By Hillel Aron
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|Photo by Garik Gyurjyan|
The Reverend Cecil Murray prays for me. He likely prays for everyone who sets foot into his comfortable office-sanctuary, which is all rich wood panel and fluffy carpet that instantly reminds me of the relatives’ living rooms I used to visit on Sundays, even down to the reflexively genteel offer of food and drink. I thank the pastor, but decline. As soon as we’re seated, Murray shuts his eyes, bows his head and intones a brief but undeniably eloquent wish for my continued success as a writer and as a child of God. Though I’m as secular as they come, and lately too cynical for comfort, I am moved.
The 75-year-old Murray has a knack for inspiring people that goes beyond his duties as head preacher at First African Methodist Episcopal church, a position he’s held since 1977 and will officially vacate September 18. He has an ability to help people believe in what they want to believe in, especially those who feel they lack permission or enough of a precedent to make that leap. In the wake of April 1992, when First AME (FAME) burst onto the national scene as the black mega-church that visibly tried (and heroically failed) to turn the tide of the unrest, Murray was suddenly in a position to make believers out of not just weary black constituents but also out of powerful institutions far north of the 10 freeway such as Disney, the WB Network, Bank of America and Chase Manhattan that had never given the woes of South-Central a first thought. The green-lighters in story-conscious Hollywood came calling, big-time. Everybody wanted to help, it seemed, and they were looking to Chip Murray to tell them how.
Thanks to him, FAME — an acronym it more than lived up to — became the chief entr√©e into the hood for corporate interests, jobs-training programs, affordable-housing development, homeowner loans and small-business incubation. FAME Renaissance, the economic-development nonprofit, is housed in a sleek building on Adams Boulevard that’s nearly as big as the church itself. It is a testament to Murray’s character or powers of persuasion that he actually sounds humble in describing the church’s post-’92 ascent as divinely ordered. “In God’s kingdom, there are no accidents,” he says gravely in his big baritone, hands clasped together between his knees. “Since 1977, we’ve been going beyond the walls of the church — to Skid Row, to prisons, doing emergency feedings and clothing, building business development, housing villages, venture capital. All of this was in place when the fires of ’92 began to burn. So the things that happened after are a reflection of things that went before. We did not have to invent ourselves before the cameras.”
True, though it is irresistible to note that Murray has always been camera-friendly: wiry, well-dressed down to his patent-leather shoes and burnished cufflinks, as quick and on point with social analyses as he is with a sense of humor. His 18,000-member church’s visibility and his own increased importance in political matters over the years have engendered admiration as well as backlash: Depending on your point of view, Chip Murray is exactly the kind of focused, diplomatic, methodical leader the black community needs or a pliant tool of the status quo that it needs least; on matters ranging from police reform to home-loan redlining he oversteps, and he doesn’t step far enough. Sometimes one person will hold both opinions at once about Murray, which doesn’t bother him — as long as the criticism is personal. He shrugs off not being liked, but not being taken to heart is another matter.
“I can take the darts,” he says. “But if you’re critical of my mission, that’s different. When I look at the Word, I don’t see Jesus sitting in a corner, idling. People say I’m political, but the word comes from polis, which means people. How can church serve people without sitting down and forming alliances with government, with Crips and Bloods and drifters? How can you serve and feed people without bringing in the corporate world, without reaching out to the school board? How can you serve people without dealing with drug dealers? The question,” he says, leaning forward and sounding just the tiniest bit peeved, “is what are you doing in your corner to make a difference?”
I hope the question is rhetorical, but I don’t think so. Like many blacks of his generation, Murray grew up in the segregated South and confronted racism early and often — as a teenager, he and his father and brother were bloodily beaten by a white mob. His life after that, which included being an Air Force captain, obtaining a doctorate in religion from the School of Theology in Claremont and working his way up the AME pastor ranks from a tiny Pomona church to the plum assignment in L.A., was a template of can-do, forged partly by inflexible circumstances and partly by his own determination to do well. Indeed, Murray has made action — that is, going beyond 30 the church walls — practically a mandate for his congregants, who are continually encouraged to join one of FAME’s many task forces. Murray takes particular interest in mentoring young men; it’s no accident (of course) that many of the men who took their business acumen to the streets to make a difference after the unrest and did well for themselves in the process — Mark Whitlock of FAME Renaissance, John Bryant of Operation HOPE — are in his flock. Murray says mentoring and role-modeling for black men is as critical now as it’s ever been; 12 years after all the promises of betterment were made on the charred ground of South-Central, too little betterment has come to pass. Actually, the entire black populace of Los Angeles, still largely clustered in the inner city where it was made to live in the not-so-long-ago days of de facto segregation, has seen far too little improvement, for Murray’s taste. However conciliatory or status quo he may appear in print or before the cameras, one-on-one the pastor doesn’t shy away from his core mission of improving the lot of black folk, a mission he believes black churches have a special charge to execute. He isn’t feeling terribly optimistic about that lot at the moment; for one thing, the economic-development projects of FAME notwithstanding, blacks as a group remain seriously undercapitalized.