Rev. Cecil Williams, longtime leader of Glide Memorial Church, dies

The Rev. Cecil Williams, who led the influential Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, has died. He was 94 years old.

Williams built Glide into a world-renowned church, known for its social services and activism, especially in the city's Tenderloin neighborhood.

Williams and his late wife Janice Mirikitani reshaped Glide in 1960 to turn the church into a more public-based church, growing it to more than 10,000 members. Last year, Williams announced that he was stepping away from the organization

He was a fierce fighter for civil rights, racial equality and LGBTQ+ rights. Williams was the church's leader for 60 years, where he preached unconditional love to the city's most vulnerable. And he did it alongside people like Angela Davis and the Black Panthers, even if it meant jail time. 

He dedicated his life to helping people who were hungry or homeless, or battling drug addiction. 

Glide became a safe haven during the AIDS crisis and provided HIV screenings. 

Tatiana Tilley, a Glide choir member, said Williams opened up his heart and church to the members of the LGBTQ+ community when most organized religions rejected them.

During the COVID pandemic, the church served as a testing location. 

"I reach out to people all over the world. I'm not afraid of anybody. I just, I care. And I'm going to show I care by what I do," Williams said in 2019. "That's why I've done so much." 

Leaders including Warren Buffett, Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had all at some point met with Williams. 

Mayor London Breed issued a statement on the reverend's passing that called him the "conscience of our San Francisco community." 

She said, "He spoke out against injustice and he spoke for the marginalized. 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." 

The mayor said what he and his wife created saved and transformed countless lives. "Cecil and Jan showed how supportive housing, wraparound programs and love can uplift troubled communities and create dignity, hope and opportunity."

"Growing up, there were members of the African-American community that inspired us to dream, and to serve, and Cecil Williams was at the top of that list. Cecil mentored generations of San Francisco leaders, many of us emerging from the most difficult circumstances."

"As a young girl, I would never have dreamed I’d grow up to work with him. 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." 

Former SF Mayor Willie Brown described himself and his longtime friend Williams as the preacher and the politician. He said he was also Williams' attorney when Williams was arrested for civil rights demonstrations. 

"Cecil established for all of us what community service really means, what it means to be an activist to help other people," Brown said. "Cecil for 50 years was one of the cornerstones of the city. He really didn't have any critics." 

Glide Memorial Church pastor Rev. Cecil Williams (R) and his wife Janice Mirikitani (L) looks at donated produce outside of Glide Memorial Church on November 19, 2014 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Glide Memorial Church issued a statement confirming Williams died at his home on Monday surrounded by family and friends. 

"For over 60 years, Reverend Cecil Williams expanded the limits of spirituality, compassion and diversity as Co-Founder and Minister of Liberation of GLIDE in San Francisco. As a minister, author, social activist, lecturer, community leader and ceaseless champion for the poor and marginalized, Reverend Williams was long respected and recognized as a national leader on the forefront of change and in the struggle for civil and human rights. His ministry underscored his roots in liberation theology. Today, he joins his beloved late wife and Co-Founder, Janice Mirikitani, in eternal peace and life."

Williams' passing was a moment of heartbreak for many in the city. Together with his wife, they were able to stress that you should not just pass by someone you see on the street, but to really reach out and see the humanity in them. His wife was a poet, activist and the first GLIDE president. She died in 2021. 

KTVU recently did a one-on-one interview with the reverend last November during a Holiday Jam benefit concert in his honor. At the time, he had a familiar smile on his face as he looked out over the crowd of the many who celebrated him and Glide with a musical tribute. The party was a showcase of how his influence has crossed all lines of politics and different generations and neighborhoods. He had stepped down a year earlier as CEO of the GLIDE Foundation. 

"This is just the beginning. Every day is the beginning. Every hour is the beginning. So we just move on," Williams said.

In a 2019 interview with KTVU, Williams, looking back on his own legacy, said he was proud that he preached unconditional love. With the church located in the Tenderloin, Glide certainly reached out to people where they were most in need. 

SEE ALSO: Glide Memorial shines light into the dark corners of people's lives

"Even though Cecil was 94, and he lived a long, beautiful, and impactful life; nothing takes away that sting of knowing that he is gone," said Glide's Chief Communications Officer Karl Robillard. 

Echoing the sentiments of others, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statement calling Williams a "visionary leader" whose compassion for the community was "legendary."

"At the helm of Glide Memorial Church for decades, Reverend Williams and his congregation offered refuge and support to all who entered their doors. Their tireless work to empower marginalized members of the community put them at the forefront of key social justice and human rights issues, driving positive change," Newsom's statement read. "Reverend Williams truly embodied the California values of unity, generosity and acceptance. All of us can take inspiration from his legacy and renew our commitment to one another."

Williams said GLIDE's foundation and legacy is love, which leads to liberation, justice and freedom.

The intersection of Ellis and Taylor Streets, the location of the church, also bears his name.

Glide leaders said the entire Williams family is on its way to San Francisco, including his daughter who is reportedly coming up from Los Angeles.

The voices of the GLIDE Ensemble rang out in the church on Monday evening, just hours after its visionary pastor died. A brief ceremony was held to honor Williams, led by GLIDE's senior Pastor Marvin White. He was chosen by Williams himself to help carry out his legacy of serving the community. White described Williams as a mentor. 

"If you're not a church of action, then you're not doing the work. We're doing social gospel. That means we are taking the good news out into the street and inviting everyone in," White said. 

In his final note to the community last year, Williams said that he would always remain connected to the church and community. 

"We're going to be clapping our hands for the next few weeks, months and years in celebration of his life," said White.

Pastor White extended the hours of the sanctuary this week to give community members a space to mourn and remember Rev. Williams. Details of a public memorial service are still being worked out. 

KTVU's Jana Katsuyama and Amber Lee contributed to this story.