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The Controversial, Yet Popular, Reverend Cecil Williams


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, you might remember that President Obama recently selected Julia Pearson to lead the Secret Service. She will be the agency's first female head. Well, guess who called that one first? It was not a political pundit. We'll tell you more in our BackTalk segment.

But, first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. And, if you are a church-goer, then you are probably familiar with the concept of a pastor's jubilee. That's a celebration of a faith leader's long service to his congregation or denomination.

Well, something like that is going on now with the Reverend Cecil Williams as he celebrates some 50 years as pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, but that's about the only thing that's typical about him and the church. Along with his wife and partner in the church's leadership, the poet Janice Mirikitani, Reverend Williams has taken Glide from a dying congregation of 35 members to a thriving and occasionally - Ok, well, make that often - controversial faith community of more than 10,000 with an extensive community service program.

The duo has done that with a blend of personal charisma, radical rethinking of what constitutes worship and an ongoing invitation to both the celebrated and the marginalized. Now, the Reverend Williams and Janice Mirikitani are telling their story in a new book. It is a joint memoir called "Beyond the Possible" and they are both with us now from member station KQED in San Francisco to talk about it.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.


JANICE MIRIKITANI: Thank you, Michel, for having us.

MARTIN: I wanted to start with you, Reverend Williams. Your mom pegged you for the ministry early on.

WILLIAMS: That's right.

MARTIN: Why is that?

WILLIAMS: That's right. Well, because the minister at that particular time was very - he had a major role, not only in the family, but a major role in the community. And that being the case, of course, I wanted to certainly be a spokesperson for the people in our communities. But, before I even got to that point, my mother designated me a minister and she said, you're going to be a minister. You're the fourth child in my family and I can't run out, so I'm going to say right now that you will be a minister. That's just it.

So they called me Rev when I was two years old and, when I was six years old, it was Rev, Rev, Rev. So here I am. You know, here's the reverend.

MIRIKITANI: It's also because he talks a lot.

MARTIN: Listen to you. But you actually followed a fairly conventional path up to a certain point. I mean, you did go to seminary. You were among a small group chosen to integrate your seminary and you were constantly kind of being reminded of how important it was for you to follow...

WILLIAMS: That's right.

MARTIN: ...a certain straight and narrow path. Wondering how it is that you started out there and ended up as a guy who would literally go out on the street and invite homeless people in to the church, who would invite the LGBT community at a time when people were literally being arrested. How'd that happen?

WILLIAMS: Well, it happened because I could see that, there, somebody was telling me lies about what was taking place. There was a division. There was a separation. There was segregation. There was racism. All of these factors and forces entered into the picture and what happened was I said, I can't live this way. I've got to accept people as they are. I've got to embrace people. And I'm not going to sit here and just let it happen and not do anything about it. So, in a real sense, I wanted to make sure that segregation and separation did not continue in my existence.

MARTIN: Now, Janice, you have your own struggle with faith and doubt. You - first of all, just learning that, you know, at one point, your family were interned in the Japanese-American internment camps, concentration camps in Arkansas during the war and then, subsequently - I don't know if you were - are you old enough to remember it? Do you remember the experience?

MIRIKITANI: I don't remember the experience, but I think a little known fact is that 50 percent of the people incarcerated in the 10 camps throughout the United States were children and most of the people, of course, were American citizens. So my mother, who had just birthed me - I was almost a year old. I mean, there were many, many consequences and I think people don't think of in terms of human terms. My mother was breastfeeding me and I grew up healthy as an infant, but she lost her teeth because she was drained of her calcium. And, when I came to Glide, you know, I was a mess. And I saw my mirrors. I saw the kind of rejection that I felt as a Japanese-American woman in the people who we were serving, the poor and the people - the young kids who had run away from homes because they had been incested or because they had been abused - and I myself experienced childhood abuse.

And, when I experienced Cecil, who was inviting in everybody, all the outcasts, all the rejected, the poor, the pimps, the prostitutes, anybody, no matter who they were, I felt heard for the first time.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with the Reverend Cecil Williams and his wife, poet Janice Mirikitani. We're talking about their new joint memoir, "Beyond the Possible." I want to ask you, though. Yours was among the first - how can I put it - mainstream denominational churches, if I can put it that way. I don't even know if you embrace that term. To openly accept - not just openly accept, but to stand up aggressively in behalf of the LGBT community. You were officiating...

WILLIAMS: That's right.

MARTIN: ...at same-sex commitment ceremonies before this was accepted by your denomination. You were one of the ministers, for example, who helped to organize a ball, a party for LGBT...

WILLIAMS: That's right.

MARTIN: ...people so that they could openly have a party at a time when the police would routinely raid and arrest people in...

WILLIAMS: That's right.

MARTIN: ...same-sex relationships. I mean, this was all very - a lot of this was very kind of discussed now, but back when you were doing this, you were constantly being followed by the police, questioned by the police...

WILLIAMS: That's right.

MARTIN: ...arrested for doing these things. And I am just curious about whether this was a struggle within you or was this something that just seemed obvious to you?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think both.

MIRIKITANI: Well, it wasn't just a party. It was a party in drag.

MARTIN: Well, yeah.



WILLIAMS: If you really mean what you are saying, if you really have to say, I accept you unconditionally, that means that you really act it out, that you participate fully with people from all walks of life and you may find it difficult in the beginning and it may get to you from a few encounters with gay and lesbian folks, but no matter what the circumstances, you have to, it seems to me, open your arms up and say, I love you. I care for you and I accept you as you are. And that's what exactly happened.

MARTIN: You know what I wanted to ask you about, though? This is one of the things that's always fascinated me. One of the most controversial moments in the life of the church - and you know what I'm going to ask you about - came when you...

WILLIAMS: That's right. That's right.

MARTIN: ...decided to remove the church's cross at the alter. First of all, what do you make of that? And, second of all, for people who...


MARTIN: ...heard about it, but don't know about it...

WILLIAMS: I did it because...

MARTIN: Why did you do it?

WILLIAMS: Because I wanted to bring the suffering to the people in the street. I wanted the people in the street to know that there were those of us who cared and to bring the cross meant that - to bring the struggle from the walls, from the statues, from the many, many, many different kinds of ways of using and misusing the cross.

It was apparent to me that the cross needed to live rather than die and so, immediately when I began to work at it, it began to make a lot of sense and a lot of commitment on my part and Jan's part and all of our parts to say to the world, we are going to bring life. We celebrate, we affirm, we bring life, not death and this is why we bring the cross to where the people really exist and the people are really hurting and there's so much suffering going on. Let's bring it where the people really have to go through the trials and tribulations.

MIRIKITANI: And, for me, I think it was not only a frightening experience because I still held onto some old belief that we were going to get struck by lightning or something, but it was also very liberating. And the analogy that I make is that we've lived in the shadow of the cross. We've lived in the shadow of shame and sin and I think that taking the cross down was a major, major statement of liberating us to feel, you know, that it was about life. It was about unconditional love and, if Jesus' life meant anything to me, it became very real that his life meant that he spent it in unconditional love and that is the message of the cross.

MARTIN: Well, there's so much that we could talk about, but in the time that we have left, I just find that I want to ask about the two of you. You've been married for more than 30 years now. Each of you had been married previously before you came together, although you'd worked together for many, many years before you became a couple. I am curious about how you have managed that all these years.

MIRIKITANI: It's hard work. It's really hard work. It's bad enough that we work together and that we're married together, but writing this book together was sheer torture.

WILLIAMS: Oh my God, was it ever.

MIRIKITANI: We had to really, really dig deep to go to the truth.

WILLIAMS: That's right.

MIRIKITANI: As a matter of fact, Cecil married me and my first husband and I was...

MARTIN: You mean he conducted the service?


MIRIKITANI: Yes, yes, he did. Yes. And I was...

WILLIAMS: Probably one of the worst services I'd ever done.

MIRIKITANI: And we were - I was a single parent for - I mean I divorced four years later and I was a single parent for eight years and Cecil was a single parent for five years and we both had our children, custody of our children. And when we realized our friendship had grown into this relationship where we wanted to be - share our life together, it was really difficult bringing this biracial situation with our kids and with, you know, identity struggles and they were at the age of adolescence - and you know, like we say, we find the message in the mess.

So I think the message of mutuality is what helps make it work, but we have to really struggle at that.


MARTIN: You talk a lot about that in the book, about pushing yourself and people to dig deeper into the message of what it really means to be a Christian. You are - have been at the center of many of the struggles that people in the rest of the church are going through now, with the whole...


MARTIN: ...question of sanctioning LGBT relationships, the whole question of what it means to truly minister to the poor, the whole question of income inequality in this country. And I'm just - I'm wondering if you have some wisdom to share with your friends in ministry or fellow people and particularly in the church who are struggling with these issues now and aren't ready to do...


MARTIN: ...what you were willing to do, you know, 30 years ago.

WILLIAMS: They need to let it go. Let it go.

MARTIN: What do you mean?

WILLIAMS: You know...

MIRIKITANI: Let the judgment go, he means.

WILLIAMS: Let the judgment go. Let working against folks, whatever - you know, stop working against gays and lesbians. Stop working against people. We're all human and we're all certainly concerned about how we shall live and make the changes in the world that will help others, all kinds of people.

MARTIN: And what do you say to those who say then you haven't read your Bible lately, that they say the Bible is clear that that's what the Bible says. They believe it, that ends it. What do you say to that?

WILLIAMS: I say to them, you know what? If you really understand, it seems to me, the liberated gospel, the liberated acts of Jesus - it would mean that we would take any hatred out of our hearts. We would take any misgivings out of our lives. Take judgment out of your acts and put love there. That's what needs to be there.

MARTIN: Cecil Williams served for many years as the leader of Glide. His current title there is minister of liberation of Glide.

WILLIAMS: That's right.

MARTIN: And his wife, Janice Mirikitani, is founding president of Glide Memorial Foundation. She was San Francisco's second poet laureate and their book together is called "Beyond the Possible." They were kind enough to join us from member station KQED in San Francisco.

Reverend Williams, Janice Mirikitani, thank you so much for joining us.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

MIRIKITANI: Thank you, Michel.

WILLIAMS: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.