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Whose Glide Is It, Anyway?

A holy war over the beloved San Francisco institution pits the United Methodist Church against its most famous offspring. It’s a war that can have no winners.


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The Reverend Cecil Williams exhorts the crowd during a Sunday Celebration at Glide in the 1960s.

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Williams meeting with a congregant at an August service.

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Janice Mirikitani is greeted during a recent celebration.

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Mirikitani at Glide in 1971.

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Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the October 2018 Legacy Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

At a time in
San Francisco when you’re more likely to catch the glare off the smartphone of a person hurrying past you than you are to make eye contact with them, attending a Sunday Celebration at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church feels like stepping into another reality. Every week, the packed sanctuary sways and claps along to the eight-piece Change Band’s upbeat gospels. The Glide Ensemble choir roars in song, dancing and laughing and hugging. On one recent Sunday, a white-haired man jumped through the pews in the balcony, urging others onto their feet. A skateboard-toting teen posted an Instagram story of himself bobbing his head to the music.

Here, for an hour at least, is a San Francisco where the deep divides of class and race have been bridged. A San Francisco where a homeless woman, surrounded by all her earthly possessions, is treated the same as a middle-class suburbanite in a cashmere sweater. And here, in the second row of pews, sit the two people who created this exuberant, life-giving, lifesaving place: the Reverend Cecil Williams, quiet and still in his wheelchair, and his wife, Janice Mirikitani, her signature black waves cascading down one side of her face. These are the living legends behind modern-day Glide, the visionaries who lifted up a small Methodist church in the Tenderloin more than 50 years ago and transformed it into a $20-million-a-year force for good.

At 89, Williams is no longer the larger-than-life figure whose booming oratory supposedly once brought Bill Clinton to tears. Nodules on his vocal cords have reduced his formidable weapon to a strained whisper; age has restricted the movements of a body formerly known for sweeping down the aisles in a persuasive flourish of swishing robes. Amid all the dynamism of a Sunday Celebration, Williams can only tap his curled fingertips together to the beat. From his wheelchair up front, he keeps his gaze fixed on the stage that was once his dominion, watching others wield the microphone that was once his scepter.

Even legends cannot outrun time. Williams is a different man from the one who removed the cross and other religious icons from the sanctuary, opening its doors to those of any and all beliefs. He’s a different man from the firebrand who thumbed his nose at the United Methodist Church by performing same-sex marriages and flouting the church’s mandatory retirement age—stepping down as pastor in 2000 only to be hired the next day by the nonprofit Glide Foundation, the charitable arm that was founded alongside the church. “They can’t touch me now,” he boasted to the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009.

But that was then. In the twilight of Williams’s life, he has been forced to deal with an ugly rift between the institution he essentially birthed and its parent church. In a bid to regain oversight of Glide, the United Methodist Church has given voice to the whispered rumors that have for years followed Williams and Mirikitani, allegations of financial improprieties and murmurs that they have been too controlling. Glide’s parent church accuses Williams and Mirikitani of receiving excessive salaries and retirement packages, failing to be transparent about money matters, practicing an autocratic, even abusive management style, and generally making themselves unanswerable to church authorities. Glide has long been an unorthodox organization, one that claims the nonprofit benefits of a Methodist church but none of its traditions or teachings. And for decades, church authorities tolerated this. But for reasons that are disputed, that tolerance has come to an end.

“I respect Brother Cecil for the brave work that he’s done in the past, but I believe he has become corrupt along the way,” says Bishop Minerva Carcaño, the ­highest-ranking cleric in the United Methodist Church’s California-Nevada Conference. “Under Cecil Williams, we now have a setup with Cecil as the king and the foundation as his huge money bag. Most of it goes to the poor, but too much of it continues to go to him and to Janice Mirikitani.” Williams and Mirikitani, with the full support of the foundation, deny any wrongdoing and say the campaign is nothing more than a power grab.

The church’s attack has produced outrage, both within Glide and beyond its walls. Glide is one of San Francisco’s most beloved institutions, supported by thousands of congregants, employees, volunteers, clergy, and clients who make use of the social services the Glide Foundation offers, from free meals to counseling to needle distribution programs. It’s also about as politically untouchable as any organization in the city: Four days after her inauguration as the first African American female mayor of San Francisco, London Breed walked into the sanctuary, escorted by Mirikitani, and spoke to the congregation about her younger sister, who had found solace at Glide before dying of a drug overdose. “People trust Glide,” Breed said afterward. “This is the place where people come for anything. If you want help, you come to Glide; if you are hungry, you come to Glide. If you want to be spiritually uplifted, you come to Glide. If you want no judgment, you come to Glide. When you have nowhere else to go and you hit rock bottom, you come to Glide.”

So beloved are Williams and Mirikitani that even among those who find fault with their leadership, few are willing to openly speak against them. “When [the accusations] came out at the regional conference this past June, other ministers said, ‘Why don’t you guys leave Glide alone? They have this history. I can’t believe you would interfere,’” says a former Glide associate pastor who asked not to be named. “But they didn’t know the other side of it.”

For the couple’s supporters, the bishop’s actions are an overstep—a reactionary effort to seize control from a couple who have dedicated their lives to serving the city’s ­neediest, an attack not only on Williams and Mirikitani, but also on San Francisco values. But Carcaño argues that it is Williams and Mirikitani who have strayed from the righteous path.

The first shots have been fired in a battle not just for Glide’s future, but for its soul. And as in any war where each party believes itself to be on the side of God, all paths point toward calamity.

The crux of
this conflict lies in Glide’s unique split identity. The church was founded in 1929 by Lizzie Glide as a charitable trust rooted in the Protestant faith. But Williams and Mirikitani re-created it in the 1960s and made it what it is today. When Williams was appointed as lead pastor in 1963, he told the bishop that he planned to “turn this church upside down,” and the bishop gave him the freedom to do just that. Instead of focusing on growing the congregation, a pastor’s usual task, Williams was more interested in what Glide could do for the community. “The world has more to say to the church than the church has to say to the world,” he wrote in Beyond the Possible, the autobiography he coauthored with Mirikitani.

Listening to the world meant breaking with United Methodist doctrine. When Williams took down the cross, he instituted a policy of radical inclusion according to which all were welcome. He was wildly successful, not only increasing church attendance and charitable donations but also greatly expanding the foundation’s programs and services—which Mirikitani, at the time an atheist, took over soon after she began working at Glide in 1965. Glide’s success was a big reason the mother church allowed its wayward child to go it alone for so many years. But that meant that Williams and Mirikitani had complete control over the operation, Carcaño says, and they operated unchecked for decades. Most Methodist churches establish various charitable enterprises that remain under their authority. In ­Williams and Mirikitani’s case, the foundation became far more powerful than the church.

Ordinarily, the pastor of a Methodist church is subordinate to the bishop of the regional conference. Though both Glide and its charitable arm are overseen by a board of trustees—on which the bishop and various other local Methodist leaders have historically had seats—Carcaño alleges that Williams and Mirikitani have operated independently of the church by stacking the board with allies who rubber-stamp their decisions. Even when the couple transitioned to part-time work in 2016, they still ran the show—and, Carcaño argues, reaped financial rewards far beyond what religious leaders typically receive.

And here is the problem in a nutshell. What is Glide, exactly? Is it a successful nonprofit, or is it a religious organization? Should Williams and Mirikitani be receiving the recompense that would be paid to the heads of multimillion-dollar charitable foundations or to semiretired religious leaders? This battle over identity also involves financial transparency. By declaring itself a faith-based group, Glide secures an exemption from disclosing its finances to the public, as other nonprofits must do. But Carcaño says she has yet to receive from Glide the detailed financial reports required of any church in her region. Glide denies this allegation.

According to the church, when Williams “retired” in 2000, his total salary was $155,142—$86,756 in base pay, a housing allowance of $50,257, a cash allowance of $3,330, and a “professional expense allowance” of $14,799. A pastor’s salary is paid for through church congregants’ donations and can vary based on how large a congregation is. Since Glide currently boasts about 13,000 ­members—almost a fifth of the entire California-Nevada Conference—a larger-than-normal salary would presumably be justified. After Williams’s nominal retirement, the foundation side of the organization began paying his salary, as it had paid Mirikitani’s for decades.

Although Glide Foundation policy keeps employees’ salaries confidential, both Williams and Mirikitani were willing to reveal their recent compensation history when asked by San Francisco. “I have nothing to hide,” Mirikitani said. With their permission, Juliet Clothier, the foundation’s chief financial officer, disclosed that from 2009 to June 30, 2016, they each received an annual salary of $180,000. Williams also received a housing allowance of $50,000 a year—the Methodist church makes a practice of providing housing allowances to its clergy, and the foundation chose to continue this compensation after Williams left his position with the church. (Williams and Mirikitani have owned their Glen Park house for decades.) On July 1, 2016, the couple began working part-time, at which point their salaries dropped to $72,000 each.

A roughly $200,000-a-year salary isn’t necessarily excessive for a nonprofit with the $20 million budget that the Glide Foundation had in 2017—largely owing to the leadership, fundraising, and organizing efforts of Williams and Mirikitani. Which is why the foundation and the couple’s many defenders assert that their recompense is in line with that received by comparable social-justice-nonprofit heads. Outside experts agree. “I’m not going to quibble over the salary if they’re really doing a good job. There’s nothing that says we can’t and shouldn’t pay for good talent, so long as it’s proportionate to the overall budget,” says Laura Otten, executive director of the Nonprofit Center at La Salle University’s School of Business, in Philadelphia. What causes Otten to raise an eyebrow is the possible redundancy. “My question is, there seemed to be a lot of overlap of what the two of them did. Was [Mirikitani] really the executive director, or was she co–executive director? Now we’re talking about $180,000 to do what?”

Critics also raise questions about Williams’s and Mirikitani’s retirement packages. A volunteer who worked closely with the foundation after Williams stepped down from the pastorship (and who asked not to be named) claims that Williams told the Glide Board of Trustees, “You’ll have to negotiate my compensation first before I’ll talk transition.” Williams denies this allegation. Following a lengthy consultation process, the board decided to pay the couple a total of $2.4 million—$1.4 million in deferred retirement compensation and a $1 million “retention bonus” to be paid out over three years. The compensation was in line with what would be offered by other large charitable foundations, the volunteer says, but “off the charts” for a church-based organization.

Carcaño is similarly miffed. “It’s questionable, it’s corrupt, and it transfers money that should be used for the great work that Glide does,” she says. “That is where the money should be going to, and not to a person.”

Clothier explains that in 1998 the board of trustees began making contributions to a fund for founding members who were approaching retirement age. The fund was not just for Williams and Mirikitani, but also for other employees who have since retired. She declines to disclose the names of those employees or how many there were. The fund was to act as a sort of pension plan: The board would contribute a certain amount on behalf of each founding member, to be accessed once the member retired. However, the board did not make contributions consistently. The combined $1.4 million, Clothier says, was to make up for the years when it did not contribute on behalf of Williams and Mirikitani. Calculated over the 55 and 53 years, respectively, that they have worked at Glide, the pension plan comes out to an annual contribution of about 7 percent of their highest salaries at the foundation—again, not an outlandish amount, although employer-contributed pension plans are rare in the nonprofit world. The retention bonus, however, is a head-scratcher. Otten bursts out laughing when asked how typical a seven-figure retention bonus is at nonprofits. “I’m going to chuckle about that for quite a long time,” she says.

The accusations of
mismanagement at Glide extend beyond personal compensation. According to the volunteer, in the 1990s Williams misrepresented Glide’s involvement with an affordable housing development in the Tenderloin, creating the impression that Glide owned the development when it did not. During the period when Williams and Mirikitani were transitioning to part-time involvement, the volunteer says, several people in the Glide community, including board members, were shocked to learn that the Glide Foundation did not own the Cecil Williams House on Taylor Street or other properties that the board had raised money to build. Williams and Mirikitani “bought the land and set up corporations [based on] the Glide name,” the volunteer says. In fact, Aegon Insurance Company was the principal investor. “All total, there were about six or eight corporations that were structured as limited partnerships, tax write-offs, and so forth. Glide Church, Glide Foundation, had zero interest or ownership of any sort.” Instead it was the Glide Economic Development Corporation that did.

Asked to respond, Glide’s chief executive officer, Karen Hanrahan, says that such arrangements are commonplace. “Creating entities for specific projects is so normal and so typical and was done in accordance specifically to protect our fiduciary responsibilities,” she says. “It was created specifically to not put Glide assets at risk.” And she maintains that the board was fully aware of what Williams and Mirikitani were doing. But the volunteer argues that by using the Glide name on the project and advertising the housing as being affiliated with the foundation, Williams and Mirikitani misled the public and donors. One donor who gave several thousand dollars to Glide for the Cecil Williams House says he doesn’t know whether his money actually went to affordable housing or to Glide’s general fund—a problem exacerbated by what critics charge is Glide’s sloppy bookkeeping. (Glide denies the allegation.) “Everybody coming to this deal was led to believe, OK, Glide is behind this, because Cecil and Jan were out front,” the donor says. “And that is the problem when you conflate yourself with the organization and the organization with you.” He pulls out a letter written by Aegon Insurance in 2013 that summarizes a conference call stipulating that Glide “would revise its website and promotional materials to make clear that it has no ownership interest in either project.”

The volunteer notes that he’s not accusing the couple of self-dealing or venal motivations. “When the bishop says things like ‘corruption,’ that’s kind of a hard-edged word,” he says. “I would call it intentionally misleading. To their credit, Cecil and Jan had a vision that the Tenderloin needed affordable housing. No problem with that. It’s not the endgame but how you get to the endgame that causes the problems.”

Defenders of Glide dismiss such criticisms as disingenuous hairsplitting, the opening salvo in a bid to seize the valuable piece of property on which Glide sits and the millions of dollars its foundation has raised throughout the years. “We own the buildings,” Hanrahan says, referring to the church facilities at 330 and 434 Ellis Street. “The only way [Carcaño] could come in and gain control of that is if she claimed that our board of trustees is doing something wrong, not managing in accordance with the purpose of the trust or doing some financial mismanagement. That’s why I think she’s put out there the reference to financial malfeasance.”

Carcaño calls that “misdirection.” “We’ve not asked for a single penny,” she says. “We’ve only asked for accountability. We’re not seeking money; we’re not seeking property. We’re seeking accountability; we’re seeking transparency in their finances. If somebody gives a dollar to feed the hungry, I want to make sure that dollar goes to feed the hungry. If somebody gives a dollar to the church so that it can continue to grow, I want to make sure that dollar goes to the church.”

An obvious question
about the rift is this: Why now? Why did the United Methodist Church suddenly raise concerns about Glide’s long-standing autonomy? According to Carcaño, the church had been concerned about Glide for years. But it was only when the Reverend Jay Williams resigned as lead pastor earlier this year that she felt compelled to take action.

According to both Carcaño and the former associate pastor, since Cecil Williams’s nominal retirement in 2000, the pastors the United Methodist Church has assigned to head Glide have had little to no control over a congregation that should rightfully have been theirs to lead. For Carcaño, the situation became untenable when Jay Williams resigned in April. This was an unheard-of move for a Methodist clergyperson: Pastors typically receive their appointments in June, and stepping down before then for anything other than significant personal reasons could only be a signal that all was not well.

Jay Williams, who is not related to Cecil Williams and did not respond to requests for comment, said during the sermon in which he announced his departure that he had not been “empowered to lead fully.” Later he wrote on Facebook, “While I love GLIDE, I do not love its organizational structure. In many ways, I have been Lead Pastor in name only. Dynamics in the current configuration of GLIDE (comprised of the Glide Foundation and Glide Memorial Church) prohibited me from leading fully as a trained Christian theologian called to ordained ministry as an Elder in The United Methodist Church.”

Carcaño promptly reassigned Glide’s two remaining associate pastors, leaving Glide Memorial without a leader—a step she took “to protect them,” she says. “Since Reverend Cecil Williams has been there, there’s not been a single pastor who has not been emotionally abused, who has not been treated in a less than professional way, who has not been robbed of the rightful authority to exercise their function as clergy. They have no keys to the building. They have no freedom to organize the celebrations. They have no freedom to decide what they speak about.” (In response to the charge that pastors were not given keys to the building, Clothier says that only the security and facilities teams have them.)

The former associate pastor says that Williams was known to interrupt pastors in the middle of their sermons if he disagreed with what they were saying. And while he is reluctant to categorize this behavior as “emotional abuse,” he recalls Williams once trying to wrestle a microphone out of the hands of the Reverend Donald Guest in front of the entire congregation. Guest did not respond to requests for comment.

“I think those are cheap, cheap shots,” Williams says in response to these allegations. “I wouldn’t do that to anybody. That goes against my theology. My theology has to do with opening up to everybody.”

But according to the former associate pastor, theology had nothing to do with it—it was all about control. Williams and Mirikitani “operated as if you couldn’t do anything without them, without their approval,” he says. “If you contradicted them in any way, they would come down on you. I got the sense that they wanted to be the center and they wanted to be supported without any question.”

The battle over Glide
comes down to the question of who ultimately controls it, the United Methodist Church or the Glide Foundation. In any religious dispute, opponents battle over how to interpret the founding, sacred texts. In this case, those are Glide Memorial’s articles of incorporation, its bylaws, and the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline. Glide’s founding documents seem to leave doubt as to whether Glide was originally a church or a charitable trust. According to the deed and declaration of trust, Glide began in 1929 as a charitable trust for “the purpose of advancing and fostering…the Christian Protestant religion, education, and charity, and for the purpose of establishing and maintaining an evangelical center.” In these documents, founder Lizzie Glide deeds the property on which Glide still stands to the Pacific Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South “and to its successors in interest forever.”

So which came first—the charity or the church? It’s a critical point. If the church controls the nonprofit, then the Methodist authorities have the right to do what they like with it. If the nonprofit is independent, they don’t. Carcaño argues that the documents show that Lizzie Glide didn’t see the church and the charitable trust she founded as separate. “The original documents of incorporation talk about a trust that would have funds in perpetuity so that it could serve the needs of humanity and preach the good news of Jesus Christ,” she says. “That’s not a separation. That is an integrated way of doing ministry and work.”

But Hanrahan argues that Glide was created as a charitable trust that funded a church. She also says that although Lizzie Glide may have been the original founder, the founders of Glide as we know it today are Williams and Mirikitani, and the organization has evolved so much in the past 80 years that the foundation has essentially become independent of the church. “It’s a complicated model, but the reality is that the identity of Glide is not tied to Methodism or to [Glide’s] relationship with the Methodist church,” Hanrahan says. “The way that it has evolved over time, 95 percent of our resources and what we do are programs and services. Five percent is the church. It’s an incredible church, and it’s a unique, amazing 5 percent that we will continue to build on, but people don’t come to Glide because it’s Methodist. They come to the church part of Glide because it’s Glide and it’s these incredible celebrations that came out of the vision of Cecil Williams.”

But Carcaño is determined to reassert the Methodist part of Glide. She says she supports Glide’s message of radical inclusion, but “there should be a United Methodist congregation there. That doesn’t mean anything has to change. They have two Sunday Celebrations each week that are meeting the needs of the people. We want to support that and continue that. But as a United Methodist church, there should also be space for a United Methodist congregation.”

Even some of
Williams and Mirikitani’s supporters, who reject Carcaño’s charges of corruption, say that the pair may have fallen too much in love with their power and ended up staying too long. But others see the couple’s desire to have a hand in every aspect of Glide’s mission, and their unwillingness to leave, as praiseworthy. What some may judge as an ego-driven need to be at the forefront can equally be seen as devotion to a noble cause.

Sitting in the Glen Park home where she and Williams have lived for decades, Mirikitani admits, “When I left the executive director position, it was very hard for me to let go of the programs. They were my love. It was very hard to give that up. I went into therapy. I needed the help to know where to let go, where I needed to let people do it their way.” She acknowledges that she could be “a control freak,” adding, “It’s really hard for me to not think that I need to have things a certain way. But I have learned, and I think over the years I’ve grown [to understand] that the most powerful thing I can do is to listen to people and to listen to their needs.”

Williams sits at the head of the dining table, masking his weakened condition as best he can. He mixes up words at times, and over the course of a two-plus-hour interview, he begins to lose his train of thought. “My head is tired,” he says. Williams admits that each week at the Sunday Celebrations, as he watches the congregation he built sing and rejoice, he feels a stirring in him, a fire, to stand up in front of his people once again and shout, “Yes! I’m alive!”

But even in his diminished state, Williams has a presence, a gravitas, that forces you to listen. At one point in the interview, he pauses for a full 28 seconds to contemplate the question “How would you like to be remembered?” In that time, the room falls silent. “That I loved, in spite of,” he eventually answers. Twenty-one more seconds pass before he adds, “That I loved and I never gave up.”

To an outsider, one solution would seem to be for Glide to simply split from the parent church. Several Methodist congregations throughout the country have taken this route, mostly over the issue of same-sex marriage. Following a superior court ruling in which St. Luke’s Church in Fresno was ordered to forfeit its property, the congregation ultimately prevailed, winning an appeal in 2004. But pursuing such a course would involve a prolonged legal battle that would most likely cost millions for both sides. The United Methodist Church would probably file suit to claim not just Glide’s property but also all donations made by congregants during the time Glide operated under its wing. And even the Fresno case took four years of time, stress, and attorney and court fees—not to mention the public animosity that comes with any legal battle.

And beyond the legal entanglements, a split from the church seems impossible, because no matter what it has become today, Williams built Glide out of his beliefs as an ordained Methodist minister. Though he hasn’t always agreed with the church, he considers himself to be a spiritual man. Williams simply believes that spirituality lies not in the scripture or in any other churchly tradition, but in the people—in action. In his eyes, Glide has remained true to its roots, in its service to the community, in its welcoming spirit.

All of which means that Glide Memorial has two parents—Williams and Mirikitani, and the United Methodist Church. To deny either of them would be like a child trying to rewrite their DNA, trying to erase the history that made them unique. In that light, the fight for Glide is not so much a religious war as a custody battle. Leaving aside the criticism of Williams and Mirikitani, it is indisputable that they love what they have created—and that love is shared by people across the Bay Area and the world. “Glide has shaped the values of this city,” Hanrahan says. “That’s the legacy of Glide—the radical inclusion, the unconditional love. You see remnants of it all over the city.”

Whatever the outcome of the current confrontation, she says, that is the legacy that must live on.

Originally published in the October issue of
San Francisco 

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