Saving Glide’s Soul

The United Methodist Church is trying to overhaul the identity of San Francisco’s beloved Glide Memorial, but Glide is fighting to keep the faith.

Reverend Cecil Williams takes the mic at a rally on City Hall steps, flanked by Mayor-elect London Breed and his wife, Janice Mirikitani, on June 21, 2018.

The most popular church in San Francisco is not very popular with its parent church right now. Glide Memorial Church, the gospel music-rocking Sunday destination that’s also one of the city’s most relentlessly generous charitable organizations, has had its clergy removed as the United Methodist Church seeks to change Glide’s mission from “Charity First” to “Methodist Church First.”

This dispute jeopardizes the nearly $20 million Glide spends every year on free meals, its homeless shelter, and HIV and medical services for San Francisco’s neediest residents.

The United Methodist Church (UMC) has reassigned all of Glide’s pastors elsewhere as part of a broader attempt to make Glide Memorial a more traditionally Methodist operation, one that does not so openly welcome and serve the public at large.

“The great majority of the participants at Glide’s Sunday Celebrations claim other faiths, such as Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, and Wiccan,” UMC California-Nevada Conference Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño complained in an email to pastors obtained by SF Weekly. “Atheists and Agnostics comprise another segment of the Glide community.

“We seek to be in good and loving relationship with persons of other faiths,” Carcaño adds. “However, this should never cause us to lose our own faith.”

Carcaño reassigned Glide pastors Rev. Angela Brown and Rev. Theon Johnson III to duties elsewhere in the Bay Area, and Methodist church officials told Glide, “You are not free to hire any pastor.” Brown and Johnson both presided over their final Glide services on Sunday, and as of press time, Glide is without an assigned pastor.

Glide Memorial Church itself is not the organization that finances the $20 million in free meals, shelter, and health care services that the facility provides; that money is raised and administered by the nonprofit Glide Foundation, which is concerned that Bishop Carcaño wants to minimize Glide’s outreach to non-Methodists.

“She disapproves of Glide because of our values, that we are inclusive, that we are unconditional and loving,” Glide Foundation CEO and President Karen Hanrahan tells SF Weekly. “That is the root of this philosophical difference.”

Glide Memorial is not your regular Methodist church. Its massive budget is operated by the Glide Foundation Board of Trustees, a 24-person oversight committee that still includes the church’s trailblazing icon Rev. Cecil Williams (now retired and serving as an emeritus pastor) and his wife Janice Mirikitani.

Carcaño also sits on that board, as do very well-connected bigwigs like Dianne Feinstein’s billionaire husband Richard Blum, P.F. Chang restaurant chain co-founder Paul Fleming, and a number of high-powered executives from Wells Fargo, PG&E, and venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

Hanrahan is quick to note that Glide, one of the best-attended Methodist churches in the country, still enjoys the goodwill of practicing Methodist churchgoers nationwide.

“We have had an outpouring of support from Methodists around the United States, Methodist leaders, clergy, laypeople, parishioners,” Hanrahan says. “We’ve received emails, calls, and messages of support because of the special place that Glide holds in the Methodist community.”

But if Glide Memorial cannot maintain its unique status as a radically inclusive colossus of charitable giving, the church will consider splitting off from the United Methodist Church.

“We had not gone into this thinking that we would like to split,” Hanrahan tells us. “Right now, we have to put all the options on the table.”

The United Methodist Church generally wins its disputes with individual church chapters, largely because regional chapter leaders like Carcaño control the purse strings, and have the ability to hire and fire personnel. With that in mind, it’s difficult to predict how a protracted fight between Glide and the United Methodist Church would play out.

“This is just the beginning,” Williams said at a unity rally for Glide Memorial last Thursday on the steps of City Hall, referring to Glide’s fight to maintain its inclusive, independent spirit.

But with the way things are going, this could also be the beginning of the end of Glide Memorial Church as we know it.

Joe Kukura is an SF Weekly contributor.

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