Rev. Cecil Williams, longtime leader of SF's GLIDE Foundation, dies at 94

Tuesday, April 23, 2024
Rev. Cecil Williams, co-founder of SF's GLIDE Foundation, has died
Reverend Cecil Williams, the well-known and longtime leader of San Francisco's GLIDE Foundation has died, he was 94.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Beloved San Francisco pastor and activist Rev. Cecil Williams died Monday at the age of 94.

Williams is best known for his stewardship of Glide Memorial Church in the city's Tenderloin, where he oversaw multiple community outreach projects to hundreds of thousands of impoverished residents for over six decades.

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Though he retired as pastor in 2000, Glide continued its decades-long outreach to the poor and hungry through its massive Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners provided to anyone that wanted or needed one, along with day-to-day outreach and support that valued peoples' dignity and humanity.

"One very special thing about Cecil was that he met everyone where they were--literally and spiritually," said Oakland resident Ernestine Nettles, who met Williams when she was a child and has volunteered at Glide for over 50 years. "If you couldn't make it to the church to get a Thanksgiving meal, volunteers packed them up and brought them out to the streets, handing them out to everyone."

Nettles noted that Williams "embodied the spirit of Christianity," which is to not pass judgement and love everyone just the way they are. She said he treated everyone as equals, no matter their race, age, background, economic status, sexuality, past, or present.

"He is a true example of not only a Christian, but an American," said Nettles. "He was a drum major for justice."

Nettles remembered meeting him when she was a young girl.

MORE: GLIDE's outreach team doles out Thanksgiving meals at SF homeless encampments

"I first met him when I was quite young-- I am now 72-- and so would begin a life-long friendship," she said. "Fifty-five years ago, Reverend Cecil joined with me at my high school in Oakland to campaign to allow girls to wear pants. He also championed other causes that were important to my family and my community, giving 18 year olds the right to vote and getting out of the war in Vietnam."

Williams co-founded Glide in 1960 with late wife Janice Mirikitani, who died in 2021.

"I remember my Daddy saying to him when he became a minister at Glide in San Francisco, 'Young man, what is it you want to do?' Reverend Cecil replied, 'I want Glide to be a place where anyone in SF can come and get a decent meal and not go to bed hungry.'"

ABC7 News spoke with Williams several years ago about his role in the success of Glide, "Two things that are critical to us, unconditional love and unconditional acceptance, when you got those two things going for you, you're really out on the cutting edge," said Williams.

Those thoughts were echoed by many we spoke with Monday.

"Talking about unconditional love, and that everybody is accepted, that's something that I really wanted to and needed to hear when I got here and it kept me coming back," said Glide choir member Dennis Hersey.

"His immediately opening up the doors of the sanctuary to women, to poor folks, to sex workers, to Black folks, to Brown folks, to early queer organizers, on and on and that door kept opening wider and wider," said Marvin White who is minister of celebration at Glide.

"He fed the hungry, clothed the naked, went to the prisons and provided re-entry programs, he stood for peace, he was no chauvinist," said Rev. Amos Brown who heads the SF branch of the NAACP.

Mayor London Breed on Monday also remembered Williams and released a statement:

"Reverend Cecil Williams was the conscience of our San Francisco community. He spoke out against injustice and he spoke for the marginalized. He led with compassion and wisdom, always putting the people first and never relenting in his pursuit of justice and equality. His kindness brought people together and his vision changed our City and the world."

MORE: San Francisco mourns loss of Glide co-founder Janice Mirikitani

Longtime San Francisco philanthropist and poet, Janice Mirikitani, has passed away.

The mayor also noted how Williams championed the idea of "wrap-around" services for those in need and supportive housing.

"As a young girl, I would never have dreamed I'd grow up to work with him," said Breed. "We all benefited from his guidance, his support, and his moral compass. We would not be who we are as a city and a people without the legendary Cecil Williams."

Governor Gavin Newsom, who was the mayor of San Francisco from 2004 to 2011, released a statement saying Williams' love for his community transformed the lives of so many people.

"Reverend Williams truly embodied the California values of unity, generosity and acceptance. All of us can take inspiration from his legacy and renew our commitment to one another," said Newsom.

Other public figures took to social media to express their gratitude to Rev. Williams and all that he did for marginalized communities in San Francisco.

California State Sen. Scott Wiener

California Assemblymember Matt Haney

California State Controller Malia Cohen

City Attorney of San Francisco David Chiu

Christine Pelosi

San Francisco Giants

Bay City News contributed to this article.

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