Longtime Glide leader the Reverend Cecil Williams dies

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Monday April 22, 2024
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The Reverend Cecil Williams, a longtime ally to the LGBTQ community, has died. Photo: Bill Wilson
The Reverend Cecil Williams, a longtime ally to the LGBTQ community, has died. Photo: Bill Wilson

The Reverend Cecil Williams, who remade Glide Memorial Church into a powerhouse for social justice, died Monday, April 22, according to San Francisco Mayor London Breed's office. He was 94.

According to the church's website, Reverend Williams died at his San Francisco home.

Reverend Williams joined Glide in the 1960s, according to a history on the church's website, and with other progressive ministers breathed new life into a dying congregation. The church welcomed all, from hippies to drug users to transgender youth, and offered a spiritual home and cultural growth.

Reverend Williams was also a steadfast ally to the LGBTQ community. During the 1960s Glide was part of a citizen's alert group that documented incidents of harassment against LGBTQ people when possible. The church also sponsored LGBTQ balls, including one five years before Stonewall that was raided by San Francisco police and resulted in numerous arrests. (All charges were eventually dropped.)

Reverend Williams' wife, Janice Mirikitani, died in 2021, as the Bay Area Reporter noted in its obituary. Married in 1982, Ms. Mirikitani became president of the Glide Foundation.

Ms. Mirikitani and Reverend Williams both spoke at the 2008 memorial for Del Martin, a founder of the Daughters of Bilitis and partner of Phyllis Lyon, who died in April 2020. The couple presented drag nun charitable group the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence with Glide's the Reverend Cecil Williams Legacy Award at the church's 10th anniversary of its Legacy Gala.

Reverend Williams retired several years ago, but remained active with Glide. Last year, he announced he was formally stepping down, the San Francisco Chronicle reported at the time.

The Reverend Jim Mitulski, a gay man who served as senior pastor for many years at the old Metropolitan Community Church-San Francisco in the city's LGBTQ Castro neighborhood, recalled Reverend Williams.

"I worked with both Reverend Cecil Williams and with his wife and partner in ministry, the poet Jan Mirikitani, for many years, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s," Mitulski, now pastor at Congregational Church of the Peninsula in Belmont, wrote in an email. "These were important years in LGBT and in HIV/AIDS liberation. Through his work on the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, which he and others at Glide Church helped pioneer in the 1960s, he modeled an intersectional approach to social change and the collaborative approach to community work."

Mitulski added that the couple created the space for self-determined movements like the Metropolitan Community Church, which was led by LGBTQ people for LGBTQ people.

"He knew when to lead and he knew how to work alongside," Mitulski added. "Cecil and Jan we're always a great friend to MCC and a source of encouragement for the work we did.

"On a very personal level, he was always kind to me and always had time to give me advice, even when we didn't agree," Mitulski stated. "This Sunday at my church, I'll be sure we celebrate him as a revolutionary saint who changed the world and to show others how to do the same."

Brian Basinger, a gay man, posted a tribute on Facebook that recalled Reverend Williams stopping the San Francisco Pride parade for 30 minutes after he was mobbed by reporters while on Basinger's Freedom to Marry float.

"Rev. Williams missed his only sermon to be on my Freedom to Marry float at Pride one year," Basinger wrote. "We won best float after being mobbed by global press, stopping the parade for 30 minutes. This is when gay marriage was controversial, so him standing with us was a courageous act. Rev. Williams was in full regalia head to toe bright African print. The float was a garden wedding scene with gazebo on green turf, white picket fence, topiary, 6 male couples in dove grey tuxedos with top hats and morning tails, the women wore Jessica McClintock wedding gowns. To top it off, we had a counter tenor from SF Opera singing 'Ave Maria.'"

Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) posted on X that he will miss Reverend Williams.

"I knew Cecil for many years & was continually in awe of his wisdom & commitment to justice," Wiener wrote. "Cecil played a key role in creating the Glide community — a beautiful, welcoming place."

Governor Gavin Newsom, a former mayor of San Francisco, issued a statement Monday evening.

"Jennifer and I join all Californians in mourning the passing of Reverend Cecil Williams, a visionary leader whose legendary compassion and love for his community transformed the lives of people from all walks of life," Newsom stated, referring to his wife, first partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom.

"At the helm of Glide Memorial Church for decades, Reverend Williams and his congregation offered refuge and support to all who entered their doors," the governor added. "Their tireless work to empower marginalized members of the community put them at the forefront of key social justice and human rights issues, driving positive change.

"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," Newsom stated.

Breed issued a statement on Reverend Williams' passing.

"Reverend Cecil Williams was the conscience of our San Francisco community," she stated. "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.

"What he created at Glide Memorial Church, along with his partner Janice Mirikitani, saved and transformed countless lives," the mayor added. "Their impact will never be matched. Cecil and Jan showed how supportive housing, wraparound programs and love can uplift troubled communities and create dignity, hope and opportunity."

Breed noted that the Reverend Williams was "at the top of that list" of African American community members who inspired Black youngsters to dream and to serve.

"Cecil mentored generations of San Francisco leaders, many of us emerging from the most difficult circumstances," she recalled.

"As a young girl, I would never have dreamed I'd grow up to work with him," Breed added. "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."

Reverend Williams was born on September 22, 1929 in San Angelo, Texas.

Glide officials posted a tribute to Reverend Williams on the church's website.

"With Reverend Cecil William's passing, we have lost an incomparable champion of social justice, civil and human rights, and liberation theology," stated Gina Fromer, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Glide Foundation. "For more than 60 years, Reverend Cecil Williams expanded the limits of spirituality, compassion, and diversity as co-founder and minister of liberation of GLIDE in San Francisco.

"As minister, author, social activist, lecturer, community leader and ceaseless champion for the poor and marginalized, Reverend Cecil Williams was long respected and recognized as a national leader on the forefront of change and in the struggle for civil and human rights," Fromer added. "Today, he joins his beloved late wife and co-founder, Janice Mirikitani, in eternal peace.

Updated 4/23/24 with additional information and comments.

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