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Movie spotlights church's role in saga of homeless man

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The Rev. Cecil Williams, here with the choir of Glide United Methodist Church, plays himself in "The Pursuit of Happyness."
Dec. 15, 2006

By Mary Jacobs*

In his 40-plus years at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, the Rev. Cecil Williams has met many of the homeless folks who have come through the church's homeless shelter and soup kitchen. But he won't forget Chris Gardner.

"He was one of the few men I've seen who had a baby with him at all times," Williams recalled. "And I remember him because he had the gall to say that, without a doubt, he was going to break out of the cycle of poverty."

Gardner's remarkable story is the basis of a new film, "The Pursuit of Happyness," which opened Dec. 15, starring Will Smith.

During the period in the 1980s shown in the film, Gardner stayed briefly in Glide's homeless shelter. After he left, Williams said he didn't hear from him until a few years later.

"Next thing we knew, he was in Chicago," he said. "He had started his own brokerage and he was a millionaire."

Gardner credits his success to confidence in his ability to eventually succeed and to the encouragement of his pastor.

"Cecil Williams would talk every Sunday about being able to walk on the waters of life," Gardner recalled. "And he'd say that baby steps count, too, as long as you're going forward. That's food for the soul."

Williams has since retired as pastor of the church but is still affiliated as chief executive officer of the Glide Foundation.

'Pursuing a dream'

Will Smith, who portrays Gardner, said at a recent press screening in Dallas that the film "will forever hold a spot in my heart."

"(The film) is about, 'How do we do it? How do we keep pursuing a dream and stay encouraged?'" Smith said.

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Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

Will Smith plays the role of Chris Gardner. Smith's real-life son, Jaden Christopher Syre Smith, plays Gardner's son, Christopher, in the movie.
Williams plays himself in the movie. The church's choir, the Glide Ensemble, also makes an appearance. Residents of Glide's homeless shelter were recruited as extras for a scene at a worship service.

Gardner remains a member of Glide and returns four or five times a year to help in the shelter's kitchen.

An early draft of the film's script omitted any mention of the Rev. Cecil Williams. Gardner sent the script back to the writers.

"I told them, if there's no Cecil Williams, there's no Chris Gardner," he said.

Smith said being on location at the church brought the role home for him.

"We shot the scenes at Glide in the same places where Chris slept and ate," Smith said. "Being there, the members of the crew and I felt the spirit of what had actually happened there."

In preparing for the role, Smith said, "I asked myself, when would I have
broken in this situation? When would I have given up? For me, it was the scene in the bathroom."

The scene shows Gardner, just evicted from his apartment, spending a night with his son sleeping on the floor in the men's room in a bus station.

Scenes like that, Williams hopes, will give moviegoers more empathy for the poor. "You get a sense of some of the horrifying experiences a poor person can encounter."

Trusting in God

"I was struck by the commitment that (Gardner) had to this idea of who he was and what he wanted his life to be," Smith said. "He gambled everything. He put his trust in God, and in the face of homelessness and hunger he held onto that idea. That idea was food for him when he was hungry and shelter for him when he was homeless."

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

"I feel that, spiritually, I did the right thing in making this movie," Will Smith says of his role playing Chris Gardner.
Gardner said he was pleased with the way Smith portrayed him.

"What I figured out late in the game is while we were shooting for those 17 weeks, while everybody was watching Will, Will was watching me," he said. "I think he's done his best work to date."

Williams said he also got to know Smith while the cast was filming at the church, and was impressed with the actor's character.

"I feel that, spiritually, I did the right thing in making this movie," Smith said. "The tool that God has given me is my artistry. I feel I'm closer than I've ever been to doing something with that tool that will leave the world a better place."

The film depicts Gardner, an African-American man, working to break into a profession that was dominated by white males. If Gardner encountered any racism, the film doesn't show it. Gardner said that was a conscious choice.

"There's a bigger barrier beyond racial barriers," he said. "It's the barrier of the human spirit, the barriers of possibilities, of what can and can't be done. That's what the movie is about."

If viewers take anything home from the movie, Gardner hopes it's this: "The cavalry ain't coming. You've got to do this yourself."

The film alters a few facts from the real-life story for dramatic purposes. Gardner's son, Christopher, was a baby at the time; in the movie, he's a 5-year-old boy.

Gardner also is shown as a natural whiz at Rubik's Cube, a popular puzzle in the early '80s. In real life, Gardner has never worked a Rubik's Cube; the writers used the device to convey his unusual talents. Smith took 12 hours of lessons with Rubik's Cube champions learning to master the puzzle. After 20 more hours of practice, he can solve the puzzle in about two minutes.

Gardner said his determination to succeed should encourage church members who work on behalf of the homeless.

"The work that Methodists do makes so much of a difference in someone making it or breaking it," he said. "A lot of times they don't get to see that immediately."

He compared helping the homeless to gardening -- planting seeds, feeding and nurturing them.

"One day, things have blossomed, but it takes a long time sometimes," he said. "If my contribution is anything, maybe I'm representative of all the gardening all the Methodists have been doing for years."

*Jacobs is associate editor of The United Methodist Reporter. This story originally appeared in the Reporter.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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Glide Memorial Church

"The Pursuit of Happyness" Official Web site

National Alliance to End Homelessness