When the Rev. Cecil Williams was a child, one of his favorite games was “funeral.”
He and his six siblings would kill cockroaches, round up decaying rats and gather stiff birds to provide them with proper burials. Williams always played the role of pastor.
“We were having two or three funerals every day,” he remembers with a laugh.
There was a twist, though. Unlike most services in his hometown of San Angelo, Texas, Williams’ makebelieve funerals were integrated.
He would assign each of his brothers and sisters a race - red, yellow, white or black. Together, they would sing hymns, pray and give their insect or rodent friends a proper send-off.
From such humble beginnings, Williams went on to become a preacher of national stature. His goal is to create a model that churches of all denominations can use to integrate their congregations.
He teaches by example. Williams ministers to San Francisco’s largest congregation - nearly 6,000 homeless people, prostitutes, drug addicts, gang members, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, who crowd into Glide Memorial United Methodist Church every day for free meals, self-help classes, sermons and inspiration.
Alongside society’s castoffs sit some of the city’s wealthiest residents, most powerful politicians and Hollywood stars.
His “feel good” gospel cum revival services on Sundays have standing room only. Some of the celebrities joining in the whooping and hollering and singing and dancing have included poet Maya Angelou, comedian Bill Cosby, talk show hostess Oprah Winfrey and John F. Kennedy Jr.
Even President Clinton has attended Williams’ Sunday sermons. He was so impressed that he called Williams on Thanksgiving to congratulate him and his army of 1,300 volunteers on the hard work they would do that day to feed 6,500 meals to the city’s down-and-out.
For those reasons and more, these are heady days for a man who moved to the West Coast 32 years ago to take over a 35-member, all-white, middle-class Methodist congregation in the middle of a deteriorating neighborhood.
The church’s members didn’t take well to Williams’ egalitarian views, but he defied their prejudice and invited in the destitute from the strip clubs, X-rated movie theaters and flop houses that surrounded them in the city’s infamous Tenderloin.
Within a month, he was involved in a battle to protect prostitutes from police brutality and became active in the homosexual community. Eventually he began offering classes to help people kick drug and alcohol habits.
Those grew to include 37 programs teaching everything from computers to anger management.
Glide eventually became the city’s most comprehensive nonprofit provider of human services, feeding meals to 3,500 people who every day form a line that snakes around the block. Adding to the services it offers, Glide will break ground in the fall for a $9 million homeless shelter next door.
Williams, now 66, hopes his empire will one day become a model and training center for other churches, where ministers, priests and rabbis can learn to promote the diversity and tolerance he thinks is essential to the nation’s - and the church’s - survival.
“It seems to me that Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America,” Williams said. “That really does speak against what the church should be doing.
“I’d like to have an exodus occur where the churches begin to move to a real critical point in their lives where they will become more inclusive and stop worrying about a person’s sexual identity or a person’s color, a person’s class or whatever. We’ve got to move beyond that.”