Recent decisions by a conservative Methodist bishop are causing an uproar among the many followers of Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco.
A few weeks ago, the bishop, Minerva Carcaño, abruptly removed two pastors and launched a task force to assess the finances of Glide, the powerful Glide Foundation, and the “lack of an appropriate governance structure.”
It’s hard not to smile at that last one. Has the bishop never set foot in the place? A feeling of happy chaos pervades so that everyone will feel welcome, but look more closely: A strong organizational structure of some 90-plus free programs confront life-and-death issues every day.
These programs succeed where others do not because Glide has carved out a unique identity in one of the worst slums in America. Worrying about “appropriate governance structure” with the mother church probably isn’t a priority when you’re providing free meals to 700,000 people annually.
Learning from History
What’s at stake keeps reminding me of an explosive event in the 1960s, when a shoot-out nearly occurred between the Black Panther Party and San Francisco police.
The incident began when the Panthers opened a San Francisco branch, much to the horror of a very white SFPD. The Panthers’ cramped office was located in the Western Addition/Fillmore District, a low-income, largely African American section of the city.
The police insisted that a bomb scare required an official “visit” to the Panther branch to keep the neighborhood safe. The Panthers accused the SFPD of inventing the bomb scare to conduct a search for illegal weapons. The police prepared to advance in force that very night. The Panthers brought in sand bags, plywood to cover windows and enough ammunition to withstand a full-scale SWAT attack.
So things escalated pretty fast, and it was a very scary time anyway. Lethal firefights between police and Black Panthers were breaking out in other cities, Oakland especially. The FBI branded the Black Panther Party as “the greatest threat to the security of the country.” As is true today, tensions between law enforcement and people of color skyrocketed throughout the country.
The Issue of Trust
Neighbors in the Western Addition/Fillmore, many of them members of Glide, asked the church’s pastor, Cecil Williams, to step in. He had worked with the SFPD before — sometimes even against them — and was able to set up a meeting that afternoon.
With a delegation of Panthers and residents at his side, Williams suggested that the chief postpone the police “visit” until things cooled down and the Panthers invited them to come in.
The chief conferred with several captains and surprised the delegation by agreeing. “We’ll wait,” he said, “until you’re ready for us to come out there.” He then stood up as if to say the meeting was over.
“I sat there thinking this sounded too easy,” Williams remembers. As is so often true today, the fundamental issue was trust. “This was the problem of taking the word of the chief, I had learned. There was never any guarantee to the black community that police wouldn’t rush in for any reason.”
Williams then made the following announcement: “On our end, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to have 400 or 500 of our people surround the Panther office tonight, and tomorrow night, and however many nights it takes until the Panthers feel comfortable.”
The chief looked stunned. Hundreds of poor people willing to stand between outraged combatants with loaded guns? No way.
Cecil himself had no illusions. “It went without question that these people would not be armed, would not fight the police in any way, and would not move from their positions. If a bomb had really been planted and exploded in the night, many of them would be killed. If the police decided to invade the Panther headquarters, they’d have to arrest all 500 people first.”
It was a brilliant move in its Gandhian way. The chief again agreed to postpone, this time aware of potential consequences.
The All-Night Stand
Minutes after the meeting, Glide worker (later president) Janice Mirikitani initiated the church’s “telephone tree” (no cell phones then). One by one, volunteers arrived at the Panther office. Then dozens, then hundreds. “The crowds swelled into the streets,” Williams remembers. “Soon you couldn’t see the Panther office for the mass of people getting deeper and thicker. Still more people came; the police would have needed a tank to wedge through.”
The volunteers stood packed together that way all night. Even in the wee hours when a siren screamed by, no one panicked, even the Panthers. (It turned out to be a fire engine). The next night, the volunteers returned, and the next. They kept coming until the SFPD and Panthers found a way to reconcile. (That peace would be temporary.)
This was one of the many times that Cecil Williams interceded in a crisis. He has been successful, people believe, because Glide is both a church and a community force. Its commitment to unconditional love means “the church is there for the people, not the other way around.”
Indeed, Williams’ voice of 50 years ago sounds very much like activist pastors in the Black Lives Matter movement today.
“People want to know how I as a minister who’s devoted to nonviolence could have supported the Black Panthers and their use of guns,” he says. “I answer that it’s easy to get stuck on the issue of weapons when the larger picture — a world of racism and violence — is not being addressed at all. I am committed to unconditional love, which means I respect the reality of others. In a world where African Americans are more likely than whites to be profiled as violent, and more likely to be killed, my focus is the preservation of life.”
This is the point that Bishop Carcaño keeps missing, I think. Williams isn’t saying he supports people having guns. He’s saying he accepts the reality that people have guns, and he ministers to them without judgment.
That legacy has continued with all the pastors who followed. Glide “accepts the reality” of anybody who walks in the door — not only the poor and homeless but the mentally ill, the addicted, the paroled, the PTSD vets, the warring gangs and others. Many are camped outside Glide’s doors, and they are welcome to come in, too, because the love of this church has no conditions.
Then We’ll Love You
So back to Bishop Minerva Carcaño, who oversees 370 churches and says nice things like this: “As United Methodists we respect all faiths (and) love all people … All of our churches minister to the poor and marginalized.” That’s true as far as it goes.
But Carcaño’s idea of love does have conditions. “Glide Memorial United Methodist Church must remain true to the mission of the United Methodist Church,” she says, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
Oh, dear. This sounds like the old Skid Road barter: Come in and have some soup, says the Christian church to the lost and homeless. But before you go, embrace Jesus Christ as your savior. Then we’ll love you.
At no point in Glide’s 55-year history has anyone been directed to become a “disciple of Jesus Christ.” All the people, whether sitting in pews or donating millions or drunk and screaming at passers-by outside are encouraged to find their own truth, their own identity. God is not a punitive god, according to Glide — nor a judgmental god, not a shaming god. God is a freeing god to all the people, especially those who’ve been cast out.
As Cecil points out, the earliest followers of Jesus Christ were “the nobodies, the outcasts, the poor and homeless.” They built the church because Jesus spoke to all, without judgment, and brought love to all, without condition.
The Controversy Today
Let Glide Be Glide
But let’s look at Carcaño’s accusation of a “lack of financial transparency” at Glide. This is hard to figure since Carcaño sits on the board of the Glide Foundation and has been privy to every budget, audit and account that Glide sends out to all board members and donors. Like fellow board members she has signed off on statements that prove Glide’s financial transparency. And she has probably sat back in awe at the number of donors who contribute to the annual budget of $16 million.
One of the largest donors, financier Warren Buffett, describes his long involvement with Glide here. “Nobody who’s ever given to Glide has ever felt shortchanged.” he says, referring to the transformations he’s seen among the people whom Glide calls its “clients.”
True, Buffett’s method of giving is unusual — he auctions off a chance to have lunch with him each year, and the highest bid usually tops $3 million — but that’s because Glide is Glide. It’s not just the homeless whom God encourages to make their own choices their own way. Rich philanthropists get to do it, too. And by the way, donors who contribute to Glide, Buffett says, “always get their money’s worth.” So what is Carcaño’s beef.
Of course so often it’s Williams and Mirikitani who draw people like Buffett — and Oprah, and Bono, and Bishop Desmond Tutu, and so many others who bring the spotlight to Glide. Carcaño has said she reassigned the two pastors because her top-level choices have been subverted by Williams and Mirikitani. They seem to be running things from behind the scenes, she believes.
If that’s true, given their ages — 77 and 89 respectively — it is astonishing in our youth-crazy culture that these two have so much power. The bishops who oversaw Glide before Carcaño embraced Williams and Mirikitani as a gift to the ongoing legacy. Perhaps it says a lot about Carcaño that she alone can’t work with them to mutual benefit.
The ‘Land Grab’ Theory
Carcaño’s critics say the real problem boils down to nothing less than an attempted land grab.
Glide as it happens is one of two United Methodist Churches in the city serving African American populations and pastored by African American lead ministers. The other, Jones Memorial, is located a dozen blocks away in the Western Addition. Both have developed nearby buildings for affordable housing, and the property values of both have soared with the entrance of Silicon Valley interests during the so-called “tech revolution.”
Meanwhile, say these same critics, the pension and healthcare fund of the United Methodist Church (UMC) has become so underfunded that it’s in need of massive influx of funds. The sale of the two church properties could bring in a windfall of $40-50 million, it’s been said, and solve a lot of problems.
It’s hard to believe that this kind of backroom scheming, if it exists, would be supported by someone with the activist credentials of Minerva Carcaño. She may be a rules-conscious conservative about UMC “governance,” but she’s also backed pro-immigration, LGBTQ and other progressive issues where it counts — at protests, at the border and during her own arrests.
Nevertheless, there’s another thing Carcaño misses. The two pastors at Glide didn’t just talk a good game about being “radically inclusive.” They, like Glide leaders before them all the way back to Williams and Mirikitani in the 1960s, made it a point to express unconditional love through concrete acts, such as feeding the hungry, offering shelter, providing healthcare and standing up for the humanity (read: civil rights) of all.
You can see the results at Sunday Celebrations when kids and adults get onstage to tell the congregation what happens to them in Glide’s programs. These are people America once dismissed as the dregs of society. “Everybody had given up on them except you,” Buffett says to Williams and Mirikitani. Transformation really can happen when people feel deeply, authentically, unconditionally loved. Usually, week after week there’s not a dry eye in the church. It’s unfortunate that Bishop Carcano has said of Glide’s services, “Sunday Celebrations are uplifting concerts, but they lack the fundamentals of Christian worship.”
If a central concern for the modern pastor is to “respect the reality of others,” surely a central concern for Bishop Carcaño is to respect the reality of her own pastors, to let them let Glide be Glide.
Instead, it appears her approach is to eviscerate Glide, one of the most successful churches in the Methodist domain, and return to the 1950s conservatism that nearly killed it in the first place.
Note: I worked with Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani in the writing of their memoir, Beyond the Possible (HarperCollins, 2013). Most of the quotes and several photos in this post are taken from that book.