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Janice Mirikitani, Glide Co-Founder and SF Poet Laureate, Dies

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Janice Mirikitani, right, and her husband Rev. Cecil Williams of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church at the 17th annual GLAAD Media Awards in San Francisco in 2006. (David Paul Morris/Getty Image)

Janice Mirikitani, a beloved San Francisco poet laureate who together with her husband ran the city's Glide Memorial Church, which caters to the poor and homeless, has died. She was 80.

Mirikitani died suddenly Thursday, the church confirmed in a message to supporters who were scheduled to attend a virtual justice event later in the day, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Calling it “sad and sudden,” the church said she died early in the morning with family and friends at her side, but did not specify the cause.

“We lost a legend today, the First Lady of the Tenderloin, a poet, someone who loved people, all people, and had endless compassion, grace, and vision. Rest in power, Dr. Janice Mirikitani,” San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney wrote in a tweet on Thursday.

Mirikitani was married to the Rev. Cecil Williams, who transformed Glide Memorial Church, in the heart of the city’s largely poor Tenderloin neighborhood, from a traditional Methodist church to a decidedly liberal one.

“[Cecil] and Janice really took it in a direction that no one envisioned before — opening the doors of Glide to openly gay young men and to lesbian activists,” said Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. “You won't believe how many progressive causes came out of Glide and were headquartered at Glide in that period of time when you were not allowed to rent or couldn't get rental anywhere else in San Francisco or much of the country.”

Mirikitani joined Glide Memorial Church in 1964, a year after Williams arrived in San Francisco to lead the congregation. Shaw worked closely with the couple over the years in various community initiatives and saw the pivotal role Mirikitani played behind the scenes.

“Janice was a powerful force of moral authority, but she never wanted to take the stage from Cecil,” Shaw said. “You will not see her name in the records of what occurred in history at Glide. ... Cecil actually told me in 2015, ‘Randy, You have no idea how much Janice did but she doesn't get credit for.’ ”

With Mirikitani's help, Williams transformed services into “celebrations." The church's congregation grew from roughly 30 members to nearly 10,000 members, making Glide the largest Methodist church in Northern California and one of the largest in the nation.

In 1965, Glide opened its doors to Vanguard, one of the first gay rights advocacy groups in the country. Williams offered Vanguard a meeting space, which, according to Shaw, led to some pushback from some in the congregation.

Mirikitani, Shaw says, dismissed the criticism and pushed for Glide to be a space that actively welcomed members of the LGBTQ community, becoming "a hero to the gay community in the Tenderloin."

In a statement, Mayor London Breed praised Mirikitani's work. “Jan Mirikitani was one of our city’s true lights. She was a visionary, a revolutionary artist, and the very embodiment of San Francisco’s compassionate spirit," Breed said.

“She served our most vulnerable residents for decades and provided a place of refuge and love for all.”

Mirikitani led the Glide Foundation and was executive director of the Janice Mirikitani-Glide Family Youth and Child Care Center.

“Janice was a force of nature,” Glide President and CEO Karen Hanrahan said. “She was fearless and transformational in the honesty with which she loved us all and held us all accountable. Janice’s legacy and her unique, powerful voice is all around us. It will continue to inspire Glide’s work as we transform hearts and minds, and the landscape of poverty and homelessness, in San Francisco.”

Mirikitani, a third-generation Japanese American, was named San Francisco’s poet laureate in 2000, succeeding the late Beat legend Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who became the city’s first poet laureate in 1998.

She was the daughter of Japanese American chicken farmers from Petaluma. She was 1-year-old when her family was swept up in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s controversial decision to intern Japanese Americans during World War II. Mirikitani and her parents were sent off to a camp in Arkansas. That experience informed a lot of her poetry.

“For me, the role of poet is as a voice to connect with the community," said Mirikitani, who published four books of poetry. "What’s great about San Francisco is its diversity. It’s the mecca for diversity, and that’s what turns me on about being the laureate,” she told the newspaper after her naming.

This post includes reporting from The Associated Press and KQED's Brian Watt and Alexander Gonzalez.

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