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Inner-city mission: Glide Memorial UMC lives out message of unconditional love Robin Russell, Nov 8, 2010
UMR PHOTOS BY LIZ APPLEGATE
Kim Armbruster, program manager at Glide’s walk-in center, helps more than 3,000 clients a year with emergency needs.
By Robin Russell Managing Editor
SAN FRANCISCO—“Rethink Church” may be the latest catch phrase for the denomination, but members of the pastoral team at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church say they’ve been living it out for more than 40 years.
The congregation takes its message of unconditional love and acceptance to those in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood who otherwise would not likely step through the doors of a church.
For Glide members, “doing church” looks like feeding the hungry, welcoming both the prostitute and the pimp, giving the homeless a warm place to sleep and providing AIDS testing for people on the street.
And just as Jesus mingled easily with neglected and marginalized persons, Glide staff members warmly greet folks waiting in line to get help from the church’s social service ministries, often calling them by name or offering a high-five or a quick hug of support.
Many of Glide’s staff and volunteers were once clients themselves.
More than meals
The church is best known for its meals program (Glide served nearly a million meals last year), and for helping people find shelter for the night, as featured in the 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness. But it’s now also a thriving church with a few thousand in attendance each week, as well as the largest social service agency in the area, next to those run by the City of San Francisco.
A recent tour for a group of United Methodist communicators showcased the church’s social service offerings, including its walk-in center for drop-in needs; health services clinic; family, youth and childcare services; women’s center; and permanent church-supported housing. The staff focus on treating everyone who walks through the doors with dignity and respect, said Kim Armbruster, program manager for Glide’s walk-in center.
“People tell us they get treated differently here,” Mr. Armbruster said. “We tolerate a wider range of behaviors than most agencies do. We talk with them about their behaviors, get them in groups.”
And they rarely turn away anyone for long. Other agencies turn away folks who are disruptive or abusive for up to four years; Glide typically denies care for a maximum of six months.
Glide is the only place in the Tenderloin where people can reserve a bed in the City’s shelter system, Mr. Armbruster said. The lines for those seeking shelter begin early in the afternoon.
And the clients pour in steadily.
Tenderloin is rather notorious for its “seedy” appearance and reputation. In the 1920s, the neighborhood became notorious for its gambling, billiard halls, boxing gyms, “speakeasies” and other nightlife.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, musicians such as jazz greats Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk frequented the neighborhood’s bars and clubs.
The late 1960s and post-Vietnam 1970s saw an influx of hippies, substance abusers and immigrants from Asia.
Today, the area has a high crime rate, large homeless population, thriving prostitution and drug trade, gay bars, liquor stores and strip clubs. Available housing is almost all single-room-occupancy hotel rooms.
Not the stuff of a United Methodist congregation, but then Glide isn’t typical.
Since its founding as Glide Evangelical Temple back in 1929, United Methodist philanthropist Lizzie Glide intended the church at Ellis and Taylor streets to be a church “for all people.”
By the time the Rev. Cecil Williams came on board in 1964, those people included Hells Angels, Black Panthers, drug addicts, hippies, the poor and gays.
“When I walked through church doors here at Glide, I knew I was home,” Mr. Williams said. “I thought to myself, ‘Can I turn this church upside down?’”
The first breakthrough came, he said, when he brought in a jazz combo to perform a contemporary version of “O Come, O Come Emanuel” during a worship service.
“People began to clap, sway, dance and say “Yes!” he said. “Ever since, we have attempted to stay somewhat on the cutting edge. If the church doesn’t stay on the cutting edge, the church is dying.”
By 1968, the church’s jazz-filled “Celebration” worship service was drawing people from all walks of life. Mr. Williams was particularly determined to reach gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered persons who “needed acceptance somewhere in the church.”
Today, thousands attend Glide’s energetic Sunday worship services. Some 250 gay men are on the church rolls, and homeless individuals serve in leadership roles. Seventy percent of Glide’s members are under 45.
“They come because they know this is a place where we recognize that God is with the people who are on the margins,” said the Rev. Karen Oliveto, one of Glide’s pastors.
“This is a knock-your-socks-off place,” agreed the Rev. Don Guest, formerly a district superintendent from Illinois who joined Glide’s pastoral team in 2006 after hearing Mr. Williams preach at a Black Methodists for Church Renewal conference. “People are here because they want to serve.”
The church’s mission today, according to its website, is still “to create a radically inclusive, just and loving community mobilized to alleviate suffering and break the cycles of poverty and marginalization.”
Glide has worked hard to overcome the image of the church as a place of judgment and shame, said Janice Mirikitani, president of the Glide Foundation and Mr. Williams’ wife. She knows firsthand how it felt to be ostracized by the church when she struggled with recovering from incest.
“I felt a kinship with the marginalized, with gay prostitutes and runaways,” she said. “When I first heard Cecil doing this unconditional love thing, I stuck around to see if he meant it.”
The couple married in 1982, and has been instrumental in setting the vision and raising funds for Glide. Among the celebrities drawn to Glide’s work in reaching the community have been comedian Bill Cosby and poet Maya Angelou.
The needs are so overwhelming that Glide’s programs have outgrown the church, said Ms. Oliveto. City agencies now partner with Glide because the church has been so effective in providing services.
The church’s walk-in center, for instance, went from serving potluck meals provided by volunteers to being given a city contract to provide meals 365 days a year.
“It was quite a ramp up,” said Mr. Armbruster.
The center served emergency and long-term needs for 3,300 clients last year, including 11,000 housing reservations. Persons needing shelter must wait in line every day to secure a spot.
Glide also provides clothing vouchers, legal assistance, counseling, hygiene kits, help with funds to avoid eviction and even help with online birth certificate searches so homeless persons can apply for jobs.
Clients are not just those who are living on the streets, Ms. Oliveto said. “We’re serving the poorest working families as well.”
One of the ways Glide helps is by providing childcare for toddlers through preschool-aged children, and after-school programs for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The city determines who receives a spot in the center, and homeless families are often bumped up on the list, said Eden Chan, childcare staff.
Many of the persons who drop in at Glide also have health concerns. Glide Health Services operates a community clinic that provides care and treatment to more than 3,000 homeless, indigent and low-income people every year, regardless of ability to pay.
In partnership with Catholic Healthcare West and Saint Francis Memorial Hospital, the nurse-managed clinic offers mental health screenings, primary care and substance abuse help for 4,000 clients who log about 17,000 visits a year.
In 20 minutes, an oral swab test can tell whether a client has HIV; staff then refer clients to other clinics for treatment. Individuals struggling with substance abuse enter “recovery circles” and a 90-day program of outpatient treatment.
Though Glide has received criticism for the way it breaks barriers to serve the least, the lost and the last, Mr. Williams brushes it off, saying the congregation is living out what it means to be the church.
“You can’t be like the old church,” he said. “The old church is the old church. Let it be the old church. You have to be the new church.
“I don’t think it’s over yet for folks on the outskirts,” Mr. Williams added. “We have to define who we are and accept it, regardless of circumstances.”