An overflowing crowd filled the pews at Glide Memorial Church and spilled into a closed off section of the street on Sunday afternoon to bid farewell to Maya Angelou. "I'm here for spiritual uplift," said a woman in line waiting to enter.
Angelou, who graduated from Mission High School, was tremendously fond of Glide, and asked in her will for a celebration of her life and work to be held there. For Cecil Williams, Janice Mirikitani, the assembled dignitaries, and the multi-racial crowd it was an easy request to fill. "We're drawn together to honor her legacy," said Williams, the pastor emeritus, who moved stiffly to take the lectern. "We will not give it up to anybody. We will present it to everybody." That was a the mission statement for the service, which was mc'd by journalist Belva Davis.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee spoke of the time she was summoned to the Winston-Salem home of Angelou. It was after the Oakland representative had cast the lone vote against the use of force in Afghanistan, the mention of which drew strong applause from the group. "I can never repay what she gave me in those trying times," said Lee. The Congresswoman was not the only politician to pay honor to the poet.
Former Mayor Willie Brown, referencing the poem that Angelou read at the first Clinton inaugural, said that, "San Francisco is blessed to have had the opportunity prior to January 1993 to know Maya Angelou." He then brought a knowing laugh from the crowd with a little deadpan. "That was the date she did the inaugural poem for the administration headed by Bill and Hillary Clinton," giving heavy emphasis to Hillary's name. "[Angelou] is now directing and advising the Almighty," said Brown. "With my shaky reputation, I'm going to need her to be my spokesperson." (Brown wasn't the only mayor to make a few jokes. Angelou was the first African-American woman to drive a streetcar in San Francisco, so Ed Lee said that if she were still around, "I'd ask her to drive a MUNI.")
Though Angelou lived in North Carolina, she had visited Glide often, and was embraced there. Mirikitani, who served as the poet laureate of the city of San Francisco, spoke of how Angelou had encouraged her to write poetry, and Williams credited her for inspiring him to begin wearing a dashiki. "She was the first woman in the United States to wear African garb," he said, adding impishly, "I had the opportunity to marry her several times."
As the afternoon began to close, Angelou's son, Guy Johnson, thanked the congregation for their support and for the event. "We were grateful," he said, "that my mother ascended with mind and spirit intact." He then read her poem Still I Rise, with the congregation joining in on the repeated refrain.
Visions of Glide's famous fried chicken began to beckon when, in what seemed from the pews to be an unplanned moment, Williams pulled Valerie Simpson from the crowd (Ashford and Simpson had collaborated with Angelou on a 1996 album, Been Found). The singer and songwriter pounded the sides of the pulpit. "I think I'm a lot bolder because of her. I walk with a stride I didn't have because of her." Then Williams commandeered a piano and borrowed the choir to perform the song Walk Around Heaven.
And with that, everyone rose and was uplifted.