Glide Memorial, San Francisco, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Benny Diction
Church: Glide Memorial
Location: San Francisco, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 13 August 2006, 11:00am

The building

This doesn't look like your usual Methodist church – rather, it is an Italianate structure complete with bell tower. The church complex, including various attached halls and offices, takes up the best part of a city block. The sanctuary, as it were, is reached by going upstairs. It is large, seating around 700, with several hundred more seats in a gallery on a higher level. The front of the sanctuary is dominated by a large stage with some tiering toward the back on which the choir stood. The interior was quite dark despite the presence of stained glass windows.

The church

Founded in 1931 by the widow Lizzie Glide as a memorial to her late millionaire cattleman husband, the church ministered to an exclusive lily-white and upper-middle-class congregation for the first 30 years of its existence. By the early 1960s, however, membership had dwindled to less than 100 when a young African-American minister named Cecil Williams, determined to bring life back into the church, threw open the doors to gays, hippies, addicts, the poor, and all other disenfranchised people. Today, Glide Memorial is a driving force in the community known as SOMA ("South of Market"), engaging in dozens of programs all enumerated on their website. Minister Williams still serves the church as chief executive officer and director of ministries. This is truly a church where, as their motto has it, "unconditional love changes lives everyday."

The neighborhood

Just two blocks away is Union Square, the center of San Francisco's shopping district. Opposite the church is a huge Hilton hotel. But the church stands on the edge of the rundown, seedy area known as the Tenderloin, where, as local wags say, "wine is sold by the pint, not by the glass, and the homeless look and feel at home." And yet the church attracts such a large crowd that special dispensation is given by the San Francisco police to allow double parking, and it even seemed as though some sort of valet parking was in operation.

The cast

A cast of thousands, but the main players were the Revd Cecil Williams; the Revd Douglass Fitch, co-pastor; and Janice Mirikitani, president of the Glide Foundation.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Celebration, including a christening.

How full was the building?

It was full on both floors. They had to put extra seats in the aisles.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

We actually had to undergo the unusual experience of standing in a queue to get in! It felt like waiting to get into a theater or cinema. Eventually as we got to the front, a steward said, "This way please," and pointed us to some stairs.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes, it was. It was a wooden pew but was deep enough to sit back in, but at the same time it didn't cut into the backs of the legs.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Frantic and noisy. The worship band was tuning up. Microphones were tested. People were talking on mobile phones. Babies were crying. Quiet and reflective it wasn't!

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Hi! Good morning! Welcome to Glide."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None. The (very few) hymns were projected onto the wall behind the stage. There wasn't a Bible reading (see below) so the absence of pew Bibles wasn't noticed.

What musical instruments were played?

There was an excellent worship band comprised of two electric keyboards with piano and organ sound, electric guitars, trumpet, saxophone, and drums.

Did anything distract you?

I was taken aback by the flashy robes the choir wore. They were a cross between Hawaiian shirts and tie-dyed T-shirts. Boy, were they loud! (Though secretly I crave one.)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Happy clappy/gospel. The choir played a leading part in the worship, and rightly so because they were superb. They built us up to a spiritual high that was soon to be dashed, unfortunately. The service began with a brief set of prayers of thanksgiving led by a choir member. There was no Bible reading. There were no prayers of intercession. At one point Janice Mirikitani shared the sad news that a young child who attended the toddler group had been killed by a hit and run driver. But we did not pray for the family – rather, we were invited to contribute to a fund for the family and lobby City Hall to reduce speed limits. In the middle of all this a christening took place, though without any of the usual baptismal liturgy. God was briefly mentioned, but on comparing notes with my two companions later we all concluded that Jesus had not been! Quite an achievement in a Christian service. We sang one or two praise choruses but the choir did most of the singing. At the end we were invited to join hands with our neighbors and sing "We shall overcome" (although exactly what we were overcoming wasn't made clear). One of my companions summed the service up as "worship by association rather than participation."

Exactly how long was the sermon?

17 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

2 – Quite folksy with lots of homespun wisdom. It wasn't so much a sermon as a series of thoughts that didn't seem to be connected in any way. But the Revd CEECIL (Minister Williams) is clearly loved by regular worshippers. After all, he's been at the church for over 40 years.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Minister Williams started off by taking a roll call of nationalities present, including Americans – there were 15 different countries represented. He made a passing reference to Romans (though no chapter or verse) and then referred to a book he'd just read. He emphasised how people's lives have to change. There are two great dangers: excess sin and being successful in protecting our lives. Dream your dreams and let them become actions. Imagination means taking the risk to touch the soul of people. The Church needs to take the risk. It is so far behind the times it doesn't know what year it is. If we dream, we must create something that touches justice. Remember that childhood game called richies and poories, where we tried to imagine what it would be like to be rich? Well, the poor folks become rich and worthy with God. Don't talk about "one day I'm going to become religious." That one day is now! (I was there and it still doesn't make much sense to me unfortunately.)

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The gospel choir were amazing. Theye sang several songs and then three soloists sang songs with the choir accompanying. Each soloist was better than the last, which was some achievement. I was in tears as one of the soloists, a Mr Vincent Mason, sang a sort of modern day spiritual called "There's a place." He had to sing an encore.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Oh dear. Where do I start? In the middle of the service (and I suppose this being America) we actually had a commercial, not just for the activities at the church and an appeal for helpers, but for the CDs, T-shirts, beanie hats and tote bags that were for sale. These were duly modeled by a male member of the choir. But the thing that really jarred for me was the inclusivity. "We've got Muslims here today, Buddhists, Jews, agnostics, atheists. You're all welcome. We're all journeying, aren't we? If God made you, we want you." There seemed to be no emphasis on salvation through Christ, which was too much for this traditional Methodist. (In fact, hark – isn't that John Wesley himself spinning in his grave?) Also, the big American footballer type next to me looked decidely unhappy when I took his hand to sing "We shall overcome." (He wasn't my type either!)

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Nothing. We trooped out with everyone else. No one made the effort to speak to us. I spoke to one of the stewards and he seemed confused!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

We didn't find any. We went to a cafe we knew a couple of blocks away.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

3 – I admire the way Glide lives the gospel. But I certainly saw no evidence that they preach it.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Not really. I felt as if I'd been to a concert. I did not feel as if I'd worshipped – and where was the Bible? Where was Jesus?

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The gospel choir.

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