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Cecil Williams, Legendary Pastor of Glide Church, Dies at 94

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An older Black man walks outside Glide Memorial Methodist Church, where barricades are set up and people stand in line.
Rev. Cecil Williams monitoring the annual grocery bag giveaway for those in need at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco on Dec. 19, 2007. (Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Rev. Cecil Williams, the beloved social justice activist and longtime pastor of San Francisco’s Glide Memorial Church, died Monday at the age of 94.

Williams is best known for his stewardship of the Tenderloin neighborhood church that he became pastor of in 1963 and helped develop into a world-renowned congregation and social service nonprofit. As its leader, Williams built and oversaw multiple community outreach programs that have offered crucial support to hundreds of thousands of impoverished residents in the city over the last six decades.

Chief among those initiatives is the Free Meals Program. Launched in 1980, the program provides three free hot meals a day to anyone in need, dishing out hundreds of thousands of meals each year.

Willliams also became known for his welcoming approach to the LGBT community and his unflinching support of civil rights.

“One very special thing about Cecil was that he met everyone where they were — literally and spiritually,” said Oakland resident Ernestine Nettles, who has volunteered at Glide for over 50 years, and first met Williams when she was a child. “If you couldn’t make it to the church to get a Thanksgiving meal, volunteers packed them up and brought them out to the streets, handing them out to everyone.”


Nettles noted that Williams “embodied the spirit of Christianity” in not passing judgment and loving people as they are. She said he treated everyone as equals, no matter their race, age, background, economic status, sexuality, past, or present.

“He is a true example of not only a Christian, but an American,” said Nettles, recalling how Williams championed a range of local and national social justice causes, and even once came to her Oakland high school to help her campaign to allow girls to wear pants. “He was a drum major for justice.”

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The grandson of a slave, Albert Cecil Williams was born Sept. 22, 1929, and raised in the segregated West Texas town of San Angelo. He was one of six children.

After moving to San Francisco, Williams helped revive Glide with Janice Mirikitani, who later became his wife. Mirikitani died in 2021.

With the addition of a chorus and a band, Williams’ church soon began hosting spirited, celebratory Sunday services that attracted a diverse swath of parishioners.

Although he retired as the church’s pastor in 2000, he retained his roles as the Minister of Liberation and CEO of the GLIDE Foundation —  organization that now has a more than $20 million budget and thousands of members — until last year, when he officially stepped down.

Randy Shaw, the director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, who wrote a book on the history of the neighborhood, said Williams’ leadership of the church was transformative. Many people, he said, don’t realize that when Williams was hired to lead Glide, the congregation was almost down to the single digits.

“He chose a remarkably unsurprising strategy to rebuild the congregation. He decided to be a fierce advocate for social justice and civil rights. And most controversial for the time, he became an outspoken advocate for lesbian and gay and transgender rights” at a time when San Francisco Police were arresting gay and lesbian people for being in bars, Shaw said.

In turning Glide into a major deliverer of social services, Williams became a prolific fundraiser and powerful booster, garnering the support of celebrities and major influencers, the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, Bono and Warren Buffet.

“Cecil was able to make financial connections to donors that no one else in the Tenderloin, and maybe even in San Francisco, could make,” he said. “He was the fiery minister who was urging people to get involved in stuff and fighting for justice and not mincing words about things.”

In a statement, Mayor London Breed called Williams “the conscience of our San Francisco community.”

“He spoke out against injustice and he spoke for the marginalized,” she said. “He led with compassion and wisdom, always putting the people first and never relenting in his pursuit of justice and equality. His kindness brought people together and his vision changed our City and the world.”

Breed also noted how Williams championed the idea of supportive housing and “wraparound” services for those in need.

“As a young girl, I would never have dreamed I’d grow up to work with him,” she said. “We all benefited from his guidance, his support, and his moral compass. We would not be who we are as a city and a people without the legendary Cecil Williams.”

This article includes reporting from KQED’s Matthew Green, Alex Gonzalez, and Bay City News.

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