People called the Tenderloin District in San Francisco “the last circle of hell,” because no matter how quickly you drove through it, you couldn’t help seeing the poor, the addicted, the sick, the homeless, and the mentally ill, many of them lying if not dying in the streets. You couldn’t look away from wildly dressed sex workers of all genders (there were more than two) getting clubbed by the police. You’d see flophouses, whorehouses, drug and porno houses, runaway teenagers selling their bodies, cruising johns, and ex-cons. By reputation, the Tenderloin was a filthy, seedy, crime-ridden hellhole that nobody wanted to visit.
Yet the first time I walked through the Tenderloin on my way to Glide Memorial Methodist Church in 1963, I saw something else, too. I saw the most blessed place on earth.
Eight years had passed since my graduation from Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, and by most standards I was doing well as an up-and-coming Methodist pastor. I ministered to a small but growing congregation in a very poor, mostly African American section of Kansas City, where I co-chaired the local CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) chapter and led protests against segregation at lunch counters and department stores downtown. Young, mostly white seminarians came by to work with the incredibly organized black women who helped revitalize the church, and over time we built Sunday attendance from fifty or so to more than eight hundred. I was proud of my work there and loved the congregation, but I knew it would always be a black church with a few white members. It was not the diverse congregation committed to radical change that I had dreamed of since childhood.
So when Donald Tippett, the Methodist bishop of San Francisco, invited me to the Tenderloin to visit Glide Church with the idea of becoming its minister, I was more than intrigued. Glide was named after a deceased millionaire cattleman whose wife, Lizzie Glide, had purchased the coveted corner property at the lower end of Nob Hill in 1929. For a time, well-to-do congregants followed Lizzie’s vision for a traditional Sunday church where people dressed up, sang hymns, and read scripture. However, their attendance slowed as Prohibition set in, the Tenderloin filled with speakeasies and gambling parlors, and the wealthy moved away, most of them up Nob Hill.
By the time I arrived in 1963, Glide still had a sizable endowment, but its congregation had dwindled to about thirty-five white people. They were intent on keeping services as conservative and starchy as Lizzie Glide had intended.
“There’s no way to soft-pedal this,” the bishop had said on the phone. “Glide is dying, and unless somebody comes in with some major changes, we’ll have to close it down.”
I thought about the bishop’s words as I walked through the garbage-strewn streets. The Tenderloin was a rectangle of about thirty blocks that backed up against San Francisco’s glitzy hotel and shopping district known as Union Square. Only minutes away from the city’s famous St. Francis Hotel and City of Paris department store, I passed panhandlers, muggers, and pickpockets who stared at me as though I were prey. Alcoholics yelled comments at nobody in particular or slid to the pavement in a stupor. I walked by people I guessed were illegal immigrants from Central America and Asia, and teenaged prostitutes male and female who slept at the Greyhound bus station at night.
The Tenderloin was also the “meat rack district” with its “ALL NUDE” strip clubs, gay bars, adult bookstores, hard-core movie theaters, roaming prostitutes, and oddly quaint peep shows. It was an urban ghetto filled with exhausted and broken homeless people shuffling from one corner to the next. They were every city’s visible poor -- sick, addicted, desperate, hopeless -- and they could not be “fixed” by charities, flophouses, or soup kitchens. People in cars sped up and passed by, trying not to see.
And where was God in all of this? The spirit we call God dwelled in each of us, I knew, but was so tamped down and packed away for these folks as to be irrelevant. Poor people had said to me before, Don’t talk to me about God. I’m starving, I’m addicted, I’m homeless, I can’t feed my kids or get a job. God left us a long time ago. Who could blame them? I thought. Under oppressed conditions, when you’re told you’re unworthy by the church and society, you can’t be fully human in your spirituality. You can’t see how the spirit around you affirms your humanity, wants you to be free.
But here was the surprise. I had expected the Tenderloin to be another skid row district, and in many ways it did have that down-and-out sense of futility. But something raw and energetic rose up from the streets as well. Perhaps it was the sight of entrepreneurial gay bar owners cleaning up after last night’s police raid, or refugee families hanging laundry in the alleys, or children playing outside pawnshops, bars, parole offices, and pool halls. Or perhaps it was just so many poor people -- old and young; gay and straight; native and foreign -- making a life in wretched surroundings.
I remembered playing Church with my sister and brothers in San Angelo when we were kids. I had wanted a diverse congregation so much that I assigned them all the colors of the rainbow, and if I could have, I’d have given them all the roles and lifestyles and sexual preferences in the universe. Now here they were for real, these black, brown, yellow, red, and white people in the Tenderloin, as poor and disenchanted as anyone could get. Society treated them like bugs under a rock, yet even in this wretchedness, they had become a teeming colony, refusing to die though right on the edge of death. What would happen, I wondered, if somebody picked up that rock and let the sun shine in? Maybe they would scatter. Maybe they would morph into something else.
One day, I thought, people in cars would slow down and really look. They’d see the poor making their own choices about their own healing. They’d see addicts, parolees, homeless, and the mentally ill managing their own apartment buildings, their own food distribution, their own job training, health care, and community organizing. All that, I believed, was going to take a revolution, not just of body but of soul.
Soon the corner of Ellis and Taylor came into view, and there it was: Glide Memorial Methodist Church, standing pink and fortress-like with its tall spire and golden cross. I looked at Glide and saw it moving somehow -- just shaking on the street, as if to say: Here’s a church that’s mostly empty. What are you going to do about it?
The bishop met me at the entrance with a sympathetic look. “It’s pretty rough out there, isn’t it?” he asked, indicating the Tenderloin.
“It’s magnificent,” was all I could say.
Excerpted from BEYOND THE POSSIBLE by Cecil Williams and Janice Miriktani. Copyright © 2013 by Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani. Used with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.