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Family Adventures Close to Home
Glide Rocks a Sunday Morning
By Rosie Ruley Atkins
Before we leave the house, Miles scans the bookshelf, his hands slapping nervously at his thighs.
"Aha!" He plucks a title from the shelf and clutches it to his chest, turning to reveal that he's chosen the Bible. "I think it'll be good to have this with us."
My son is 9 years old, and this Sunday morning marks the first time he'll be attending a church service for anything other than a wedding or a funeral. He's worried that we're not going to do it right.
"Just keep an open heart and it'll be great," my husband says. (Generally, my husband enjoys opening his heart to major-league baseball broadcasts of East Coast games on Sunday mornings.)
Twenty minutes later, we're at Ellis and Taylor streets, under a crystal-clear blue sky. Even the glorious spring sunshine can't mask the bedraggled state of the Tenderloin, however.
"Offer a prayer up for me, will you, brother?" says a man perched on a cracked milk carton as we pass.
"Sure will," my husband tells him.
"What kind of a church is this?" Miles asks. "And why does that guy think our prayers will count?"
"The church is called Glide," I say. "It's devoted to helping the people who live in this neighborhood. Everyone counts at Glide."
People greet each other with hugs and high fives as the sanctuary fills around us. The atmosphere is boisterous; nobody is blasé. The people around us are happy.
"That stuff's not religious," Miles says, noticing the images of flowers, dogs, and families that are projected on a screen above the choir's risers.
"It's about spirituality and finding the beauty in everything," says his dad.
It occurs to me that we've taken our child to any number of artistic, musical, cultural, and life events over the years, but his exposure to religious and spiritual events has been woefully limited. Amid the media clamor surrounding Pope John Paul II's death, Miles asked, "What is the Pope?"
The congregation rises, applauding wildly as the 140-member choir, the Glide Ensemble, takes the stage. Kids jostle for space on the carpeted steps that lead to the pulpit. A little boy digs a tambourine out of his backpack and beats out the rhythm, as the Ensemble, backed by a tight nine-piece band that features a swinging horn section, belts out "We Shall Not Be Moved." Two little girls dance on a wide window sill. Miles grins as he watches his dad sing along.
"How does he know the words?" he asks.
The Reverend Douglass Fitch, pastor of the church, greets us and makes a joke about Prince Charles' recent wedding. His joke falls flat, and the congregation groans good-naturedly. Fitch laughs. "You're still my family," he says. "Whether you come every Sunday morning or if this is your first time, this is your family. So love someone you've never met. They're your family."
"I get it," Miles whispers.
We sing some more music, and then it's time for the greeting. A man in front of me embraces me as an old friend would.
"Do you know him?" Miles asks.
"Still, he's your family now."
Dorian, a member of the Ensemble, comes forward to make the weekly announcements. She lists the astonishing array of volunteer opportunities available through Glide.
Glide Memorial United Methodist Church serves over 1 million meals a year to the city's poor and homeless. The church also operates a free health clinic, a walk-in center to give people a safe respite from the streets, and a resource center to help people get into drug and alcohol treatment. The church's job-training program provides clients with the skills they need to succeed in the work world; its family services division gives holistic support to parents and children. The CW House, named for Glide's guiding light, the Reverend Cecil Williams (whose title has now been expanded to CEO and Minister of National and International Ministries), is a 52-unit apartment building offering subsidized housing to needy families, people in recovery, and low-income persons with HIV/AIDS.
Dorian also talks about Glide's participation in Project Connect, the city program that sends trained volunteers out to connect homeless people with social services.
"We're everywhere," she says. "Shake this family tree and we all come out." The laughs are punctuated with hearty "Amens."
The Ensemble starts singing again. A man steps forward for a solo that is so emotional and raw it brings tears to the eyes of every single person in the building.
When the man finishes his song, Miles pulls his dad and me close. "This is great," he says.
Cecil Williams, who has led Glide for 40 years, steps to the pulpit. Everyone leans forward, expectant. The kids in the front settle down and listen. This is a man with charisma. Williams talks about the crowds at the funeral for Pope John Paul II. "When people are on the move like this, things happen," he says. "Good things can happen when people come together in peace."
He talks about the importance of marking life's events with celebrations and joy. He talks about how everyone is welcome at Glide and how, even in San Francisco, this congregation represents an amazing diversity.
You do get the sense that in this place anything can happen.
After finishing his comments, Williams peers out into the crowd. "Will that young man in the back come forward?"
The young man is familiar. As he passes our pew, I recognize the wraparound shades.
"Oh, my God," a girl squeals. "It's Bono!"
"We should come to church more often," my husband laughs, shaking his head at this improbable scene.
"That guy's a rock star," says Miles, dazzled.
The lead singer from U2 embraces Reverend Williams and greets the members of the Ensemble as old friends. Apparently, Bono attends Glide whenever he's in San Francisco. On this occasion, he talks about debt forgiveness in developing nations and tells a funny story about meeting the pope. "He was a great man," Bono says. "But Cecil Williams is the pope of San Francisco."
Bono leads the congregation in a rousing version of "We Shall Overcome," and follows with "Stand by Me," dropping in a couple of improvisational verses that extol the work of Glide. The church is rocking as we all sing and dance along.
The band kicks into a soulful rendition of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" as the exhilarated crowd files into the street.
Out on the sidewalk, we crack up when we hear a woman on a cell phone say, "You really should've been in church today."
"It would've been good even without a rock star," Miles says.
HOW TO SQUEEZE INTO A PEW
Glide Memorial Church is located at 330 Ellis Street at Taylor Street. Services are every Sunday morning at 9 and 11 a.m., but you must arrive early. As Reverend Fitch says, "Even your mother can't save you a seat." We got there at 10:30, and the church was filled by 10:45. Visit www.glide.org to learn more about Glide's mission and volunteer opportunities.