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Gliding into a New Era

Karen Hanrahan takes the reins from activist power couple Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani.

By Meaghan Clark Tiernan

Just to clarify, Reverend Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani are not retiring. “Don’t use the ‘R’ word,” says Mirikitani, with a laugh.

Together, the couple helmed Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin for more than five decades—growing the congregation from just 35 members to nearly 10,000. Now they’re “in a period of transition,” Williams remarks.

They are leaving their throne in good hands. Karen Hanrahan, a former U.N. human rights worker and alum of President Barack Obama’s State Department, has been appointed Glide’s new President and Chief Executive Officer. Hanrahan has over two decades of experience advocating for human rights around the world and most recently served as a foreign policy advisor on issues of gender, development and human rights for Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

After years spent in war zones in Afghanistan, and then across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia for the U.N., Hanrahan—who was also a program officer in Palestine for Nonviolence International says she began “hearing the call for social justice issues domestically.” Glide Memorial Church seemed like a natural fit.

Pegged as an “oasis in a desert of hopelessness,” Glide has been a retreat for the underserved and misunderstood since the early ’60s. In 1963, following the March on Washington, Williams joined the small, entirely white congregation at Ellis and Taylor Streets. In his first act as pastor, he ceremoniously removed the building’s crosses to promote inclusivity and growth.

Since the civil rights era, Williams and Mirikitani have opened Glide’s doors to everyone —from the LGBT community when the AIDS/HIV epidemic hit to those affected by the drug crisis in the 1980s.

Glide’s mission of radical inclusiveness—a practice Williams adopted that encompasses the idea of unconditional love, social justice and acceptance of everyone—is showcased through a seemingly endless supply of programs, including Free Meals Daily to feed the poor, homeless and hungry, on-site access to affordable primary and mental health care, and HIV and Hepatitis C prevention and harm reduction services.

Though Williams is long retired from his church pulpit—he celebrated his 88th birthday in September, but was forced into retirement at the age of 70, mandatory for any pastor employed by the United Methodist Church—he speaks as though he’s addressing a full congregation, and not just myself and his wife of nearly 35 years. “Now is the time for young people to step up,” he declares

Stepping into Williams’ legendary shoes sounds daunting, but Hanrahan seems up to the task. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s got two strong cheerleaders—“part-time” staff Cecil and Janice—to help ease her into this new role. “They really are true visionaries and I am grateful for their presence,” says Hanrahan with deference.

Especially unique is the fact that Hanrahan has not yet moved to San Francisco. Glide officially announced her appointment in August, but she’s letting her young children finish out the school year in Washington D.C. before making the move to the West Coast. Until then, Hanrahan commutes between SF and the nation’s capital. She spends much of her time meeting and greeting some of Glide’s longtime fans. “There’s eagerness to support Glide, so I’ve benefited from that,” she says.

As part of her new role, Hanrahan will be tasked with helping bridge the big divide that separates the haves and have-nots in a neighborhood where tech companies like Twitter have set up headquarters. “There’s a rising gap between rich and poor, so the problems of poverty, homelessness and hunger are not getting better in America,” she says. “It’s surprising, especially in places like San Francisco—a city of innovation, with its very progressive values—where we see a lot of good intention, but still a gap in a very stark way.”

Williams and Mirikitani remind me that the city has always been changing. Yet Glide’s goals remain the same. “I was asked to help chart Glide’s future, and to help deepen its impact, in bolder and better ways,” Hanrahan tells me. “I’ll take all the special things that work about Glide and amplify it to make it relevant to our time.”

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