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Pastor, Present, and Future

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 entrée 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.

“We don’t do business well with each other, in every sense of the word,” says Murray with a sigh. “A dollar turns over once in our community. In Asian and Latino and other communities, it turns over two, four, six times. We have the middle class, but it’s the base of the pyramid — the working class, the poor — where so much is lacking. In every category that reflects need we are disproportionately represented. At this tick of the watch, blacks make up 50 percent of the prison population, and 80 percent of those in lockdown are there because of drugs. That has got to change.”

 

That’s the big picture. Then there’s the local one in which Murray has obviously and not so obviously stumped for causes much more easily addressed — like trying to help high-profile black civil servants such as ex–Police Chief Bernard Parks and MTA executive Franklin White keep their jobs. Media-intense moments like those fueled grumbling among whites — and some blacks — that Murray was a knee-jerk ethnocentric who was wasting increasingly precious political capital on largely symbolic issues while South-Central still festered. By design or not, Murray became part of a black power-wielding, gatekeeping establishment that includes Representative Maxine Waters, Urban League president John Mack and developer-publisher-activist Danny Bakewell. Their fight for Parks’ reappointment in 2002 was the apogee of a crisis of local black leadership that had been brewing for years: As black political representation ebbed steadily, Latino representation burgeoned and the retention of a high-ranking, policymaking official like Parks became proportionately more crucial. Parks’ dubious record on the very police reforms Murray and others championed all along was seen as less of a problem than the problem another black vacuum in the halls of power downtown would create. So keeping Parks as the city’s top cop became a cause — ultimately, a lost one. The ex-chief is now a councilman in the 8th District, where FAME is located (not surprisingly, Murray endorsed Parks for the seat), which has to be some comfort.

Murray doesn’t say, really, so intent is he on describing his latest crusade: the summit of citizens looking to stem the red tide of black homicide. The group, convened last year by veteran political consultant and longtime FAME member Kerman Maddox, formed after a spate of senseless murders last year that stretched from middle-class Crenshaw to modest Compton, a swath that left no black community untouched and left much for everyone to ponder. Murray says the summit has been hashing out a blueprint for action ever since that will debut soon. His other cause of the moment is getting out the vote. “This November is very important,” he says. “We’re making certain blacks vote this fall. If you’re a church and you’re not doing that, you ain’t doing nothing.” Murray concedes that Democrats have taken the black vote for granted for too long, and that Republicans flat-out stole it in the last presidential election, but neither dispiriting fact is a good enough reason in his mind to sit out the most high-stakes election of the last 50 years. Like the Parks campaign, it’s another bargain struck less on ideology than on pragmatism — a compromise that has become the story of black leadership — though Murray is loath to see it that way. “It’s only been one generation since we’ve really had the vote,” he says heatedly. “When you say it doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t make a difference . . . that’s a stupid mode. If nobody is caring about you, you better care about yourself. It’s just common sense.”

While Murray articulates no specific plans for the future — “whatever God has in store for me,” he says serenely — it’s clear he will stay connected to one mission or another. (His official retirement party on September 18 at the Century Plaza Hotel will be a fund-raising dinner for the K-8 school he helped build, the Cecil Murray Education Center.) One thing he is tracking as a kind of cause-in-waiting, something that makes him nervous, and that he refers to as “the incident” — the Stanley Miller police beating this past June in which LAPD officers caught and savagely beat a black suspect while a news video camera recorded it. This time the police chief, Bill Bratton, was immediately contrite, and this time there were no fires in the hood. Not yet, anyway. Murray worries that a dogged apathy about things like police beatings of black men will prove more incendiary in the long run — and perhaps the short run — than bricks hurled through windows or lit matches tossed in trash cans. “Americans are shockproof now,” he says. “And for blacks, it’s a protective move, a result of a battle fatigue that we’ve had for generations. The way we deal with it all is to go into denial. It’s easier to ignore these problems than to fix them.” True, but Murray’s black critics say the pastor has often failed to carry the hard truths like racially skewed stats on unemployment, imprisonment and police beatings to white business and institutions for fear of losing the favor FAME has curried so well since ’92. At the idea that he is soft-selling race, Murray bristles and finally loses patience.

“And what would they have me say? Call the white man a devil?” he snaps. “We have gotten to be such mouth merchants. Doing showtime on TV, waving yellow handkerchiefs and wearing purple shoes. Latinos are saying, ‘It’s our time.’ Asians are saying, ‘It’s our time.’ And the rhetoric is saying nothing. Blacks are crying, and nobody is hearing it.”

 

The biggest service Murray has provided during his tenure may well be his ability to make people far beyond the church walls hear him. FAME has become a de rigueur L.A. stop for out-of-towners as big as Bill Clinton — Murray was preaching the value of forgiveness at the pulpit when the ex-president was embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal — and as up-and-coming as Kim Dong-gil, a South Korean presidential hopeful in the early ’90s. “He gets his phone calls returned from everyone, and he has positive relationships with so many people. I can’t think of anyone else with that kind of clout,” says Valerie Lynne Shaw, president of the city’s Board of Public Works and a longtime community activist. “He’s the premier power broker in L.A. People way outside the community know FAME. Through his own personal charisma, Chip Murray’s been able to connect the black community to lots of other constituencies. He really is a link. Nobody has his reach, his breadth of contacts to make things happen in L.A. He can call a homeowner group in Watts, or in the Valley, or a major bank, and they’ll all call him back. What non-elected official can do that? What other black person could bring all those folks together?”

Well, maybe Michael Jackson — who, incidentally, paid FAME a surprise visit not long ago, almost certainly to shore up his own black credentials in a time of crisis. In these strange days of extreme wealth and extreme want — “a place we have never been to before,” says Murray — the soon-to-be-ex-pastor doesn’t have a problem with that. So long as the Gloved One is willing to get on a task force.


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