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The Rev. Cecil Williams, who turned San Francisco’s Glide Church into a refuge for many, has died


SAN FRANCISCO — The Rev. Cecil Williams, who with his late wife turned Glide Church in San Francisco into a world-renowned haven for people suffering from poverty and homelessness and living on the margins, has died. He was 94.

Williams and his wife, Janice Marikitami, who passed away in 2021, appeared in Will Smith’s film “The Pursuit of Happyness,” which was based on the life of a homeless father and son who once found help at Glide Memorial Church. Williams died Monday at his home in San Francisco surrounded by friends and family, Glide said in a statement. A cause of death was not given.

An advocate for civil rights and social justice, Williams’ work drew the attention of celebrities, politicians, and businessmen, including Warren Buffet, who for years helped Williams raise money for the church through an auction for a private lunch with the hedge fund manager.

Maya Angelou, Isabel Allende, Bono, Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton were among the celebrities who once attended services at Glide. Williams’ focus always remained on helping the poor.

“I would have to be with people I understand, and it’s the poor,” Williams told the San Francisco Chronicle in a 2013 interview. “I’m with them wherever they are.”

Born and raised in the segregated West Texas town of San Angelo, Williams moved to San Francisco in 1963 to become the pastor at what was then called Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, a house of worship with dwindling parishioners in the heart of the city’s largely impoverished Tenderloin district.

Williams and Marikitami transformed the church with Sunday services that included a jazz band and a gospel choir. The church eventually amassed 10,000 members, becoming the largest Methodist church in Northern California and one of the largest in the nation.

They also put the church’s sermons into action and through the Glide Foundation started several community outreach programs that have served thousands of San Franciscans for over six decades.

“He led re-entry programs for those leaving prison, provided clothing and housing for people in need, and helped thousands of people access healthcare,” Vice President Kamala Harris said in a statement, adding that Williams was “a dear friend” and ”a beacon of light and love.”

Williams never shied from political and social issues, ranging from gay rights to compassion for homeless people and those addicted to drugs.

“He led with compassion and wisdom, always putting the people first and never relenting in his pursuit of justice and equality,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed said in a statement. “His kindness brought people together and his vision changed our City and the world.”

Williams retired as the church’s pastor in 2000. But he remained the Minister of Liberation and CEO of the GLIDE Foundation until last year when he stepped down.

“The essence of GLIDE begins and ends with love. … It is time for me to evolve, it is time for GLIDE to continue to evolve. We have gone through so much and come out strong, ready to keep building,” Williams wrote in a letter to parishioners.

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This version corrects the title of Will Smith’s film. It is called “The Pursuit of Happyness.”

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