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A Preacher Acts Against Crack

Cecil Williams and his church stress faith, resistance, and family as paths to drug freedom. PROFILE: GLIDE MEMORIAL CHURCH PASTOR

CECIL WILLIAMS is fighting slavery in the 1990s - the slavery of crack cocaine. ``Out of my 60 years as a member of the black community, never have I seen such ravaging destruction as crack cocaine,'' says Reverend Williams, pastor of San Francisco's Glide Memorial Church.

Here in the city's drug-infested, high-crime Tenderloin district, Williams and his church have for 25 years provided a gleaming refuge for the poor, homeless, and crisis stricken. One of the church's 28 programs feeds thousands of homeless and hungry every day.

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In the past two years, Williams and his staff have mustered newfound energies to help ``liberate'' those plagued by drugs. Through prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery efforts (with help from Haight Ashbury Free Clinics and reformed addicts), the church has developed ``Facts on Crack.''

``The program is an excellent program; it's just getting on its feet,'' says Charles Jackson, counselor for the San Francisco's Substance Abuse Referral Unit (SARU). ``They seem to have a fairly decent success rate'' and, especially important, they offer a program for young crack mothers. ``Cecil is one of the most dynamic leaders not only in the community and state of California, but the country,'' he adds; ``He moves and shakes things.''

In talking about crack's effect on the community, Williams not only refers to it as slavery, but as a ``genocidal threat.'' When you're on crack, ``you begin to lose the closest people to you,'' says the burly reverend, who is taking time out for an interview before filming a public service announcement. ``Before you know it, the compulsion, the desire, the need for crack cocaine is so severe, there is nothing, nothing that you want more because - the experts tell us - it satisfies every need that you have.''

`We will overcome it'

From April 25 to 29, Williams will co-chair a national conference on the crack cocaine epidemic. The theme of the meeting, titled ``The Rebirth of a Race, Crack Cocaine: Resistance and New Hope,'' is dear to Williams's heart: the empowerment of the black family and the spiritual force behind rebirth. He hopes the conference will generate models for how to produce a crack-free African-American family.

``We've come upon some models in America where we're doing battle in the trenches with crack cocaine and other drugs,'' he says. ``We're also beginning to understand addiction much more. We're beginning to understand what it means to be a part of the extended family - because it was the extended family that in many ways during slavery brought us through.''

He sums up his remedial approach in two words: faith and resistance. ```Faith' being that which we have experienced as a people that would never let us give up. ...`Resistance' means that nothing, literally nothing, not even crack cocaine ... can and will eliminate us.''

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``We will overcome it,'' Williams says fervently. What's needed, he says, is leadership and a strong family support system - the kind of climate Glide Memorial tries to provide.

Williams was rated one of the most highly respected public figures in San Francisco in a 1989 poll of registered voters. He has a calm voice and gentle smile, yet an energizing demeanor. He attributes his zest to a desire for his ``brothers and sisters'' to live better lives than he did. And poverty cannot be solved without first confronting addiction, he says.

Williams recalls growing up in San Angelo, Texas, where he lived in the ``worst ghetto.'' But he was fortunate to have family and community support. His greatest role model was his grandfather, he says, an ex-slave turned cowboy who was one of the early settlers in San Angelo. ``He was the one who stood up to white people. He didn't take nothin' from nobody,'' he says in a deep voice tinged with a slight Texas accent.

Williams's mother was ``a very loving person. She was like the one who soothed us. When you got hurt, she'd rock us and kiss us and the first thing you know that pain would be gone, whatever it was,'' he says gently.

Williams says that a ``mental breakdown'' in his childhood ``did more for me than anything. It allowed me to look at myself.'' His family and the rest of the community ``recovered me back to my sanity.''

``You've got to have healing'' in a drug-ridden community, he says. ``Healing has to happen in that community, and that means you take time out and, rather than condemn, you put people in your bosom and you rock the pain away.''

How did this happen?

Children especially need attention, says Williams. ``They've never been told `No!' [about drugs], and they've never had anybody to touch them and feel with them and rock them and soothe them and recover them. No, most of the folks said `You ain't no good, I'm sick of you, I'm tired of you!'''

According to Williams, recovering addicts say they feel abandoned, ashamed, rejected, hurt, alone: They turned to drugs to make themselves feel better. In many ways, the drug culture has replaced community, says Williams. Take drug gangs, for example. They often offer fellowship, comradeship, friendship - brotherhood and sisterhood. ``They will die for each other ... again, that's part of the extended family concept,'' says Williams.

How did all this happen?

Take a people ``gripped by poverty and homelessness,'' says Williams, a people who feel their opportunities are limited, that prejudice against them is rampant, that a great gap exists between the haves and the have-nots. They are a ``people who [are] in great need of something to fulfill their lives.'' And suddenly, that ``something'' is crack cocaine.

Economics also plays a big part, says Williams. ``Slavery was based on economics; crack cocaine is based on economics.''

But the biggest crisis is apathy, he says. ``Apathia is the Greek term, and it means `the frozen people.' I'm convinced that what America faces now is whether or not it's going to be the frozen people.''

Some ``middle-class black churches'' have a troubling attitude, Williams says. They think that ``once you get comfortable, stay that way.'' The membership decides, in effect, that ```we must preserve what we have.' What they're really saying is they're not willing to change, to step into the raging fire'' of problems.

The most important ingredient in fortifying the black community is leadership, says Williams. ``That does not mean that we don't include other communities. We need the white community, we need the brown community and the yellow, we need the red - we need all of these folks. Ultimately, it's not my problem, it's our problem,'' says Williams.

``My theology is based on freeing people; acting and reflecting ... doing. You don't talk about what you believe, you act what you believe. ... My vision is to make the church a reality, and that means to make it an inclusive church - no exempts.''

It all follows, he says, because ``God is unconditional with His love for us.''

One of the most glorious moments in Williams's career was the Sunday that South African dissident Nelson Mandela was released from prison. The church service at Glide - known for its celebrations - was ``overwhelming,'' he says. ``By the time we finished, it was like we were levitating. I've never had people say to me what they said Sunday in all of my 25 years,'' he recalls.

After the service, one man from Sweden ``lifted me off the ground and said, `My brother, I have never seen anything like this, and I want you to know that I am jumping for joy!'''

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