How to Make Over an Atheist, Part 1

The first time I went to Glide Memorial Methodist Church it was Mother’s Day. A challenging day for many of us. My personal life was going through heretofore unimagined upheaval, so all challenges were amplified beyond reason. One of my closest friends had been going for a while and had been urging me to come for the music if nothing else, and I’d been resisting. Cause I’m an atheist. Kind of a no-brainer. Sheesh.

But one night I became aware of the gritty granite of rock bottom, so I called her up and said I’d go. Why the hell not. Sundays can be nasty when you hit rock bottom. Some good music sounded like a better idea than any I’d had.

(Let me just throw down the gauntlet to my fellow atheists real quick, here. We utterly fail when it comes to rejoicing. We have no song book. We do not gather in large numbers once a week to recommit ourselves to the values that bind us together as a community. There is very little hugging. The religious guys have a serious edge over us on this stuff. In the battle for hearts and minds, unless we come up with some catchy tunes and free motivational speakers every Sunday, we will rank perpetually last, right after home dentistry and time share sales parties. Seriously. We gotta get on top of this.)

The sanctuary at Glide is a big open space that feels much like any other church, until you look a little closer. When you lift your eyes to the space above the risers where the choir stands, there is something missing.

There is no cross.

When Reverend Cecil Williams was sent to take over the flock at Lizzie Glide’s gold rush church at the corner of Ellis and Taylor 45 years ago, the congregation was miniscule. In the heart of the Tenderloin, Glide stands sentinel over some of the most destitute blocks in San Francisco. The story goes that even before he got the order to move to San Francisco Cecil heard a call from God to challenge oppression in ways that would lead his life in very radical directions. Did it ever.

Upon arrival the first thing he did was to order the cross taken down. It was a symbol of death, he said, and he wanted his church to be dedicated to the celebration of life. Over the decades he, and eventually his wife Janice Mirikitani, opened their doors to the wounded people who had been rejected by other churches, disenfranchised by the city and the country, beaten down by racism, homophobia, misogyny. Drug addicts, sex workers, runaways, survivors of domestic violence, bedraggled but dignified drag queens, radical leftist dropouts, Black Panthers, bra burners – refugees all, from doors slammed in faces and cold eyes looking the other way. Cecil read the Gospel of Christ quite literally and shaped his congregation to its strict adherence: unconditional love and acceptance. No more, no less. No other interpretation would do.

Somewhere along the way he figured out that when nothing else reliably resulted in butts-in-pews, music would. Some of the best musicians in a city full of virtuosos flocked to be part of what was happening. The Ensemble’s ranks swelled and folks came just to hear the music, stayed for Cecil’s fiery exhortations to radical inclusiveness and service to all humankind and ended up lifelong members regardless of their original faith or non-faith. He got arrested for civil disobedience more times than anyone remembers (except Jan, undoubtedly). He led armies of health workers and caring congregants to the foot of the crackhouses in the Tenderloin and shouted up to the inhabitants through a bullhorn to come down and get a hot meal and some medical attention. No judgement. No judgement, ever. Just acceptance, safety, help and love.

Now Glide membership numbers in its tens of thousands, stretches all over the world and funds nearly 100 programs that provide food, medical and mental health services, emergency shelter, permanent housing, vocational training, college scholarships, drug and alcohol recovery, mentoring, comprehensive case management and more. It is as big as Cecil and Jan could paint it, and it continues to serve and reach out, loving unconditionally, accepting radically. It is as near a miracle as any atheist can point to.

Of course I didn’t know all of this when I climbed the stairs, exhausted and undone by my own despair, and sat in the back with my girlfriend. I only knew that I didn’t know what else to do but be there.

And then the music started. Oh my. The music started. Gospel, huge and ebullient, big fat four part harmonies that roared up into the rafters, shook me down to the bleached bones of my pain and rattled them into life like a child’s toy. I started crying almost immediately. Ushers distributed fans and kleenex, and I saw that I was not alone in my weeping. The strangers all around me were shining in their own pain and joy and humanity, radiant, having granted themselves permission to expose this rawness in themselves for these 90 minutes of a Sunday morning.

I reigned myself in to the best of my ability because I felt myself an outsider, a non-believer, and I did not want to get too hooked on the stuff. I braced myself to hear “the god talk” and just white-knuckle it till the music started again. But then Pastor Donald Guest got up and started the impassioned litany that has now become so dear to my heart. “We don’t care if you’re Christian. We don’t care if you’re Jewish. We don’t care if you’re Muslim. We don’t care if you’re Hindu. We don’t care if you’re an atheist. We don’t care if you’re straight, gay, transgendered, bisexual, black, white, brown, yellow, polkadotted, republican, democrat, documented or undocumented, whatever and whoever you are we celebrate you and invite you to be part of this beloved community.” By this time he was hollering and jumping around the stage like an old-time revival preacher, but that wasn’t what shocked me half senseless. He’d named me. Along with the roll call of religions, the people who had a right to be there because they agreed at least that there was a god, he’d as much as said my name. There was no “we love you even though you’re wrong”, no “why don’t you read this scripture/listen to this speaker/let me tell you about how god can save you from your damnation”. It was just a fact. You’re an atheist. And you’re one of us.

Next Up: Conversion, But Not the God Kind; Owning Up to Being Intolerant; Trying to Explain It – “I’m Still an Atheist, Really.”

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