An Irreverent Reverend Rocks, Roils and Rehabs

updated 09/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/21/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

OPRAH SPENT EASTER OF 1990 THERE. SHIRLEY MacLaine visited that same year and would "go back in a minute." Bill Cosby has been spotted there, as have Anita Hill and the Clintons.

Celebs rubbing shoulders on the ski lift at Aspen? Try instead the wooden pews of the Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco's gritty Tenderloin district. In that spare stone chapel, stars and power pols, along with the homeless, the addicted and the abused, are held rapt by the fiery oratory of the Rev. Cecil Williams, 63, who for 28 years has used the power of this pulpit to preach against the ravages of crime, drugs and poverty.

Former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, currently a candidate for the U.S. Senate, calls Williams "an extraordinary man who has made a real difference." He certainly did last spring. When looting mobs raged through the area after the Rodney King verdict, frightened residents implored Williams to help restore calm. From the hood of a van he exhorted some 3,000 rioters to stop "violating the community in which the homeless live and seek help." He invited the crowd to make its voice heard in the church, where TV news crews provided an open mike forum. All but 600 followed Williams.

Though Williams, whose self-help book, No Hiding Place, was published last month, calls Glide "a church for outcasts and outsiders," he isn't surprised that his congregants sometimes include celebrity insiders. "Because what we do," he says, in a rare relaxed moment in his cluttered study, "transcends being a Methodist. It's a spirit of unconditional love."

And a busy spirit. Glide offers free HIV tests, serves 3,300 free meals every day and sponsors 10 kinds of programs for addicts. It boasts a racially mixed congregation of more than 3,000. But Glide was on the skids in 1964, when Williams took over. His flair for showmanship put Glide into controversial overdrive. In addition to replacing the organ with a rock band, Williams took down the cross behind the altar, telling his congregation, "Suffering is not up on the wall. Suffering is where you work and live."

Today the services over which Williams presides, in a brilliant blue robe embroidered with gold, are an unorthodox mix of Southern fervor, '60s sensitivity and MTV-like visuals. Each Sunday worshipers overflow the pews to hear Williams's sermon. "Urban America is heavy," he declaimed recently. "We're in pain.... The pain is like the things that crawl out from under the rock. Let's lift up the rock and show George Bush what's under it!"

Williams was 5 years old when his mother, a nurse's aide, declared, "I want a preacher in this family." He decided then to assume that role, and while other children played cowboys and Indians, Williams, the fourth of six children, played church. But the church of his fantasies was unsegregated—and in his hometown of San Angelo, Tex., nonexistent. His father was the janitor at a local, all-white Methodist church. When little Cecil visited, he had to enter by the back door. "I couldn't understand," says Williams, "why the white community rejected me. Blacks were humiliated."

By age 11, he recalls, "I just couldn't take it anymore," and his idealistic dreams were replaced by nightmares so horrifying that he "walked the floors" every night to escape their torment. On doctor's orders he left school and spent four months in bed, until, he says, he discovered that his "demons and aliens" were "my fear of racism."

Determined to overcome the fear, Williams was one of the first blacks to enroll at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Mistakenly assigned a white roommate in the school's segregated dorms, Williams refused to change when the blunder was uncovered. He jokes today that his obstinance "cost the school $10 million" in lost alumni donations.

Graduating in 1955 with a degree in theology, he was assigned by the Methodist church to Hobbs, N.Mex., where he was appalled to discover that the minister of the all-white congregation had asked for him so that he could establish a blacks-only church. Williams did so but left after a year to study sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. Then in 1959 he moved to Kansas City, Mo., where finally he pastored a congregation that included both races.

News of the impassioned young black preacher leading an integrated church reached Bishop Donald Tippett of San Francisco, who invited Williams to try to revitalize the ailing Glide. Williams saved the church but lost his wife, Evelyn Robinson, a teacher he had wed in 1957. "She had things she wanted to do, and I had things I wanted to do," he says tersely.

The couple divorced in 1975, and more loss followed. In the '80s, while Williams was struggling almost obsessively to rescue local teenagers from crack cocaine, both his adopted daughter, Kim, now 29, and his son. Albert, 26, became addicts. "My children, of all children, on drugs! What did I do wrong?" Williams, with whom Kim and Al had chosen to live after the divorce, remembers asking himself. Kim provides an answer. "I basically raised myself," she says. "When I was 12, if I wanted to go to a club until 4 in the morning I did." Williams acknowledges that parenting was sacrificed for ego: "Fame became a force in my life, which took me away."

Today the Williams children are clean, sober and thriving. Kim, a nursing student and the single mother of a daughter, Kaya, 4, lives not far from Williams's narrow four-story home in San Francisco. Al works as the church's food and job coordinator.

Williams also found love again, wed since 1982 to Janice Mirikitani, a divorced mother, a published poet and the church's former secretary. The daughter of Japanese-American farmers, Mirikitani, 50, says she was sexually abused by relatives from age 5 to 16. With her husband's support, she says, she "learned to talk about it," going on to found Glide's incest-survivors group and recovering finally from that childhood experience of "feeling like an insect being impaled alive." This cycle of suffering and recovery, which Williams knows firsthand, led the Reverend to a new perspective, shared with parishioners at the end of each service. "If you've got pain and you've got hope," he declares, "you've got a lot going for you."

SHELLEY LEVITT
ELIZABETH BRACK in San Francisco

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