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Remembering Rev. Cecil Williams, champion of equality in San Francisco, dead at 94

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The legendary pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco died this week at the age of 94. Cecil Williams was known as a champion of racial equality, LGBTQ rights and the city's most impoverished residents. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Scott Shafer has this remembrance.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: Albert Cecil Williams was born in the West Texas town of San Angelo in 1929. Williams told NPR's Michel Martin in 2013 that his mother decided early on he would be a pastor when he grew up.

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CECIL WILLIAMS: So they called me Rev when I was 2 years old. And when I was 6 years old, it was Rev, Rev, Rev. So here I am, you know? Here's the reverend.

SHAFER: After graduating with a degree in theology from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Reverend Williams was recruited by the Methodist Church in San Francisco, then a very small house of worship. He arrived in 1963, when the city had a Republican mayor and the San Francisco police routinely arrested people at gay bars. Williams quickly decided that, to be relevant, Glide needed a different approach - something that spoke to the social changes of the 1960s and '70s. In 2012, Williams told KQED that his members were looking for authenticity and meaning in their lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WILLIAMS: People want something that matters. And what really matters is a radical love, taking risk - what we call having courage.

SHAFER: Williams opened the doors of Glide Church to anyone and everyone. Cleve Jones, who left Arizona as a teenager and landed on the streets of San Francisco, remembers Williams' ministry in the Tenderloin as very welcoming.

CLEVE JONES: Glide Church was one of the few places where young gay kids like myself could go get a meal, get some counseling, get some help. He was a real pioneer.

SHAFER: Jones, who later became a leading advocate for LGBTQ causes, remembers Williams as a critical bridge between the Black clergy and the city's growing number of gay residents. Hundreds of people regularly lined up outside Glide for Sunday services. Inside, congregants of every race, gender and sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and background locked arms in celebration, treated to a rollicking service that never disappointed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing, inaudible).

SHAFER: Over the years, Glide has become a San Francisco institution. Its music ensemble performs at weddings, mayoral inaugurations and funerals, spreading its message of love, diversity, healing and second chances.

As Glide's membership grew, Williams, and his wife, Janice Mirikitani, expanded his ministry to include free meals, legal services and health and wellness clinics. Randy Shaw, a longtime housing advocate in the Tenderloin, notes Williams raised millions of dollars to keep it all afloat.

RANDY SHAW: Cecil was able to make financial connections to donors that no one else in the Tenderloin and maybe in San Francisco could make. He was the one who the big donors would give to.

SHAFER: After his health began to fail him, Williams gradually stepped away from the job. Marvin K. White is now Glide's senior pastor. He knows he can never replace Cecil Williams, but he says he'll carry his vision forward.

MARVIN K WHITE: I have lost a brother, a mentor, a brilliant theologian, a great role model for what it means to be a Black prophetic preacher and minister.

SHAFER: In a written statement, San Francisco Mayor London Breed said, we would not be who we are as a city and a people without the legendary Cecil Williams. For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Shafer