Remembering Cecil Williams: A Great & Real Religious/Spiritual Leader

A great man died this week on Monday, which was Earth Day and Passover Day.  Rev. Cecil Williams, co-founder in 1963 of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, passed on at age 94. 

The Rev. Cecil Williams and his wife, the late poet Janice Mirikitani, 2014. Photo by Christopher Michel on Wikimedia Commons.

A mystic and prophet who knew what healthy religion is meant to be, I think it can be said that Cecil helped redefine religion and church and holiness for the 20th and 21st centuries. 

It has been said that he transformed his church “into a national powerhouse for social justice and nonprofit service.”*  Cecil was a prophetic leader, reaching out to the marginalized by marching, by cajoling politicians, by offering all kinds of support groups, by raising funds and establishing retirement housing for the poor and by leading a Sunday worship service that was the real thing.

When is worship the real thing?  When you walk in Sunday morning and walk out a different person, as a black theologian in Chicago told me years ago.  When transformation happens therefore.  Transformation is what Williams was about.

The late Rev. Cecil Williams shares his vision of humanity in this Brief But Spectacular profile. PBS NewsHour

A PBS profile told of how Williams opened the church up to jazz music, hippies, addicts, the poor, poets and “anyone else who wanted to come.”  He also hosted political rallies and services, including speeches by Angela Davis and the Black Panthers.   

And most notably, he made the then radical decision to open up his church to LGBTQ people.  It was a queer sanctuary before churches did that at all, comments Pam Nole, a 30-year member of Glide.  He performed same sex weddings in the 1970’s decades before same-sex marriage became legal in the US.  Wiliams, she said, was “all about social justice, all about equity.”

Often, if I had a visitor in town, I would take them to Glide Memorial Church for services on Sunday morning.  Never did the lively choir and musicians or sermon or experience of profound diversity in a worshipping community disappoint. 

People across the Bay Area reflect on the legacy of Glide Memorial Church’s co-founder and longtime pastor, Rev. Cecil Williams. NBC Bay Area journalists Pete Suratos and Terry McSweeney report.

Once I brought Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop and promoter of so many causes for justice around the world, and she was absolutely smitten.  She begged me to introduce her to Cecil and the two hit it off immediately. 

She told me she was struck by the “realness” of the experience and thanked me profusely for the opportunity to experience real religion at work.  

To be continued.


Martha Ross and Caelyn Pender,Under Cecil Williams, Glide Memorial became world-renowned for welcoming ‘anyone who wanted to come,’” The Mercury News, April 23, 2024.

See Matthew Fox, Confessions: The Making of a Post-denominational Priest, pp. 304-333, 340, 352, 442.

And Fox, Creation Spirituality: Liberating Gifts for the Peoples of the Earth.

Banner Image: Reverend Cecil Williams (center front) at an anti-eviction rally, January 1977, to save the International Hotel at 848 Kearny Street in San Francisco. Photo by Nancy Wong on Wikimedia Commons.


Queries for Contemplation

What do you find inspiring about Cecil Williams’ story?


Recommended Reading

Confessions: The Making of a Post-Denominational Priest (Revised/Updated Edition)

Matthew Fox’s stirring autobiography, Confessions, reveals his personal, intellectual, and spiritual journey from altar boy, to Dominican priest, to his eventual break with the Vatican. Five new chapters in this revised and updated edition bring added perspective in light of the author’s continued journey, and his reflections on the current changes taking place in church, society and the environment.
“The unfolding story of this irrepressible spiritual revolutionary enlivens the mind and emboldens the heart — must reading for anyone interested in courage, creativity, and the future of religion.”
—Joanna Macy, author of World as Lover, World as Self

Creation Spirituality: Liberating Gifts for the Peoples of the Earth

Fox’s spirituality weds the healing and liberation found in North American Creation Spirituality and in South American Liberation Theology. Creation Spirituality challenges readers of every religious and political persuasion to unite in a new vision through which we learn to honor the earth and the people who inhabit it as the gift of a good and just Creator.
“A watershed theological work that offers a common ground for religious seekers and activists of all stripes.” — Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality and Practice.


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4 thoughts on “Remembering Cecil Williams: A Great & Real Religious/Spiritual Leader”

  1. Avatar

    Not knowing about him until now, it appears that Rev. Cecil Williams had a deep inner reach and faith that manifested in large scale compassion and inclusion. — BB.

  2. Avatar
    Dominic Flamiano

    It was a blessing to go to Glide and hear Rev Cecil Williams preach and especially to hear the choir and the entire congregation really create church, the assembly of we the people. A true prophet and preacher.

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