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‘Soul of this city’: Thousands celebrate the Rev. Cecil Williams with memories, songs

A woman signs a large memory card during a Celebration of the Life for co-founder Reverend Cecil Williams at the Glide Memorial Church Sanctuary in San Francisco on Sunday, May 12, 2024.
A woman signs a large memory card during a Celebration of the Life for co-founder the Rev. Cecil Williams at the Glide Memorial Church Sunday. | Source: Paul Kuroda for The Standard

Thousands gathered Sunday in joyful grief to share solace and say “love” at a celebration of the life of the Rev. Cecil Williams, civil rights leader and co-founder of San Francisco's Glide Memorial Church, who died in April at age 94.

Along Ellis Street in the city's Tenderloin neighborhood, an outdoor overflow stage was set up beside the church to accommodate the crowds honoring Williams, whose advocacy for the poor, homeless and disenfranchised made Glide a beacon for the city's most marginalized.

“I've been here when I was down and out, when I was hungry,” Irene McPherson said. McPherson credited Willliams and late co-founder, activist and poet Janice Mirikitani for their help in finding her housing at the city's Mary Elizabeth Inn apartment complex.

People holding hands at a service with a screen showing two smiling men.
People hold hands during the celebration of life for the Rev. Cecil Williams, who took over as minister for Glide Memorial Church in 1964. | Source: Paul Kuroda for The Standard

“They have done a wonderful job, and they have got a legacy that will never die,” McPherson said. “I love him. I love her. May they rest in peace together.”

Another Glide member, Harry Carr Jr., said Williams' church helped turn his life around after struggles with drugs and homelessness. 

He burst into laughter as he remembered how the minister put him to work when he came to Glide for a community service day. “He said, ‘Son, are you up for the challenge?’” After Carr said yes, Williams told him, “You see those pots over there? Wash ’em!”

Joyful people in blue robes with colorful stoles are walking and celebrating outside.
The Glide Ensemble cheers on the Glide Change Band at the memorial service. | Source: Paul Kuroda for The Standard

Williams co-founded Glide in 1963 with Janice Mirikitani, and the two married in 1982. The church became a circulation point for social services under its reverends’ “unconditional love” philosophy.

Inside an 800-strong sanctuary after performances by the Glide Ensemble and the Change Band, church board chair Reggie Johnson joked that it felt like he had been transported back in time.

“You can be sad and you can cry, but we also need you to be happy,” Johnson said. “Rev. Cecil Williams for 60 years created this movement called Glide Memorial Church. Everyone who walked through that door found love, because Cecil knew love is the answer.”

A woman signs a large memory card during a Celebration of the Life for co-founder Reverend Cecil Williams at the Glide Memorial Church Sanctuary in San Francisco on Sunday, May 12, 2024.
A woman signs a large memory card that was on display for the ceremony. | Source: Paul Kuroda for The Standard

As an electric piano vamped gently on “What The World Needs Now Is Love (Sweet Love)” and hundreds in the sanctuary chanted, “Amen,” “Hallelujah” and “Right on,” Glide's Minister of Celebration Marvin K. White reminded the crowd that “we're very clear where we are in the Tenderloin.”

“They would rather have you do a doom loop tour and look for everything negative in this neighborhood,” White said. “But let me tell you, there are people celebrating beauty and resilience and family and recovery here, too.”

A lengthy lineup of speakers shared stories, reminiscences and praise for Williams’ witness, service and vision.

An older woman with curly gray hair is speaking into a microphone, partially obscured by a stand and gesturing with her hand.
Angela Davis was one of many high-profile figures to eulogize the Rev. Cecil Williams. | Source: Paul Kuroda for The Standard

“In doing this work, Cecil and Jan always stood up at the front lines against racism, against homophobia, against occupation, against war,” Angela Davis said. “They always stood for love. They were always there for those who were under attack, whether we are referring to the LGBT community or political activists like myself.”

Davis recalled visiting Glide shortly after she said she was fired from the University of California Los Angeles for her Communist Party membership. “Cecil introduced me to the congregation,” she said, “and declared that Jesus was a communist; Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple.”

Author Chris Gardner, whose autobiography The Pursuit of Happynessbecame an award-winning Will Smith movie, recalled meeting Williams outside a kitchen 44 years ago during a time he was homeless, standing in line and holding his son while waiting to have dinner.

A diverse crowd clapping indoors, some smiling, with stained glass windows in the background.
State Sen. Scott Weiner, Congresswoman Barbara Lee and former San Francsico Mayor Willie Brown were also in attendance. | Source: Paul Kuroda for The Standard

“At this point in our lives, Jaden Smith plays my son as a 5-year-old in the movie,” Gardner said. “In reality, my son was 14 months old, still in diapers.”

“Cecil Williams walked up to me and he looked up at me, he said, ‘What you doing with that baby?’ I said, ‘It's my baby.’ ‘Well, what you gonna do with it?’ ‘I'm gonna keep it.’”

Code Tenderloin founder Del Seymour joined many Sunday in thanking the Williams family for their generosity with his time. “We're making a big thing about losing our leader. You lost your dad; you lost your grandpa,” Seymour said, directly addressing family members in the church's front rows.

An older man with a grey beard speaking into a microphone, appearing contemplative or in mid-speech.
Chris Gardner, who authored “The Pursuit of Happyness,” recounted his memories of the Rev. Cecil Williams. | Source: Paul Kuroda for The Standard

“I want to say the nights when he wasn't home to hug you like parents and grandpas do, he was outside,” Seymour continued. “He was talking to Tyrone; he was talking to Sheila. That's where he was. Thank you for lending him to us.”

Singer-songwriter Michael Franti, who played a newly written composition called “I Hope I Come Back as a Song” and his 2022 song “Brighter Day,” remembered how church attendees' rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” at the end of the first service he attended at Glide struck him anew.

“I heard it as this revolutionary song,” Franti said. “It was a song that said, ‘No matter who I am, no matter where I'm from, no matter what I carry in my life, I am going to shine my light and be the person that I can be.’”

A man and woman in a church, woman leaning on man's shoulder, both appear contemplative, stained glass and other attendees in background.
Folk music icon Joan Baez is comforted by her son, Gabriel Harris, at the service. | Source: Paul Kuroda for The Standard

After San Francisco Mayor London Breed praised Williams’ legacy and the Doobie Brothers’ Tom Johnston led the sanctuary in a spirited version of “Listen to the Music,” former Mayor Willie L. Brown Jr. paid tribute to his fellow Texas native, recalling times he represented Williams in demonstrations.

“He knew that I was a lawyer, and he said every time, ‘Whatever you do, don't you get arrested. I got to get out of jail!’” Brown said. “As has been said by so many, ‘We will miss Cecil.’ No, you will not! Just do exactly what you think Cecil would do, and keep that as your guiding light.”

Former San Francisco Giants announcer Renel Brooks-Moon was nearly overcome by emotion as she shared a memory of riding with Williams in KMEL's street team van after the April 1992 jury verdict finding Los Angeles police not guilty of using excessive force in the beating of Rodney King.

A crowded church interior with people standing, some taking photos, and banners hanging from a balcony.
The event drew a standing-room-only turnout. | Source: Paul Kuroda for The Standard

“We rode all through San Francisco, and he had a bullhorn,” Brooks-Moon said. “We were begging everybody to protect the community: ‘Don't tear up the community. We know you're mad. We're all mad. We're all upset.’ But we traveled the whole city in the van, and he spoke to everybody.”

“In that moment, I realized that I can use my voice. Long before I worked at that ballpark, Rev. Cecil dubbed me the voice of San Francisco,” Brooks-Moon said.

She then led the church in a chorus of Salt-N-Pepa's “Whatta Man.”

“Not me: It was he,” Brooks-Moon said. “He was the voice of San Francisco. He was the soul of this city.”

A man speaks into a microphone, wearing a cap, with a solemn expression and a thin mustache.
Michael Franti played a newly written composition called “I Hope I Come Back as a Song" and his 2022 song “Brighter Day.” | Source: Paul Kuroda for The Standard