Unconditional Love

The Reverend Williams talks about Warren Buffet, the Glide Foundation, and how his childhood brush with madness influenced his life's work

In San Francisco, the Glide Foundation always had star power. Bill and Hillary Clinton have long been supporters of the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church. But in the financial world, it's Warren Buffett who has star power. So when Buffett started auctioning off a private lunch each year starting in 2000 to benefit the foundation, financial powerhouses from around the world started getting to know Glide.

Buffett's skepticism is well known. But clearly the foundation and the person behind it has won over Buffett's heart, head and wallet (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/8/06, "My Luncheon with Warren"). The Reverend Cecil Williams, who calls himself the CEO of the church and the foundation, has been well known in San Francisco for four decades now. His charisma and firepower have helped him to revive a church that 40 years ago was dying and to form one of the most enduring charities in the country, which has managed to attract the support of the Clintons, Buffett, and celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Sharon Stone.

Williams talked with BusinessWeek.com reporter Pallavi Gogoi about the foundation and the Buffett luncheon. Here are edited excerpts:

How did you get Warren Buffett to have lunches for your benefit?

It started when Warren Buffett's late wife was a member of Glide and said to him that he ought to check Glide out for himself. So she brought him to church on one Sunday around 1999 and he came in a T-shirt and khaki pants. He was not opulent at all, very plain and simple and down to earth and full of joy and laughed a lot with us.

He also saw some of the programs and liked them and said: "I want to do something," and we decided we could do a luncheon and he said "let's give it a try." He seems to enjoy being around people and he's very comfortable with it.

And he's done one every year since?

I call him each year and say it's time and he says: "Let's go for it." We started with a regular auction and four years ago eBay became involved in it and when they put it out there, his name of course got all this attention worldwide and it began to grow, and last year we received $351,100 from the winner. What Warren likes about it is that not only is he making a contribution but also participating in the contribution. He says "I'll do it again and again as long as we get folks to bid."

How much do you need to raise every year?

Glide has a budget of $12 million and we do fundraising in many ways -- by going to foundations and corporations and individuals -- and so far we've been able to pull it off and raise that much each year.

What does Glide do?

It is quite an operation. We feed 3,000 people a day, we have a free clinic for people who need medical attention. On average we treat about 140 people and it is run by nurse and doctor volunteers. We have reached out to gang members. We have 35 members from different gangs who graduated from high school and now they're getting jobs and we make sure they become part of unions so that they become permanent in the job market. We do recovery with people from drugs and alcohol and those that deal with anger or with abuse of women and children. There's nothing we don't take on. We took on AIDS, when it first started and were the only church to pass out condoms to people on Sunday.

How did you start?

I came here 42 years ago from Texas when the Bishop of the Methodist church invited me to San Francisco to this big downtown church, which was about to close its doors. After three months, I threw the doors wide open to hippies, gays and lesbians, and Americans of all hues,Asians and Hispanics and African Americans, and lesbians and transgenders. I took down the cross, because I didn't want people to worship the cross. It needs to be out where suffering takes place in alleyways. I started and many joined me and we revived the church.

Where did you get the energy and inspiration?

I am 76 years old and kicking real high. I once had a breakdown as a 12-year-old and am not afraid of death and have always had high energy ever since then. Some folks say I've never recovered and that's their problem.

What kind of breakdown?

I literally went crazy. We didn't have no psychiatrists in the African-American community in Texas. But people who loved me, like my mother and father and four other brothers and a sister, loved me back to health. I would walk at night, prancing and yelling and screaming that they're coming to kill me, but they didn't never call me crazy, and love was the best medication that ever happened to me. And that's why one of the tenets here at Glide is unconditional love and we practice that.

And from all those programs what are you most proud of?

Glide has 86 programs in everything imaginable that should be done in urban America. We engage in a holistic approach, trying to empower people who are powerless. I must say it's our children's programs that show a lot of promise. Lives of children whose mothers were into crack cocaine have been transformed. They come in with hardly any hope and then emerge and go on with their lives to school and some of them to college. One of them went to Brown University and became a physician. Our programs are wrap-around programs, we never let them go and our children never get lost.

What does Warren Buffett bring you?

Warren Buffet has not only helped us financially, but in our branding worldwide and in what we do with people and we are very appreciative of his commitment.

Why do you think people are so keen to be with him?

He has been in the forefront of the financial game for a long time. But most importantly he's got great integrity. I'm so impressed with this man. There's no pretense and if you want to meet the authentic man, he's the person.

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