The Celebration of Life for Janice Mirikitani was no somber event. It was power. Strength. Courage. And above all, love.
It took place at her beloved Glide Memorial Church in the Tenderloin on Sunday. Attendees wore everything from lavender pantsuits to denim jeans to formal dresses. While a socially distanced crowd gathered at the building’s entry on Ellis Street, others looked on from surrounding sidewalks, taking a seat on the pavement or pausing to watch the primarily online program on the Jumbotron.
The Glide community reunited through tearful embraces. Speakers shared intimate details about Mirikitani as the crowd laughed in agreement, remembering her signature stilettos and fashionable outfits, her artful cursing and graceful dance moves.
The former poet laureate of San Francisco and “first lady of the Tenderloin” was a prominent social activist. Her adversity-filled childhood of Japanese internment and sexual abuse informed her work at Glide, the nonprofit she founded with her husband Rev. Cecil Williams, which focused on inclusivity and unconditional love.
Glide President and CEO Karen Hanrahan described Mirikitani as a “force of nature” whose memory will continue to inspire work combating poverty and homelessness in The City.
“She was fearless and transformational in the honesty with which she loved us all and held us all accountable,” Hanrahan said.
“Jan didn’t judge; she held me, she loved me — just created space for me to help me get into recovery and supported me through recovery,” said Tenderloin community organizer Curtis Bradford, who was a homeless drug addict when he came to Glide. Calling her his mentor and second mother, he said, “(She) taught me how to use my voice again, really set me on a new path and completely changed my life.”
She taught him that his story could inspire others. Today he works on social justice issues, stays engaged in San Francisco politics and is a public figure in the neighborhood — all of which he traces to Mirikitani.
He said he would probably be dead without Mirikitani, and his story is not unique. “There’s thousands of us that owe our lives to her inspiration,” he said.
That includes Michelle Pfau, who met Mirikitani 15 years ago when she was homeless and in need of food and shelter. Pfau vividly remembers eating in Glide’s dining hall on a rainy winter day and Mirikitani plopping down beside her to begin a conversation. Inspired by Glide’s work, she began to volunteer at the church and attended service every week.
“Having the service was really uplifting because when you’re homeless you start getting demoralized,” Pfau said.
Mirikitani helped spur Glide Harm Reduction Navigation Manager Jason Norelli, who tries to emulate her devotion to underserved communities and people at risk in his daily work fighting addiction and drug overdose. He remembered meeting Mirikitani and Williams in their office, when Mirikitani told him, “Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s not easy work,” welcoming him into the social justice community.
Glide choir director Vernon Bush said Mirikitani was an embodiment of pure love.
“She transferred Cecil’s love into her love and back out to us again and we did the same the other way around,” he said.
Mirikitani imparted a sense of intimacy with everyone she met.
“She would look at you and acknowledge you and make sure she took you in, like she was talking just to you,” said Bush, who has no doubt her legacy will continue, as well as the community’s resilience.
“We’ve had many people pass this year, and like we always did in Glide fashion, we pick up and we move on,” Bush said. “We take the gifts that they give us and shine on.”
Mirikatani’s husband, Rev. Cecil Williams, the last of the celebration’s more than 40 speakers, dotingly referred to her as “his baby” as he spoke of her will to improve the lives of so many and how, in her final hours, he promised her Glide would go on.
He said she was ahead of her time, “ready to take on anybody and everybody.”
“Janice will always stand for something magnificent. It’s our time now. It’s time to confront what’s important in life, to summon and offer our full humanity, and to expect greatness from ourselves,” he said.
Perhaps Mirikitani the poet best expressed her passion and spirit. She once said, “I found that my wounds begin to heal when the voices of those endangered by silence are given power. The silence of hopelessness, of despair buried in the depths of poverty, violence, racism are more deadly than bullets. The gift of light, in our compassion, our listening, our works of love is the gift of life to ourselves.”