By Robert A. Rees
On Palm Sunday there are two long lines at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. One line, of homeless men and women, is heading for the basement to get a hot meal. The other is heading upstairs to participate in a hot gospel celebration. Both lines define Glide. By mistake I get in the line going to the basement, but when someone sees how I am dressed he says, “No, no. You wanna be upstairs.”
Like Melville’s Ishmael who, whenever he finds himself “growing grim about the mouth,” or feels “a damp, drizzly November in [his] soul,” or whenever he feels a need to “drive off the spleen,” goes to sea, whenever I am feeling melancholy, I go to Glide.
Like most American churches influenced by the black spiritual tradition, Glide rocks on Sunday mornings. A jazz band, comprised of keyboard, percussion, two guitars, a trumpet and a mean saxophone, sets the stage and lays down a gospel riff as the choir struts in, swaying in their gold and purple robes. Their first number is “No Hiding Place” with its refrain, “Take me in / Together we’ll ease the pain,” a theme that characterizes Glide’s ministry to an inner-city population.
At a time when Methodist churches across America have lost half a million members, closing more than 1,500 churches in the past decade, Glide has become the model of a new urban Methodist church. It boasts 10,000 members and a $10.5-million-dollar annual budget, much of which goes to support a broad array of community and social service programs.
At the beginning of the service, Pastor Douglas Fitch, a handsome man with a salt and pepper beard, says, “It feels good to be coming home. Glide is a home. If you don’t have one, you can get one here today. At the end of every Celebration [the name Glide has given to its services] you can come home—no mater your sexual orientation, your religious affiliation, or no affiliation—you can come home to struggle with it—just like all of us here.” Lots of “Amens” and “Hallelujahs” echo throughout the church.
Looking over the congregation, it is clear that quite a diversity of San Franciscans have indeed found a home at Glide. The church has everything: a rich racial and ethnic mix (45% white, 35% black, with a sprinkling of Hispanic, Asian, and other nonwhite ethnic groups), and a diversity of socio-economic backgrounds and sexual orientations (one estimate is that 40% of Glide’s parishioners are openly gay).
After Reverend Fitch’s welcome, the choir sings “Jesus Walked that Lonesome Valley.”
Jesus walked that lonesome valley.
He had to walk it by himself.
Nobody else could walk it for him.
He had to walk it by himself.
Then the song shifts to the congregation and we sing about how nobody can walk that lonesome valley for us; we have to walk it by ourselves. Nobody else can set us free, we have to do it for ourselves. And yet it is clear from the many social programs sponsored by the church that people at Glide are involved in walking that lonesome valley with many of the depressed and dispossessed who inhabit the mean streets of San Francisco.
I am struck by the man doing the signing of the service: a tall, handsome man who sculpts the air with his hands, face, and body in a manner that could be best described as kinesthetic jazz, especially as he signs the words of the hymns. His name is Dignan Phoenix Baines: a choir unto himself.
The congregation holds hands while Reverend Fitch offers the invocation, a prayer reminding God that we are all sinners and need his mercy. Then a man named Ramon stands up and tells his story: How he came to Glide four years ago depressed after breaking up with his gay partner; how Glide has transformed him: how he decided to change his name from Raymond to Ramon (his grandfather’s name) to honor his Mexican heritage; how he is now an elementary school principal; and how he is very happy. Impishly, he announces he has fallen in love with Dignan, who is temporarily discomfited, losing some of his flow as tries to translate what Ramon has said. Ramon winks: it was a joke. He then makes announcements about the day care center for the children of people who are looking for work, the Church’s computer training lab, and the HIV testing center.
Following Ramon’s announcements, Reverend Fitch says, “I never thought I would see Dignan taken aback. Can you imagine what would have happened if that had been said in another church?” (As a Mormon, I certainly could!) The choir launches into “These Will Be the Mountains that I’ll Have to Climb.”
Nobody told me the road would be easy,
I don’t believe He brought me this far to leave me.
“Best band in town!” exclaims Reverend Cecil Williams, the founder of Glide. Looking at the band, he adds, “But don’t be askin’ for no raise!” The saxophone sounds with a sorrowful note.
Reverend Williams’ sermon is based on a rather unique interpretation of Plato’s allegory of the cave. In his version, it is those passing by outside the cave who look at the shadows they cast on the cave wall. He says, “They see only their shadows when they walk by. What a terrible way to live! They trust their shadows, which aren’t the real thing. But on Palm Sunday, the real thing came along. People may go crazy when they see Jerry Rice play football for the Forty-Niners or when Barry Bonds hits a home run for the Giants, but I’m going to tell you about something real today that we really ought to go crazy about.”
Warming to his theme, he continues, “We keep look-ing for something real, but it’s inside us. When we hear the choir sing, something starts to stir inside us. I can remember a time when the choir was dry and out of tune, but today it has made us clap our hands and jump up and say, ‘Come on, Jesus!’ The real thing is Jesus. Jesus comes riding on a donkey because Jesus knows that something magnificent is going to happen. He wasn’t going to ride no Cadillac or Lexus into Jerusalem.”
“The people put garments and branches in front of Jesus, shouting, ‘Hosanna! Here comes the Son of David riding on a donkey!’ They gave Jesus a royal welcome. (I don’t want this church to become too high and mighty to ride on a donkey.) The people shouted, ‘Hosanna, blessed is our God.’ They were experiencing something real and unique. Because Jesus comes to bring God’s name to the world, I feel open to everything and everybody. Anyone who is afraid they will lose their religion ain’t got no religion. Nothing opens me up like I am open now—it is the power of the Spirit. If Jesus were to ride down Market Street, we would all shout, ‘Lord have mercy! Hosanna!’”
Throughout, the sermon is punctuated with “Amens,” “Hallelujahs,” and “Yes, Lords,” along with the kind of assenting, cheering grunts sometimes heard at political rallies or sports events.
Bringing his sermon to a conclusion, Reverend Williams testifies, “I know God has done something in my life—that he has made me strange and abnormal. Glide is a place for abnormal people. In the Bible, Jesus has to decide where to go—to Bethany, to Jericho, or Jerusalem. He goes to Jerusalem. He says, ‘I’m going where I can face it, where I can have an impact on the world. That’s the same reason I came to San Francisco.”
He concludes, “The one who comes in God’s name calls for steadfast love. Love for anyone who is lost or gone astray or who feels like he can’t make it. Have love for all. Love those who are white or black, no matter who they are; love one another and love them to the end.”
The choir gets to its feet and sings “God Came and Lifted Me Up”:
God came and lifted me up from sinking sand.
He lifted me up with his hands. Hosanna!
Reverend Williams invites us all to hold hands and leads us in the Civil Rights song “We Shall Overcome.” I never sing that song without being transported to the sixties when as individuals and as a nation we were trying to overcome so much—black and white together. I never sing it without remembering a group of Chinese and American writers in the 1980s holding hands on a beach in Malibu and then again two years later at a gathering in Shanghai hoping to overcome the great political and cultural divide between our countries. “Hand in hand together, we shall overcome.”
I am overcome with feelings of joy on this Palm Sunday morning at Glide; happy to be worshiping with my brothers and sisters in the fellowship of Christ. At the end of the service, everyone embraces those nearest them. I am fully encircled by a large man from Nigeria on my right, clasped tightly by an African woman on my left, and then by others in front and behind me.
In Melville’s Moby Dick, Ishmael and some of his fellow sailors thrust their hands deep into a tub of spermaceti to squeeze the globules of whale fat into liquid. Soon Ishmael can’t distinguish his hands from the hands of the other men around him. He can’t distinguish hands at all inside the sweet, soft, aromatic oil. “Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget . . .” that he is overcome with feelings of deep connectedness.
“Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.” That’s how I feel holding hands and embracing my fellow Christians at Glide on Palm Sunday. Hosanna!