MAXWELL:  A good church serves many needs

11/13/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


I am what is called a PK.

For the untutored, a Preacher’s Kid, a youngster whose primary guardian is a preacher, a pastor in most instances. In my case, my paternal grandfather was a presiding elder in a Pentecostal denomination. He started three churches from scratch and nurtured them into viable ministries that thrive to this day.

Needless to say, I was dragged kicking and screaming to service every Wednesday night and all day Sunday. By age 10, I hated church _ the long, long hours of Bible-talk, loud songs, interminable sermons, babbling testimony from each parishioner, hot black suits, starched white shirts, noose-like ties, billowy dresses, umbrella-sized hats and hard wooden pews.

For me and most of my buddies, the only good things about church were the handful of pretty girls who cast occasional seductive glances our way. These exchanges always perked us up.

Frankly, church service was meaningless to me. It was a big bore. It started to interest me years later, when I was about to enter graduate school. Because I directed a small civil rights organization and published a free civil rights newspaper, a Unitarian Universalist pastor asked me to address his all-white congregation about my work and the civil rights movement in general.

His flock, he said, needed to learn about the movement, which he described as “the most important mission in the nation today.” That was 1971.

He was the late Rev. Al Harkins, a kind man, who became my friend, my pastor, my mentor. His example sparked my interest in attending Meadville Theological Seminary in Chicago. I did not attend Meadville but opted for a graduate fellowship at the University of Chicago.

While in graduate school, I attended the First Unitarian Church of Chicago. There, under the leadership of Jack Mendelshon, I learned a new definition of religion, one that I ascribe to now: Religion is about serving the needs of the whole human being. Just that simple. By the way, Jack’s most recent book is titled, surprisingly, Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age.

I joined the social services program. Because I was studying literature, I was assigned to teach basic grammar each Saturday at one of Illinois’ most notorious prisons.

This was my Unitarian ministry, my way of serving a population that society had given up on. For one year, I went to the prison. More than a dozen of our students completed the GED. I was proud and believed that I had been of service to others.

The other night, I was in the presence of another great minister _ the Rev. Cecil Williams, pastor of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church of San Francisco _ who also understands the meaning of serving the needs of the whole human being. Williams is an African-American and a San Angelo native. He is in town for a three-day homecoming celebration.

Since 1963, when he took over Glide, Williams has dedicated himself to saving souls and bodies in San Francisco’s poor Tenderloin District. For him _ as with my grandfather, Al Harkins and Jack Mendelshon _ soul and body are inseparable.

He is credited with transforming the black church in the United States from an institution that spoke only about heaven only on Sunday to one that also worries about life on earth 24 hours a day 365 days of the year. Williams calls Glide a church that actively reaches out to break the cycle of poverty for residents “living in the margins.”

The pews of Glide, with 11,000 parishioners, are home to everyone. Prostitutes, drug addicts and the homeless sit with the likes of famous author Maya Angelou and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.

The church has 86 social services programs, including housing for the homeless, food service, computer training for the unemployed and a clinic that treats the homeless and people with HIV/AIDS. Additionally, the church has a family and child care facility and an outpatient substance abuse program. Other efforts are in the works.

I had the honor of serving on a panel with Williams a few nights ago in San Angelo. “We are unlike any other church in America,” he said. “We don’t have to talk about Jesus Christ to be Christ-like. We live the life of Jesus Christ. We minister to people on the margins.”

Williams is my kind of preacher. Glide Memorial is my kind of church.