SF queer poet theologian centers community outreach in new role

  • by J.L. Odom
  • Wednesday March 13, 2024
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Ramona Laughing Brook Webb, the new poet theologian at Glide Memorial Church, addressed the congregation during a Sunday Celebration. Photo: Kenneth Ward
Ramona Laughing Brook Webb, the new poet theologian at Glide Memorial Church, addressed the congregation during a Sunday Celebration. Photo: Kenneth Ward

In their new position as the 2024 Janice Mirikitani Poet Theologian in Residence at Glide Memorial Church, Ramona Laughing Brook Webb is off to a running start.

"I'm looking forward to every step of the way, and we're kind of off to the races already," said Webb in a recent phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

First up was their attendance at Glide's Sunday Celebration service February 11, during which minister Marvin K. White, a gay man, introduced Webb to the congregation and Webb gave their inaugural sermon. Next up, myriad plans and events, all aimed at community-building and in line with Glide's mission of inclusive faith and its social services.

As Webb, who is queer and uses they/them pronouns, said, "There's so many points of engagement and so many points of education. It feels very intersectional, and I'm really enjoying that. ... I'm looking forward to continuing to create that kind of embrace while working with the congregation at Glide and in the community that surrounds us."

Glide, located in the Tenderloin, was founded in the 1930s as a Methodist church; in the 1960s, it developed into the progressive, social justice-oriented and LGBTQ-affirming space it is today. It was for many years led by the Reverend Cecil Williams. Mirikitani, who was Williams' wife and a Glide co-founder, died in 2021. Williams, now 94, has retired from Glide. Now nondenominational, Glide champions radical inclusivity alongside its other values of truth-telling, love and hopefulness, community-focused initiatives and celebrating life.

Webb's appointment as Glide's poet theologian is a yearlong residency that officially got underway January 14. At the celebratory gathering last month, White detailed Webb's contributions and background, including her position as the first poet-in-residence at UCSF's National Center of Excellence in Women's Health and Black Women's Health and Livelihood Initiative.

"The work they're doing at the [UCSF] Black Wellness Center ... the race and gender concordant work that is happening is just amazing to watch and witness," said White in his introduction of Webb.

In an email to the B.A.R., White described Webb as "a practitioner of poetic medicine" and as "a reflection of the Tenderloin: womanist, queer, Black, and Indigenous."

He conveyed that Webb "has a way of crafting words that inspire people to pause and sit with things that are hard," encouraging people to attend Glide's Sunday Celebration and write their own narratives as a means to heal.

"Naming Ramona as the inaugural Janice Mirikitani Poet Theologian in residence is one of the many ways Glide Church is making art and faith an accessible, revolutionary, and revelatory practice to those of all sexualities, races, education and income levels," stated White.

Over the course of Webb's appointment, multiple initiatives are planned, including honoring Mirikitani, for whom the annual poet theologian residency at Glide is named.

"We'll be working on some collaborative pieces about Jan [Mirikitani]. We're looking to put together an anthology of work in her honor," said Webb.

Mirikitani, who managed Glide alongside Williams since the mid-1960s, served as the Glide Foundation's founding president and was the executive director of Glide's Family, Youth and Childcare Center. She was also San Francisco's second poet laureate, from 2000 to 2002, succeeding the late Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Through the sharing of theater and performance pieces, Webb intends to pay tribute to Mirikitani. One of the planned art exhibitions will also be dedicated to her.

"[It] exemplifies her values and the work that she shared with the world — the things that I feel like were her initiatives when it comes to the engagement of community and pivoting on humanity and the idea around forgiveness and the reclamation of time ... I'm really excited about continuing to hold a candle to that legacy and share even more about it," said Webb.

Other initiatives include the relaunching of Glide's Maya Angelou Room, which Webb will coordinate, and bringing in some guests, such as for Sunday Celebration, to speak with the congregation and the surrounding community.

During Webb's residency, the written word takes a prominent role as well, with poetry and other creative writing workshops, retreats and a "Take Back the Night" open mic night scheduled — all aimed to bring the community together. The workshop series will culminate with a January 2025 exhibition of participants' poetry and prose.

"It will be a way to share what we've collectively developed as a community by the end of all this," explained Webb.

These workshops will be hybrid, so that individuals who are unable to attend in-person sessions can still take part.

Community healing is another interest and aim, with meditation, journaling and affinity healing groups, such as one specifically geared toward Black women and gender-expansive people, on the table initiative-wise. The intent is for these offerings to have a wide reach, with a meditation series planned for Pride Month in June that will start at Glide and then head to the UCSF Black Wellness Center and to the Queer Healing Arts Center in Oakland.

"We'll be taking a little bit of this medicine of creative arts and meditation on the road," Webb noted.

Webb will be covering a lot of ground through community-building both at the church and outside of it.

"We're going to be bridging some communities through participation, and I'm looking forward to that. ... I want to continue to build those kinds of bridges between Glide and larger community spaces that are also doing impactful work that are of service to the community that is surrounding us and thriving with us," they said.

In these initial months of their residency, Webb will oversee a congregational cookbook writing workshop series and a "Vision and Voice" workshop.

The former, one of the creative writing workshops, involves collecting recipes from the Glide congregation and the larger community as a whole and integrating them into a collective writing project.

"We're writing our own recipes for change in our creative writing sharings ... and they're going to be published in collaboration with recipes for wellness — that kind of feel good medicine that we get when we are cooking food that is indigenous to our wellness and to our households and what we relate to that abundant feeling, that vibration of love and healing and seeing ourselves as the medicine we need to receive to feel inspired and held by the world," said Webb.

The latter is a workshop in which participants explore authenticity, partake in breathing exercises, and, correspondingly, focus on sources of inspiration and ways to be impactful in the future. Congregants will work toward creating an anthology of work stemming from their considerations and development of an authentic voice.

"[The workshop] also will give people an opportunity to have an introduction to me and my pace and how we're going to be working together, sharing together and collaborating together," noted Webb.

Now about two months into their residency, Webb has become more familiar with and involved in Glide, citing their participation in Glide's racial justice group, meditation group, Bible study, and prayer circles as invaluable.

"It's really given me an opportunity to completely invest and develop my own cultural competency around Glide as a community. It makes sure that the work that I'm presenting and what I'm offering is socially relevant to the community that is excitedly participating in all kinds of aspects of politics, spirit, affirmation, experience, and text," they said.

And on a quarterly basis, Webb will give sermons at Sunday Celebration, held at 9 and 11 a.m., throughout their poet theologian tenure — yet another opportunity to establish a continual connection with the congregation.

For more information about Glide, go to glide.org.

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