They are the odd couple of United Methodism, but the ministry results can hardly be questioned.
The Rev. Cecil Williams, a destined-to-be-a-pastor African American and extreme extrovert, and Janice Mirikitani, a Japanese American introvert and religious skeptic, led Glide Memorial UMC in San Francisco to become one of the UMC’s largest and most service-oriented churches—and a rare liberal megachurch.
They married along the way, and now, having stepped aside from top leadership of the church, they’ve written a memoir called Beyond the Possible.
Ask what it was like to write together, and the answer comes fast.
“Torture,” summarized Ms. Mirikitani, 71. “We almost got a divorce.”
Mr. Williams, 83, said, “We wept, we embraced, we talked to each other, we told each other off, then we’d come together. It was really something.”
The book, told in the first person through alternating “Cecil” and “Janice” sections, recounts their individual stories, their life together and their work at Glide, a church whose fans range from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Maya Angelou to Bono to Warren Buffett—all of whom provided blurbs for Beyond the Possible.
Mr. Williams goes first, telling how he grew up in segregated San Angelo, Texas, nicknamed “the Rev.” by his mother in her certainty he would become a preacher.
The family attended Wesley Methodist Church, and as a small boy Mr. Williams would imitate the pastor, solemnly presiding over the funeral of a dead bird or lizard.
Even then, he imagined the kind of multicultural congregation he would one day preside over at Glide.
“My church was not going to be a black church or a white church,” he writes in Beyond the Possible. “It was going to have every color I knew.”
Mr. Williams would go on to all-black, Methodist-affiliated Samuel Huston College (now Huston-Tillotson University) in Austin, Texas. In 1952, he was one of five students who de-segregated Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, as well as its parent institution, Southern Methodist University.
In the memoir, Mr. Williams describes the support he received from some quarters, but also slights and ongoing tensions. He felt more than the usual relief on getting his diploma at an outdoors ceremony.
“I walked off the stage and kept on going,” Mr. Williams writes. “With my mortarboard tucked under an arm and gown flowing in the breeze, I broke into a run. For the first time in three years, I felt free.”
A true challenge
Eight years into his ministerial career, in 1963, Mr. Williams took on what seemed to be a hopeless appointment to Glide Memorial UMC.
The church had an impressive building and sizeable endowment; but the congregation had dwindled to 35, all of them white. Meanwhile, the surrounding Tenderloin area of San Francisco was both diverse and troubled, teeming with panhandlers, drug addicts and sex workers. The church kept its doors padlocked, wary of who might wander in.
Mr. Williams writes of seeing in Glide Memorial the chance to experiment in urban ministry and realize his dream of leading a diverse congregation. At a Sunday service, he told his congregation of his plans for a new Glide, one with doors wide open, welcoming all. He removed his clerical robe as a dramatic indication of changes to come.
The congregation walked out en masse, and later that week petitioned Bishop Donald Tippett to remove Mr. Williams. The bishop refused. (In an interview, Mr. Williams grew emotional remembering how he had found a letter in which the late bishop called him “my son in the ministry.”)
Mr. Williams describes in Beyond the Possible how he led Glide to refocus its social ministries to help the Tenderloin’s poorest residents. In 1965, he pushed Glide into activism, backing a neighborhood protest at City Hall that ultimately yielded a new elementary school building.
Long before gay rights was under discussion by most churches, Glide would, at Mr. Williams’ insistence, join a handful of other congregations in sponsoring a Mardi Gras ball put on by homosexuals in San Francisco. The church also organized a hotline for people to call if they’d been harassed by police.
It’s at page 76 in Beyond the Possible that Ms. Mirikitani enters. She was a graduate student who became a temp worker at Glide in 1967, helping to transcribe tapes of people complaining of harassment.
She had spent part of her childhood in a World War II internment camp for Japanese Americans, and had gone through other early traumas. As shy as Mr. Williams was effusive, she also was deeply skeptical of church and religion.
But Ms. Mirikitani found herself moved by the stories she was transcribing, and by the church’s commitment to helping victims. She felt embraced by other church staff, some of them gay, and she was intrigued by Mr. Williams’ passion for social justice. She signed on to work full time at Glide.
Her administrative skills and overall savvy emerged early. Mr. Williams tells of deciding to bring in the John Handy Jazz Quintet for a Christmas worship service, and saying to her, “Imagine: Haydn, Handel and Handy on Christmas.” She worked up a press release with that phrase, which soon yielded a column by the jazz critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, under the headline, “Haydn, Handel and Handy at Glide Church.”
“Thus our collaborative life began,” Mr. Williams writes.
A happening place
Glide eventually began to draw the diverse crowd he’d hoped for. Long before “contemporary worship” became a church term, he renamed services “Sunday Celebrations,” using gospel music and other strategies to get people engaged and feeling encouraged. He even removed the cross from the sanctuary—a controversial move that he devotes a few pages of Beyond the Possible to explaining.
Under Mr. Williams, Glide became a center of activism, welcoming in the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement and even a prostitutes’ union. The book recounts one provocative move after another by the church, including handing out condoms, an effort that took on urgency after the AIDS epidemic hit.
Meanwhile Ms. Mirikitani, as founding president of the Glide foundation, led the church on a quieter path of community service, establishing programs aimed at combatting hunger, addiction, mental illness and sexual exploitation.
Mr. Williams and Ms. Mirikitani had both been married before, and both had children, when they wed in 1982. The book describes the challenge they faced in blending their families, and in learning to live together.
At Mr. Williams’ insistence, Ms. Mirikitani shared with the Glide congregation about having been a victim of incest as a child. That act of speaking out, she notes in the book, both empowered her and persuaded her that Mr. Williams was right in insisting Glide be a place where secrets can be shared in an atmosphere of radical inclusivity and unconditional love.
“At Glide we say that everyone is in recovery from something,” writes Ms. Mirikitani, a poet, in Beyond the Possible.
Action and influence
Glide has had its critics—including within the UMC—but over the years the church has established enviable “metrics,” with membership having grown to more than 12,000 and worship attendance averaging 3,000.
The church’s missions include a mental health clinic, a family, youth and childcare center, and three apartment buildings that offer low-cost housing to the homeless, recovering addicts and others. Glide volunteers served more than 825,000 meals to the needy in 2011-2012.
Among the pastors influenced by Glide is Rudy Rasmus of St. John’s Downtown UMC in Houston. He said an earlier book by Mr. Williams, No Hiding Place, became his “manifesto” in urban ministry.
“He and Janice are great people who have touched the lives of many,” said Mr. Rasmus, whose church has grown to 8,000 members. “I am one of the lives they touched.”
Glide’s pastor these days is the Rev. Karen Oliveto, but Mr. Williams and Ms. Mirikitani remain deeply involved. Writing the new book proved a long, difficult distraction—even with the help of a ghost writer.
“You have to really dig deep into what is the truth of a situation,” Ms. Mirikitani said. “It’s very difficult to not have disagreements, and Cecil has a very strong ego.”
How tough did it get?
Well, there were days, Ms. Mirikitani added with a laugh, when the title Beyond the Possible seemed to sum up the project itself.