At the risk of offending some, I'll admit right now that religion is a topic that gets me really agitated. I consider myself a very spiritual person, so I can see that most the underpinnings of religion have a solid basis, but somehow many religious people (not all) have twisted it to be about moral superiority, even though the Bible expressly talks about not judging others.
Enter Glide Memorial Church and it's powerhouse leaders, the Reverend Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani. Glide Memorial was started in 1929 in the heart of the Tenderloin, which is one of the toughest neighborhoods in San Francisco. Cecil Williams arrived in 1964 and ordered the cross removed from the sanctuary, telling the congregation to celebrate life and living instead. All are welcome, and nobody is judged. At Glide services you will see hookers, drug addicts and homeless people sitting next to the rich and famous, with plenty average Joe's thrown in for good measure. There is very little recited from any book week after week - mostly inspiring stories from the congregation and Cecil, and an awesome gospel choir that will send chills down your spine. You can buy CD's of the Glide Ensemble here.
Cecil Williams is like a rock star here in the Bay Area. The church is famous not only because of its charismatic leader, but the fact that their actions do the talking. Glide has an amazing array of programs to help people get back on their feet, including job training and employment services, health services, day care services and a food program which serves one million meals a year! I was in the Bay Area last holidays, and went and volunteered in their kitchen on Christmas day. I was just amazed at what they accomplish. 6,000 people were fed that day - a full turkey dinner for each. The wonderful thing is that there is a waiting list every Thanksgiving and Christmas for volunteers.
This church is a shining example of what religion can and should be. I would go so far as to say, if you're ever in San Francisco on a Sunday, make this the top destination on your list. You will come away truly inspired, having had a profound spiritual experience. Just come early, as it is often standing room only, especially on holidays. This is the real deal.
Being a native of South Africa, I emigrated during the apartheid years, thinking the only solution would be a massive civil war. I was shocked, and am still shocked 17 years later that the white government saw the light, and the transition has been a relatively peaceful one. I believe Nelson Mandela will go down as being one of the towering heroes in history for leading the country through that time so successfully. And while I knew there would be deep scars for many years to come, it is heartbreaking to me the people who suffered so long and should be rejoicing now in reclaiming their freedom, are facing devastation in the form of HIV/AIDS. South Africa has the highest per capita HIV infection rate in the world.
Recently, I performed my annual ritual of buying obsessive amounts of tickets to the Mill Valley Film Festival, and performing a marathon of movie-viewing for 10 days that leaves me exhausted in a heap at the end of the festival. This year I saw the documentary "iThemba:Hope", which is a film about the Sinikithemba Choir, who sing to raise consciousness about HIV, and to be an advocate for those living with the disease. All of the members of the choir are HIV positive. It was a wonderful movie - sad, but also inspiring. I fell in love with the main character in the movie, Zinhle Thabethe, who is a 26 year old single mother with HIV. She lives in a shanty town, but I was so impressed by her intelligence, grace, tenacity and poise. The area in which she lives has a 36% infection rate, and she has taken it as her mission to persuade people to get tested, including her own brothers.
The movie is being screened on the Sundance Channel on December 1, along with a few other movies about South Africa and AIDS. If you go to the website, you can set a reminder to watch the show. Do yourself a favor and watch this show. It's only an hour - you'll probably cry, but you'll have a smile by the end of the show. And you'll feel grateful for what you have in your life.