I knew this was not going to be a normal day at church when I encountered a tall transvestite in the bathroom. He was preening over the sink—the sink that I wanted to use. What should I do? If I waited maybe he would think I was interested. I could always say something like, “Could you please get the hell out of here—you make me uncomfortable.” Or maybe just, “Excuse me” would do. I opted for a hasty retreat as he adjusted the fur cap on his head. I thought as I was leaving, “That was stupid, the poor guy didn’t do anything to you.” Nonetheless, I was relieved to join the congregation through the side door as I weaved my way through rich and poor alike.
I sat down and immersed myself in the atmosphere of expectation. Voices muted, laughter and greetings hinted at — Sunday cleanliness evident — it was definitely a Sunday crowd. What was different was the altar. There was no altar; instead there was a band setting up and the Sunday atmosphere was clarified by the overwhelming perception that I was at the theater. Three chatty lesbians sat down in front of me and a blonde with a punk haircut and a face that had seen too much of the world sat next to me. There were families with children and gay men holding hands, all mixed in with old people who were spiritual misfits or diehard leftists, yuppies seeking an inner city experience, and your average, wide-open San Francisco types of all ages. “My,” I thought, “what an interesting crowd.” We were all—gay, straight, crooked, and broken— waiting for the show to begin. Outside at Ellis and Taylor, the derelicts and homeless had gathered to be part of the show in their own way. They would wait for the crowds to come out of church to ask for change; beggars at the banquet, they could be counted on for color.
The music started, heavy on gospel harmonies, the lights went on and the choir started to dance and sing its way out of the back staging area. There was no cross on the stage where there used to be an altar of some sort, only a blank, curved wall twenty feet high where images from a slide projector could be seen flickering like a throwback to a 1960s dance hall.
“Praise God, here we go,” I thought to myself, “the party begins.” As the singing got louder and the choir emerged fully on stage, the audience jumped out of their seats and joined in, clapping hands to the powerful rhythms. The Reverend Cecil Williams walked slowly onto the stage and told us in deep and persuading tones that no one would remain dead in his church, that Glide was a church where people came alive. The band and the choir filled the church with praise— all of us caught up in clapping our hands and shaking to the beat— while images of soulful children and struggling women appeared on the wall. The montages of the ’60s were all there on the screen and in the audience. I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if Janis Joplin herself had jumped on stage and launched into one of her hard-core rhythms about needing a man to understand her. Vague images of Bill Graham’s Winterland Arena came to mind as I watched Reverend Cecil gazing upon the crowd with a faintly avuncular air. Strobe lights flashed and the ghosts of dead rock stars seemed to haunt the hall as the music rolled in waves through the church.
Indeed, whether worship or just a good time, Glide definitely fills a social need that people have to come together and get sociable with God. This is different from the regular worship I am used to but I suspect that God enjoys all of it. The Master of galaxies and semen, oceans and dung, fools and sharks, God probably gets a bit tired of those ministers who think he is just some kind of power food. Add grace and stir—none of that stuff here.
The Reverend Cecil smoothly insinuated himself between the music and the crowd to take charge of the collective vibration that is the Glide Memorial experience. We were, he said, to express ourselves, as at Glide there would be no uninvolvement. I loved the heavy emphasis he gave to words like involvement and commitment. He said them as if they were more than mere words. Coming from his lips they were like some kind of psychic syrup designed to catch souls. I couldn’t help but think that my young boys (the oldest is four) would find this kind of church very much to their liking. They would be able to jump around and shout and dance and participate in a way that is not the norm at our family’s Catholic church in Arizona.
We were encouraged to hug the person next to us. This is a great place to hug someone of a different sexual persuasion than yourself. I took great pleasure in hugging lesbians and gays, a kind of contrarian perversion if you will. More singers were introduced. There were solos, some good, some not so good. Despite the exotic mix of people here, Glide is still an inner city church with a black gospel feel, whatever that is.
Reverend Cecil got up-he had been sitting—and announced that there would be no sermon as he had a special guest who would be giving her own sermon. He gave some more glowing introductions and then said, “Would you please welcome Maya Angelou.” The crowd leapt to its feet as if a rock star had just been announced. The choir could hardly control its emotion. Faces radiated wonder and excitement. Lesbians gazed with reverence at Dr. Angelou and wackos of all sorts acted as if a saint was in their midst. So went my thinking.
Ah, but how surprised I was when Maya opened her mouth to do her rendition of “This Little Light of Mine.” “Hey,” I thought, “this woman is good.” Maya Angelou is a wave rider except she doesn’t ride waves, she rides words. I felt what she felt, got what she got—in short, I was moved. Here I am, perhaps a tad to the right of Newt Gingrich, and I am digging Bill Clinton’s Poet Laureate. Perhaps hell had frozen over while I wasn’t looking, perhaps I had expired and people were stepping over my dead body while pigs flew overhead in formation. Thoughts of a more irreverent nature towards the President began to fill my atavistic mind. Sorry, I am in church, I should behave. Improper and vile thoughts sometimes slip by. Certainly lewd ones are the music in my elevator. But what would Reverend Cecil say? I should be ashamed.
As I was engaged in my usual diatribe with myself, a petite Asian woman pushing the limits of respectability in a short black dress and power hairdo walked onto the stage. I was intrigued. Who was this? Reverend Cecil said, “I would like to introduce my wife, she is going to go over the calendar and update you on the church’s activities.” His wife seemed to be champing at the bit; when she opened her mouth I knew why. This woman had something to say in a big way. Within minutes I had heard how high school dropout ratios had gone down and truancy statistics had dropped by 30 percent in the parish’s area. She lectured us, she admonished her husband in front of the crowd, they flirted with argument, they bantered (Reverend Cecil was enjoying this), she hit us over the head with statistics, such as Glide having 35 comprehensive programs for over 500 children. I knew then that I was in the presence of the Empress of the Tenderloin. “How San Francisco of them,” I thought, “blacks and Asians working together. What a combination.” I later found out that the lady in question, Janice Mirikitani, had been held in a Japanese internment camp as a child in Arkansas, is a survivor of child abuse, and has been with Glide for 30 years. She is a Sansei (third-generation Japanese American) an author, poet, dancer, choreographer, and former high school teacher.
As I listened to this remarkable Japanese American president and executive director of Glide, with the choir behind her like some kind of rainbow honor guard, I felt a window open onto the past. William Leidesdorff, Mammy Pleasant, and A Toy; the names roll off the tongue with a certain melancholy. The black sailing captain and builder of San Francisco’s first city hall, black madam-cum-businesswoman extraordinaire, and the Chinese madam’s madam; they were among the more colorful characters out of San Francisco’s past. There, thumping with the beat of the band in the ruins of Christianity, was old San Francisco.
I shook my head as the service ended and headed quickly for the door. I had to make the 12:00 Mass at St. Cecilia’s.
About Sean O’Reilly:
Sean Joseph O’Reilly is the editor of many award-winning travel books, including The Road Within, Testosterone Planet, The Ultimate Journey, Pilgrimage, and The Spiritual Gifts of Travel. An active member of the Society of American Travel Writers, he is also the author of the shocking and controversial new book How to Manage Your DICK: Redirect Sexual Energy and Discover Your More Spiritually Enlightened, Evolved Self. He lives with his wife, Brenda, and their six children in Arizona.