled into a corner of a pew near the back where I could see well.

That was a warm, cordial greeting the young black gave me as I came in, I thought (“Welcome to Glide. The celebration is just beginning”). I recognized an usher who had been part of pastor Cecil Williams’ roadshow at General Conference in Atlanta in ’72. In fact, it was he to whom I’d pointed out former Glide pastor, Dr. J. C. McPheeters, who sat across the church from me that spring afternoon in Atlanta. The usher had hurried off to get Cecil and introduced the two men.

The “celebration” began with the band or whatever, electric piano, electric guitar, etc., banging out a “prelude” while slides were flashed onto what had been the chancel wall. Most of the pictures were of human need or of Cecil Williams preaching. Here was a picture of Mao; there one of Angela Davis. Blacks behind fences and blacks with pol ice suggested oppression and brutality.

“Nothing is more important,” one slide read, “than freedom and independence.”

When Cecil came (not nearly so dramatically as I had thought his entrance might be, nor so bizarre his clothing) we sang “The Battle Hymn of The Republic” which Cecil topped off with a vigorous jitterbug. The Glide Ensemble, a troupe of about 17 men and women in their early and mid-twenties, I judged, sang, “Lord, take me back to when I first believed,” which I found at once well-sung, wondrously rhythmical, and extremely poignant in its rendering.

The ensemble followed that with something whose words escaped me (though I sat through both morning services), but whose frenzied tempo shook the building. Growing increasingly unhinged, the soloist seemed almost frenetic, and at the 11:00 celebration, any number of people were in the aisles in a spirited transport.

Cecil’s sermon surprised me. It was not so much what he said as it was that he said it at all. “I declare to you,” he began, “that this is no longer a church. It is a liberated zone, a liberated space, a liberated place.” That means, he explained, that he (and we) can do there what he has to do when he has to do it. Subsequently he developed his message on the words “feel,” “say,” and “be.” He concluded by asserting that here he is free to be nonreligious when he has to be, by which he meant to have done with piosities. I couldn’t have agreed more.

We are free, he declared, to be whatever we are or want to be. ” If you want to be gay, be gay,” etc. (At the 9:00, he had, in his opening greeting, told us that we were all welcome regardless of who we were, why we were there, or how we were dressed. Just then an usher tapped me on the shoulder and motioned me to the rear. Over the din of the band, I heard him saying something about security in a place like that and did I have anything hidden under my poncho. I invited him to search me, which he didn’t. Later, between services, he apologized.)

The thing about Cecil’s sermon that impressed me was, as I stated above, not what he said but that he said it at all. Why, after 12 years and after building a reputation as an iconoclast, should he pick a random Sunday morning to affirm what everyone already knew about him? I wondered whether he rang the changes on that theme every Sunday. To preach an introductory credo after a dozen years seemed incredible.

Well, what about it? What were my impressions of Glide UM Church and its pastor?

I could remark about the absence of all Christian symbolism. The room (dare I call it a sanctuary?) had been stripped of anything that would identify it as a Christian church. Gone were the cross, altar, pulpit, Bible, chancel rail, hymnals, organ, candles, etc. Nor was there prayer, though we were invited to use a time of silence as we chose (“there is a force among us stronger than the chains that bind us”). But we were not told what that force is.

I could remark about Cecil’s declaration that he had ceased any reference or appeal to the Bible because he couldn’t understand what all those “begats” mean anyway (the fellow behind me obligingly explained its meaning in the vernacular to his companion).

For me it was uncommon to see men wearing their hats during a worship service and to have another saunter down the aisle with a lighted cigarette in his hand midway through the sermon. And it was unusual, between services, to have offered for sale literature on a variety of what are often regarded by many as revolutionary causes. Cecil was available to autograph the current copy of the San Francisco magazine on whose cover he was featured as “San Francisco’s spiritual revolutionary.” Sociological and psychological studies on homosexuality, farm labor propaganda, and celebration T-shirts were among other items available.

I could remark about Cecil’s statement that people don’t need to be “saved,” they need to be liberated, and that he was going to liberate Ian Smith (applause and cheering). Or about his announcement that the next Sunday Senator Frank Church would be present to talk about the CIA (laughter) and, hopefully, Caesar Chavez would be there, too (thunderous stomping).

But I can’t really comment about any of that. There is no doubt that Cecil Williams and Glide UM Church are a long way from historical Christianity. Reports have circulated for years of his espousal of causes of doubtful propriety (didn’t the prostitutes of the country meet in that building?). He made it clear enough that he has abandoned the Bible as the authoritative standard, and he has, I should suppose, made it equally clear that he doesn’t give a hang about ecclesiastical authority.

But for the life of me I couldn’t find the experience, the service, the motivation and theological underpinnings behind it, one whit different from that of any liberal/humanist United Methodist preacher and congregation. Well, yes, there is a difference. Cecil is honest about it, and he does it with more flair. And he also has hearing him those who would never set foot in either a traditional liberal or a traditional evangelical church.

The tragedy of Glide UM Church, it seems to me, lies right there. While only 60 were in the 9:00 service, several hundred filled the pews at 11:00. Here was a pithy, full-toned cross-section of humanity. Multi-racial, multi-cultural; people highly educated, and I suspect, the nearly illiterate; the straight, the gay; the depressed and deprived, the privileged. They were all there. But what were they offered? About as much as in the traditional liberal church and in the evangelical church that has lost its fire. But the ordinary church is not so strategically located.

San Francisco is one of the key cities of the earth, with its port facilities bringing people from around the globe. The cosmopolitan character of its residents makes it one of the most zestful of places. Besides that, Glide UM Church, as I mentioned, stands on the very edge of the tenderloin. It ministers to both the smart set and the “other half,” an extraordinary opportunity for any church. Except that Cecil Williams declared, “This is no longer a church. It is a liberated zone. …” A liberated zone seems to have lost contact with the power to change lives. It merely affirms that we are free to be what we have to be when have to be it.

The Apostle Paul was pastor to a similar congregation in a similar city. To the Corinthians he wrote back to say that thieves, murderers, whores, and gays have no part in the kingdom of God. BUT, he added, “such were some of you.” The implication is that under his preaching people were not left merely free to be what they had to be when they had to be it; they were changed to be what they could be under God, what the best of humanness is meant t be. J. B. Phillips in his book Ring of Truth, calls Paul’s assertion of the contrast between what the Corinthians were presently, and what they had been “an astonishing piece of Christian evidence.”

The heart of Glide beats for humanity. They care about people. They accept each other. The fault lies, it seemed to only a seven-hour exposure, not so much in what is asserted and done, aberrant and sometimes bizarre as this may be, as in what is not asserted. To offer people merely friendship, moral support, financial aid, and whole-hearted acceptance, commendable and wonderful as these may be, is not really all that is to be said. However, a liberal church that offers no more, and an evangelical church that displays no evidence of concern or power are scarcely in a position to criticize.

That night and across the Bay I happened upon an evangelical church (not United Methodist) just as the service was commencing. They were all “properly” attired. All the customary things were done. When we sang, mournfully enough, “Make Me A Blessing,” I shuddered, especially through the first stanza, because the “weary and sad” from “the highways and byways of life” had been dramatically real to me that morning at Glide, while noticeably absent here.

We had a 30-minute discourse, soundly orthodox, on the attributes of God without a word about what difference they make to me in my situation. There were no youth, blacks, or Orientals, no Chicanos, no joy, no expectancy.

Are God’s thoughts regarding that congregation greatly different from what He must think of Glide? I wondered.


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