Catch up with Reverend Cecil Williams, a San Francisco legend

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There's only one place the Rev. Cecil Williams would think to spend Christmas Day: Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood.

Williams could be considered the founding father of modern San Francisco, known for more than half a century as a fighter for racial equality, LGBTQ rights, and the dignity of the homeless and drug addicts.

At 94 years old, he's pretty much out of the spotlight, so I decided to chat with him about his memories of more than 60 years at Glide and his thoughts on the city we both live in.

In 1963, the Methodist church sent Williams, who grew up in a small West Texas town, to lead a small, struggling church at Taylor and Ellis streets in San Francisco. He joked that he found six old white men in the pews, all wrapped in the same shawl.

He eliminated the obvious signs of religion: the cross, the altar, and the hymnals. And he turned Glide into a world-famous church with a boisterous choir, a house band, a progressive political bent and a membership list in the thousands. Poet Maya Angelou worshiped there and billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffett attends the service via Zoom.

These days, Glide is navigating without Williams, who retired for the third time in February, seemingly for good. His last title was Minister of Liberation and executive director of the Glide Foundation, an affiliate that focuses on promoting social justice and helping people escape poverty and drug addiction. Glide recently separated from the Methodist church and now operates independently.

I visited Williams twice in the last few weeks to see how he was doing. The 94-year-old has led a quieter life since the 2021 death of his wife, Janice Mirikitani, once the city's poet laureate, who partnered with Williams to build Glide into the force it is today.

Williams was hospitalized in September due to Covid-19, prompting him to move from his former home in the city's leafy, residential Glen Park neighborhood to Coterie, an assisted living facility six blocks west of Glide. He lives on the seventh floor and spends his days watching news on television, attending current affairs panels, doing physical therapy, and taking tai chi classes.

“I came here to live,” Williams told me, sitting in his wheelchair. “I didn't come here to die.”

When asked any question, Williams can turn his response into a sermon; His voice is now quieter than before, but his words are just as resonant.

Regarding his beloved San Francisco and the decline in its reputation since the pandemic, he said: “We have serious problems, but I think we can face them because we have faced them before. We still have a commitment to humanity. We don't give up. We continue forward. “We are just getting started.”

On accepting people of all races, sexual orientations and religious backgrounds into his church, he said: “I want people to be who they really are. Be it now, do it now. Why wait?”

His children, Albert, 58, and Kimberly, 60, help care for him and plan to attend church with him at Christmas. But his biggest supporter may be Thomas Walsh, 66, whom he hired as his executive assistant 15 years ago and who has since become a close friend and caregiver.

“I call him my main messenger,” Williams said. “Sometimes I have to tell him to sit down. He can't be tied down.

Walsh, who is still paid by Glide to support Williams, accompanies the reverend to his medical and physical therapy appointments, eats with him at Coterie, and takes him to Glide when he feels well enough to go.

“I love what I do, I always have,” said Walsh, who worked in advertising before accepting the Glide job and who does not consider himself religious. “He means a lot to me.”

The two were sitting in Coterie's living room one recent morning, joking. I asked Williams to name her favorite memory from her 60 years at Glide.

“Oh my God,” he said, seeming to get lost in thought.

“It's 60 years of looking back,” Walsh explained.

Then he had it. “Janice,” Williams said definitively.

He remembered the day he met his future wife at church and arrogantly asked her if she knew who he was. He didn't, a fact laughed at for decades.

Walsh said that although the church now had new leadership, it was important for Williams to visit as often as he could.

“They still respect him, they still want to see his face,” Walsh said. “It's important to keep Glide's legacy alive.”


What do you expect in 2024? Graduations, big birthdays, trips to new places?

Tell us your hopes for the new year at CAtoday@nytimes.com. Please include your full name and the city you live in.


This year, young people across the country are turning their holiday gift lists into elaborate virtual presentations, bringing a holiday tradition into the technological age.

Many of them use PowerPoint and Google Slides to create presentations for their families detailing their holiday wish lists, some with up to 18 slides and tech features like animated photos and QR codes.

Slideshows, while not a new tool, have become something of a trend this year, Alyson Krueger reported in a recent article for The Times, and slideshows have gotten more complicated, too.

While the presentations have convinced some families to take out their credit cards, for others, the proposals have failed. But the list's creators are not deterred. “Some of my family members, especially my dad and my cousins, were like, 'Wow, this is a lot,'” Peyton Chediak, a college student from Orange County, told Krueger in a recent interview. “I just say, 'I know, but I'm extra.'”


Thank you for reading. We will return tomorrow.

PS Here it is Today's mini crossword.

Soumya Karlamangla, Maia Coleman, Briana Scalia and Halina Bennet contributed to California Today. You can contact the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

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