BERKELEY -- On Friday, Glide founders Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani did what they have done for half a century: ruffle feathers, give and receive forgiveness, and inspire hearts and minds for social justice.
Arriving late, pent-up anticipation greeted them as they settled in front of an intimate crowd at First Congregational Church of Berkeley to talk about their 50-year journey and "Beyond the Possible," their just released, co-authored book.
Glide, the famed San Francisco Methodist church named after Lizzie Glide, the wife of a wealthy cattleman who bought the lower Nob Hill property in 1929, had a 35-member, entirely-white congregation when Williams arrived in 1963. Surrounding it, was the Tenderloin: a swarming 30-block ghetto of drugs, alcohol, addiction, prostitution, homelessness and hopelessness.
"Beyond the Possible" is the remarkable story of Glide's explosive growth from a dying church run on $35,000 per year to a $17 million dollar community organization providing celebration services, housing, health care, support groups and 2,560 free meals a day.
But Glide's change didn't come easily; nor did William's transformation from a young, radical African-American pastor from Texas to the stately -- but still revolutionary -- man who sits at the helm of today's multifaith operation.
And traveling with him has been Mirikitani, whose grueling internal battle with a thorny personal history and distrust of organized religion ironically made her light up like a hot spot on Williams' reach-the-needy radar. With a tendency to pitch her tiny, Japanese-American body into life's darkest corners, Mirikitani has been the perfect "warrior of peace" propelling Glide's voracious outreach.
"This book, we almost decided to get a divorce," Williams said, only half in jest. "It was just that difficult. This is a book that's got tear drops on it."
Mirikitani countered, saying, "I would say the book is a love story. Not just between two people, but in a community where there is action, more than talking."
Williams said he never set off -- and wouldn't now -- to "make anyone religious." His purpose was to empower, not to produce robotic, spiritual clones.
"If we want to make people alike, we miss the bar," he said.
In Glide's early years, they tackled the suffering around them one step at a time.
"We discovered that once we created programs for feeding and sheltering people, we couldn't just stop them," Mirikitani said.
Asking themselves questions -- "How do we keep our hearts open to this incredible diversity?" and "How do we help people take command of their lives?" -- was a daily ritual, as much as prayer.
Williams, recalling the Sunday service when Mirikitani made public her secret story as a victim of incest, said, "When you tell the truth, it opens up new possibilities."
Power and possibility, he suggests in the book, rise from revelation -- and revelation springs from painful rejection.
"Intolerance is still the biggest hornet's nest in society," he writes, "and until each of us deals with it honestly, America will continue to shake its finger in blame at people of color, at the poor, at women, at immigrants, and at people of different sexual orientations."
It's a modern day proclamation and a throwback to 1967, when Williams tore down the cross that had stood for an eternity in Glide's sanctuary.
"(The people) were ready to be dead, because so many were spiritless," he recalled. "We are always trying to break our silence, to set free a new spirit."
Mirikitani said the shadow of that cross, once removed, sent her running to help women who need understanding and compassion.
"It's a marathon," she said. "Especially for women, I think shame is the killer. The only way we can find our healing is through community."
One woman asked during the lecture sponsored by Berkeley Arts and Letters, "When you first started, did you have lots of people eager to help?"
Mirikitani said 10 people came to the first Monday night potluck. Today, almost 1 million meals are served annually.
Another audience member asked how working together toward a common cause affected their relationship.
"We've been honest with each other," Williams replied. "There's been conflict, but we always found a way to get our mission going together. It has paid off."
"If we didn't love each other, we'd probably be dead," Mirikitani joked. "I had to find my sense of trust."
Glide is preparing for the future by promoting from within.
"We've been building our staff with people who understand what it means to work with unconditional love," Mirikitani said.
Williams, self-deprecating as he offered thanks that there would "never be another Cecil Williams," insisted Glide would live on, saying, "The spirit among us, the beloved community, by the grace of God, will always be there and will probably even get better."