Advice for living: Never pass up a free meal, or an opportunity to celebrate with good intention and powerful purpose.
For 54 years, the Daily Free Meals Program at GLIDE—a social justice center bent on moving people out of poverty, homelessness, injustice, and crisis—has been a cornerstone of the organization’s mission to provide spiritual sustenance, food, housing security, and other resources for bodies and souls. The group’s food program began in 1969 as a weekly volunteer-run potluck for 50 people. In the fiscal year of 2020-’21, GLIDE served over 500,000 meals.
The nourishing plates form a bulwark program for the many other services GLIDE provides, like family, women’s, youth, childcare, social justice, and walk-in health centers, the Unconditional Legal Clinic, and group sessions for male abusers to unlearn patterns of violence.
Standing at the helm of the lunch line is none other than the venerable Reverend Cecil Williams, the co-founder of Glide Memorial Church alongside his late wife, Janice Mirikitani, who died at age 80 in 2021. This year’s annual GLIDE Holiday Jam on November 9 at the Masonic celebrates Williams’ 60th anniversary of working with the organization, and includes an all-star lineup of guest artists, in addition to the 100-member GLIDE Ensemble and its eight-member Change Band.
Attendees will enjoy the vocal stylings of American songwriter, producer, and performing artist and Valerie Simpson. You may know her work with husband Nickolas Ashford—the duo was known worldwide as Ashford and Simpson, and were inducted in the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2002. They wrote some of the most influential, memorable music of their time. Ashford died in 2011, but Simpson continues to write and perform both new music and the songs that earned the couple 22 gold and platinum records, three Grammy nominations, and 50 awards from the American Society of Composers, Producers and Songwriters—including the Society’s highest honor, the Founders Award.
Their illustrious career might never have happened were it not for the ease of a free meal—one that caused Ashford to visit Harlem’s White Rock Baptist Church in 1964. There, his path crossed with that of Simpson. A person could say, purpose was found in a sandwich—that led to a great romantic story and songs so powerful that no mathematical equation could express their enormity.
At the Holiday Jam, Reverend Williams will be fêted by Simpson and other guest artists including blues guitarist and composer D’Wayne Wiggins of Tony! Toni! Toné!, R&B singer-songwriter and activist Goapele, and soul singer Martin Luther McCoy.
In an interview with 48 Hills, Simpson says the evening’s medley is still a work-in-progress, but is likely to include “Remember Me,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” and “Reach Out and Touch.” She enjoys being able to “get more in” with a medley: “When you hit the verse and the chorus, you can get the message over.”
Which prompts the question, what is the message she brings?
“First of all, the message to the world is going to have to be given by a songwriter, because the people we put in public office have disappointed us so often that they are not dealing with our needs as a community,” Simpson says.
“As we look at the world and turn on the news and see what’s happening, I don’t see how we can simply go on. There’s a crisis we’re faced with that’s bigger than anything I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. I hope God gives the message to me or to someone to say something that will bring us together. Together in a way of understanding even someone coming from a different point of view—understanding that we all have to exist and have housing. It shouldn’t be about land anymore, it should be about life. Each family has the right to experience that. I don’t know who’s going to get the message but boy, do we need a message right now.”
“There’s a great need for this message of understanding,” she continues. “That’s why I’m coming. This is a trip—let’s just say I couldn’t say no.”
Simpson has a durable and profound bond with GLIDE.
“I have great friendships,” she says. “It was actually Dr. Maya Angelou who brought Nick and I to Glide. We formed a relationship there because the church does so many wonderful things. Aside from providing food, they look after those who have physical needs or addictions and create a great environment. GLIDE does what you want a church to do, which is to reach out to community. With the loss of Nick, Jan and Reverend Cecile really looked into me and were very, very helpful. As was Dr. Angelou. She drove her bus up and stayed in my home. She thought I needed that; and I did. I’m fortunate to have that kind of love and loyalty around me. Those were the kind of umbrellas I sat under after Nick passed.”
Reflecting on the ways in which she views Ashford and Simpson songs today, she says, “I used to take them on a surface level, but it is much deeper than that now. Music speaks for people who can’t speak for themselves. They’ll find a song that speaks to a need and come and tell me what a song meant to them. I’m always astonished because it’s usually much deeper than anything it was intentionally written to represent. It fills me up to know we’re doing a bigger work than we thought we were doing. Sometimes, that happens when you write what you’re feeling.”
One song on their first album that “spoke” to her long after it was written is “Gimme Something Real.” A woman came up to Simpson and told her the song caused her to cancel her wedding.
“She knew it wasn’t the right one, because that song spoke to her in a way that made her look deeper into the rest of her life. She realized she wasn’t being authentic enough and would be off to a bad start, so she gave it up. That stuck with me.”
Her husband’s death caused Simpson to become unstuck as a creative artist.
“By losing my husband Nick Ashford, who did most of the lyric-writing while I wrote the music, I was forced to pick up the pen and see if there was something inside of me,” says Simpson.
“I found that there is. On my last birthday I pulled together some 20 close friends and put together some personal thoughts,” she continues. “The songs turned out to be very helpful to them—and to myself, because you don’t know what avenues you have on the inside until you test them.”
Does this mean that Ashford’s death created new purpose and a way to focus beyond the pain of a loss that will grow distant, but never cease? “It is true. And, it made me feel that perhaps I’d allowed myself to be lazy. I allowed him to do things when I could have stepped in and done more. I’m trying to define those things, because you sometimes close yourself off to areas where you are actually capable and could have been a bigger help.”
If there is a method for opening up that channel and unlocking a person’s self-doubt about personal ability or the capability to help others, it just might come by way of a song—or a sandwich. Either way, it’s reasonable to expect the people at GLIDE, including Williams and Simpson, to find it, share it with the world, and deliver healing and hope for us all.
KEEP ON: GLIDE ANNUAL HOLIDAY JAM November 9, 7pm, The Masonic, SF. Tickets and more info here.