Thursday

beyond the possible


Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani have been at the helm of one of the most extraordinary churches in America for over fifty years. Beyond the Possible: 50 Years of Creating Radical Change in a Community Called Glide tells the story of their lives, their church, and unfathomably transformation wrought in San Francisco's Tenderloin District and beyond through the passion, love, and dedication of Glide Church and community.

It is a remarkable book, beginning in Cecil's childhood in segregated west Texas in the 1930s. He recounts harrowing and heartbreaking stories of racism and oppression in America and his own experience as the first of five black students at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. Janice spent her own childhood in Japanese internment camps. Both were well acquainted with injustice and longed to be part of something better, of healing and new life.

Cecil moved to San Francisco in the 1960s to pastor a dying white church in the heart of one of San Francisco's most notorious neighborhoods, a place where homelessness, addiction, violence, poverty, and sex work were rampant. He opened Glide's doors to everyone from street people to streetwalkers, resurrecting that dying church and the community itself by turning Glide into a safe haven, a center for city revitalization, and a catalyst for social activism and spiritual change.

The book fascinates. Glide was inclusive long before that was a cultural buzzword, welcoming people of all races, incomes, sexual orientations and gender expressions, as well as addicts, sex workers, the homeless and mentally ill. The stories are jaw-dropping: the community organized against police brutality, embraced the unwashed and unstable, had unfathomable run-ins with hippies, and helped thousands experience healing after abuse, incarceration, and so much brokenness.

When Cecil came to Glide, it had 35 congregants. Today, it has 10,000 members, (and 25,000 volunteers serve its programs annually). They serve three hot meals a day, seven days a week and operate integrated housing facilities for working families, the mentally ill, and formerly homeless. Glide birthed community centers, after school programs, health clinics, and recovery programs, and they've changed the face of the neighborhood for the better in myriad ways.

The chapters are named after some of the church's core values, including Creativity, Freedom, Nonviolence, Recovery, Diversity, The Beloved Community, and more. Glide's commitment to storytelling, vulnerability,  truth-telling, empowerment, and radical acceptance is inspiring, but Beyond The Possible doesn't pull punches, either. They share some of the hard and ugly realities encountered in fighting addiction, racism, and systemic poverty and glimpse the long road of healing after abuse and the ongoing difficulties inherent in a truly diverse community. They also share how publicity and celebrity friends brought a Glide a spotlight and funds as well as personal and other problems.

Cecil Williams ministers from and operates out of an understanding of liberation theology, and as I read, I realized how much the white church and conservatives in general fail to comprehend black theology in particular. Some might not find the book to be entirely orthodox (I'm not sure if Janice would describe herself as a Christian), but nevertheless, it offers an important perspective and a needed counter to some of what passes for orthodoxy in many evangelical churches. Williams and Mirikitani have much to teach the rest of us about love-in-action and the part we can play in bringing salvation tangibly to our sisters and brothers here and now.

There's a lot to like in the book, especially for those interested in sixties counterculture and history, social ministry, community development, church diversity, vulnerability, shared power, church growth, social justice, storytelling, or faith activism. Honestly, if you're looking for a lot of Jesus, this may not be your cup of tea exactly, but I see no reason why even a more conservative church or Christian couldn't still gain a great deal of wisdom from the perspective and example offered within these pages.

For folks burned out by brokenness, closed doors, small questions, and church-as-usual, Beyond the Possible might just been the good news you're longing to hear.


Book provided by TLC. Opinions mine.
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