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POWER TO THE PASTOR : Cecil Murray’s First AME Church is Action Central for a Wounded South Los Angeles

<i> Nina J. Easton is the magazine's staff writer. Her last story explored the impact of absent fathers on the American family. </i>

TALK ABOUT GALL: THE REV. CECIL MURRAY IS CONSUMED WITH the revitalization of South-Central Los Angeles, now a checkerboard of charred ruins, and this prim young woman in pink linen sits on his couch wanting help in launching her toddler’s show-biz career. Sift through her strained explanations about needing guidance from a “man of God,” and it becomes clear that her mission is to get Murray to pull strings with Arsenio Hall, a member of his activist congregation at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Murray acts as if the little nugget sitting on his couch could be the next Shirley Temple. He even makes a couple of calls. But he’s not about to bother Arsenio Hall. He scolds his visitor, so gently that it zips right past her. “I’m going to make this call for you--you don’t even know how to properly fawn over people doing you a favor.” Then, shaking his head over the predicament of this naive Midwestern woman lured to Hollywood: “Where you say you’re from? . . . No wonder they make jokes about Cleveland.”

The door to Murray’s office opens. A 28-year-old gang member walks in and plops down next to the toddler and her mother, telling Murray he wants to make amends for an earlier confrontation with the pastor. “I am your friend, your father,” Murray responds. “If there is a wall, there shouldn’t be. What are you put here for? What do you feel your mission is for the next 60 years?”

The young man, whom we’ll call Moon, talks of the plight of black men, of God and the devil, of his own fatigue. “Selling crack is harder than picking cotton, man.” His words start to wander. The toddler babbles. The mother looks nervously at her watch. Moon volunteers that he smoked a joint half an hour ago. Murray makes a pitch to get Moon into the church’s drug treatment program. “God is walking with me already,” is all the young man will say.

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Murray has this habit of letting one meeting flow seamlessly into the next, so visitors can spend entire afternoons sitting through two or three other “private” meetings. He relishes the interplay of ideas these sessions provoke. But the exaggerated sense of access and stature it gives his guests can drive the First AME staff nuts. “They come for food, to be fed by him,” says special projects director Peggy Hill. “No one walks away without feeling super-important. Unfortunately, sometimes people take off with his praises, they take his words as a guarantee.”

As this afternoon stretches into evening, guests are piling up and chairs are running short. The mother-child duo and the gang member are long gone, but now there’s a hunger activist who wants to work with the church and a Filipino nurse who has just presented his plan for saving Los Angeles, which Murray accepted like it was a million-dollar donation. There’s Hill, and Lillian Phillips, who controls the church purse strings, and--"Leonard, bring in some more chairs please"--Murray’s right-hand man, the Rev. Leonard Jackson.

And there’s a Hollywood producer and his songwriting companion. The producer--the only white man in the room--is in the doghouse. With the church’s help, he has pulled together a fund-raising extravaganza. But in Hill’s mind, he committed a cardinal sin by involving Peter Ueberroth’s Rebuild L.A. panel without consulting her. Around these parts, Ueberroth is a sensitive subject. His business acumen commands respect. But he recently dismissed Murray’s pleas to initiate a summer youth job program and promote black ownership of local businesses. The last thing Hill wants to do is let a church project fall under Ueberroth’s control.

As guests squirm nervously in their seats, Hill spends the next hour upbraiding the startled producer. He lamely tries first to explain, then to apologize. But Hill won’t drop it. It’s hard to read Murray through all this. He lets Hill vent, but he also interjects to soothe the wounded producer, to thank him graciously for his “superhuman” efforts. “I don’t want you to get disconcerted thinking that heat doesn’t mean light,” Murray says in his best Sunday-preacher talk.

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With the clock moving past 7, everyone in the crowded office holds hands for a closing prayer. And zing --without warning the pastor lets everyone in the room knows where he stands.

Head bowed, eyes closed, he asks the Lord to forgive the producer for his transgressions.

IN THE WEEKS SINCE THE CITY ERUPTED IN FLAMES AFTER THE not-guilty verdicts in the Rodney King beating, nearly everyone in Los Angeles with a social conscience--or so it sometimes seems--wants a piece of the Rev. Cecil (Chip) Murray and his church. There are those from white affluence, like the Hollywood producer, who see FAME, as the church is known, as a conduit for aid to South-Central. There are those from the city’s rainbow-colored mainstream, like the Filipino nurse, who want Murray to transform their dreams into reality. There are those from the Establishment, like presidential candidate Bill Clinton, who want his blessing, and a piece of his political capital.

All this might conjure an image of Murray as a sort of Godfather of South-Central, a savvy maneuverer dispensing advice and parceling out favors. That would be the wrong image. Murray is savvy, yes. Street-smart, yes. But he is too open, too direct, too accessible. Six days a week, and sometimes seven, Murray’s schedule is crammed with supplicants he hasn’t the heart to turn away.

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Murray’s no-nonsense style with his visitors is a measure of his complexity--and his sometimes contradictory view of the world. By turns, he’s playful and deadly serious, an elfin figure with a booming blue-velvet baritone. He’s a former Air Force captain whose eyes light up when discussing the machinery of battle but who insists that “war is wrong, mass destruction is wrong.” He says he abhors violence, but he viscerally empathized with rioters after the King verdict. He’s a man of God who can turn an ironic eye on his own profession. “We hang too much on this business of saving souls. What I do is hold up the truth,” he’ll say as he swings an invisible Bible in the air. “You want it? Well, good. You don’t want it? Well, that’s fine too. It’ll be here when you do.”

Murray sees his calling as social change--on Earth. “You don’t comfort people for them to settle down,” he is fond of saying. “You comfort people in order for them to go comfort others.” His life and work are shaped by two tragedies--one destroyed his father and renewed his commitment to fight racism; the other restored at least some of his faith in whites. At 62, Murray is a social activist who displays an occasional hint of vanity, like the tiny bottle of Chanel “Egoiste” he keeps on his desk. He’s a loner who sometimes talks lustily of rolling up the windows on his sporty new fire-engine-red Olds Cutlass Supreme--a Father’s Day present from the congregation--and turning up the music, any music, full blast.

Murray’s open-door policy concerns some of his advisers, who worry not only about the stress they see in Murray’s eyes but also about his safety. “With all these people coming out of the woodwork, we have to be careful,” says church pillar Julius Butler, an attorney. In fact, though, Murray’s wide appeal can be traced to his constant interaction with the black community. His message is simple and direct, so instead of policy-speak, he says things like, “There is enough to go around, if you do it intelligently. Anybody with any sense can see we can’t go on like this.” His lifestyle is in tune with the community he serves: He and his wife, Bernadine, live comfortably in middle-class Windsor Hills on his annual $35,000 salary, but until his Father’s Day gift he drove an 1984 Toyota Celica--in sharp contrast to some other local religious leaders who drive Rolls-Royces or BMWs. He doesn’t harbor much patience for what he calls “strutting” or “ego-tripping.”

As FAME turned into action central in the months since the riots, Murray sought ways to supplement Ueberroth’s Rebuild L.A. effort, which he considers too little, too late. “I’m sure jobs are eventually coming. But we need a piece of bread until the dinner arrives,” he preaches over and over. Warning that more violence could ensue, he has made repeated calls for jobs for troubled youth. “Three, four, five percent of the gang members are bad, but the rest want jobs,” he insists. His prayers were partly answered in July when City Hall tapped FAME to administer 1,000 federally funded summer jobs for teen-agers who might otherwise be drawn to gangs. Murray is already lobbying to extend those jobs through December.

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Murray is critical of Ueberroth’s focus on funneling corporate money and jobs to South-Central, something the pastor defines as a “trickle-down” approach. “He’s made clear that social engineering is not his thing,” says Murray. “No condemnation of the man. But somebody’s got to do it.” So the church is mustering a plan for “trickle-up” development--including locating financing for small, black-owned enterprises, helping African-American commercial interests buy land, advising entrepreneurs and training youth. The director of FAME’s Los Angeles Renaissance Project, 36-year-old financier Mark Whitlock, is asking major firms to provide loans to small black-owned businesses that can’t qualify for bank funding.

The church is also soliciting corporate investments in a $30-million pool for low-income housing. Under this program, FAME serves as a channel between South-Central housing groups needing construction funding and corporations willing to invest in low-income housing through a longstanding federal tax credit program.

All that comes on top of FAME’s already ambitious plate of projects, including the completion of three low-income apartment houses (bringing the total to five buildings with 223 units), a youth center donated by Arsenio Hall and a $3-million K-8 school to begin construction next year. Then there are the Murray schemes not even on the official drawing board yet, like his dream to turn the Long Beach Naval Station, slated for closure by the end of the decade, into a homeless shelter and rehabilitation center.

What makes all this possible is an activist congregation of 8,500 members, an annual income of $4 million, and Murray’s talent in traversing the city’s mostly white Establishment and South-Central’s often angry and alienated African-American community. “Chip is adept at maneuvering the complicated, turbulent rivulets of life in Los Angeles,” says Bishop Charles Blake of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ.

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At City Hall, where Murray’s economic redevelopment program could easily be viewed as a threat to the Ueberroth effort, Mayor Tom Bradley, who appointed Ueberroth, backs FAME’s effort as “an excellent move” and has sent his special assistant, Bill Elkins, to Washington to lobby for funding. It helps, of course, that Bradley is a longstanding FAME member who, despite occasional policy disagreements, maintains a warm relationship with the pastor.

In his dealings with the white business community, Murray appears sincerely gracious about any financial assistance that flows into the community. But his political views, which the white Establishment doesn’t often hear, are anything but conciliatory. “Militancy, not violence,” he preaches. “You’ve got to push, push, push. . . . When I go to the door, I want the door to open. And if it doesn’t open, I want the right to kick it in.”

In less guarded moments, he might refer to whites as “the enemy"--and then provide this explanation: “Whites are the majority. A majority of whites in America care not one wit for black folks. Thirty-five percent will be fair. Now, my mouth ain’t no prayer book: You can alter those statistics, but I bet you on any type of poll--on affirmative action, on gangs, on any (race-related) issue--you’ll find about 35% of whites will be fair, the other 65% will be against you. That gives you some yardstick of what white America thinks about black America. . . . We ought not be fighting--whites and blacks--but the history is that whites don’t want to hear that.”

That kind of talk finds a strong audience in South-Central. Murray does have detractors--including some gang leaders who say churches like FAME haven’t opened their doors to them and a handful of religious leaders who think the church hogs the spotlight--but Murray and his church command a strong following. “First AME was one of the few churches in all of Southern California that rose to the occasion the night of the riots and rebellion, and then participated in the healing process,” says Juanita Tate, who runs the activist group Concerned Citizens of South-Central Los Angeles.

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Most of Los Angeles and the nation discovered the church the first night of the disturbance, when TV cameras showed the thousands gathered there to express their outrage at the verdict in song and prayer. Murray, Bradley and other community leaders had anticipated trouble and planned the gathering days in advance. But they miscalculated in thinking they could extinguish--or even contain--the violence that followed. Murray’s plan to send brigades of young churchmen out to calm potential rioters fizzled; he and his congregation spent the night protecting firefighters at blazes near the church and feeding neighborhood residents left homeless.

The plan, Murray insists, “would have worked if . . . there had been just enough gray area in the verdicts. But (with four not-guilty verdicts) what can you go out in the community and say that people will accept when you ask, ‘Please don’t burn’? “

In the days during and following the riots, as TV cameras camped out at FAME, the church became imprinted on the public psyche as a shelter from the storm, and a symbol of the city’s desperate need to start over. On Friday, May 1, when actor Edward James Olmos picked up a broom and started sweeping debris--a healing move that helped draw thousands into the streets in a mass cleanup effort--it was at the steps of Murray’s church, a stark, modern structure atop a small hill tucked behind the intersection of Western and Adams, that he began.

HEAD THROWN BACK, EYES TO THE CEILING, A SAD SMILE ON HIS lips, the Rev. Murray recalls his early days at FAME. “They despised me. They utterly despised me.”

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That was in 1977, when Murray’s “reward” for his work at a Seattle AME church was a tired Los Angeles congregation of about 300 members, mostly status-conscious elderly women who didn’t take kindly to change. Sure, FAME boasted a couple of prominent members like Mayor Bradley and a long history of influence on the L.A. political scene. But by the time Murray arrived, the congregation had dwindled and the $5,700 mortgage note was two months overdue.

Murray concluded that the church wasn’t young enough or hip enough, black enough or male enough. He turned up the volume on a chorus that sang “fine, sterile music,” and added a bass, cymbals and drums that eventually backed five standing choirs. He hired an artist to darken the skin and kink the hair of the Mary, Jesus and Joseph who loomed above the altar. Ultimately, that painting was replaced altogether with a colorful mural depicting the history of African-Americans and the AME church, which traces its roots to 1787, when the ex-slave Richard Allen led a group of blacks out of Philadelphia’s St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church after a dispute with the white leadership over where they were allowed to pray. AME is a mainline Protestant church, one of four black Methodist denominations, with a long history of involvement in social justice issues.

Murray also made a concerted effort to bring young men into FAME and under his wing. Nearly 3,500 of the church’s 8,500 members are male, and the church’s Richard Allen Men’s Society is involved in such projects as forcing the closure of crack houses and serving as mentors to fatherless boys.

Murray called on his congregation to go “beyond the walls” of the church to help the broader community, asking each church member to join one of dozens of task forces. That gave middle-class blacks a vehicle to help the inner city. At the same time, FAME’s network of aid, ranging from drug treatment to counseling inmates, provided recruits from the ranks of the poor. As Brotherhood Crusade President Danny Bakewell puts it: “People’s selection of a church has become not only ‘What can you do for me spiritually?’ but also, ‘What can you do for me practically?’ ” Today, FAME services attract a mix of BMWs rolling in off the Santa Monica Freeway, American-made sedans from South-Central’s middle- and working-class neighborhoods and parishioners on foot or bus from the poor community surrounding the church.

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Fifteen years after Murray’s arrival, the church grounds brim with activity. On one Saturday in June, the parking lot was packed with sign-wielding volunteers organizing to walk precincts in support of Proposition F, the police-reform ballot initiative. On another Saturday, hundreds of young people were lined up along the sidewalk, waiting to apply for 200 jobs offered by Disneyland.

Anyone who wants to attend one of the three Sunday services had better arrive early. Especially since the riots, parking is at a premium and the folding chairs barely accommodate the overflow crowd of 4,000 who tithe an average of $50,000 a week. Murray’s sermons--a mix of political commentary and old-time religious drama--help draw the crowds. But the music, vibrant and soulful and loud, may account for the largely baby-boomer demographics of the congregation. Music has always been a Murray priority. Planning for a National Council of Churches meeting at FAME, he relayed this message to his choir director: “Don’t turn this into a white service or I’ll kick your ass. Keep that spirit moving!”

MURRAY WAS DEAD-SET AGAINST THIS STORY. THAT BECOMES clear when a week of phone calls to his office and the church go unreturned, followed by promised meetings that never materialize. Finally, I show up at his office, unannounced. Gloria Lightner, his unflappable secretary, tells him I’m there, and within minutes his door opens, he swoops me into his office and sits me down. We bow our heads while he says a quick prayer. Then he fixes that look on me--the one that makes you feel like gold, like you want to let him pore over your life story, set it on a clearer course and hand it back to you. It’s the look that Peggy Hill is talking about when she says people come to the pastor to be fed.

Murray asks what accounts for the cynicism he sees in the media. He candidly answers questions about Rebuild L.A. But when I ask him to talk about himself, his response is firm. “The church, fine. But not me, please. I know my strengths, but I’m no guru, I’m no prophet. It’s what we’re about cooperatively.”

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The reasons for Murray’s reluctance are two-fold. First, he operates under a philosophy increasingly widespread in the African-American community: At a time when a broad swath of the black community has achieved economic, political and academic success, it’s becoming clearer that one leader cannot speak for all, so any effort by the white-dominated media to enthrone a next Martin Luther King should be resisted. As Murray puts it: “The civil rights movement stumbled with the Martin Luther King figure. He’s shot . . . and here we are, looking for the next (leader). What the hell are you about?” he says to an invisible audience. “You’re a graduate engineer! You’re a physicist! You’re a businessman! What are you about, looking for a savior? Let’s go with what we’ve got, because we’re a generation wiser, smarter and more sophisticated.”

The second reason for his hesitation is that any spotlight on the church antagonizes other clergy. During and after the riots, other black activist churches--West Angeles, the Faithful Central Missionary Baptist Church, Wesley United Methodist Church among them--went largely unnoticed. When the “CBS Morning News” and “Nightline” broadcast from FAME, disgruntled clergymen began to refer to the post-riot coverage as “The Chip Murray Show.”

Publicity means dollars, so the griping got louder when chunks of the post-riot aid went to FAME. The church’s relief services arm tripled its budget to $1.1 million with such diverse contributors as Arco and Barbra Streisand each giving $100,000. “Everyone likes to feed a fat pig,” mused one local official.

“During the riots and right after there were feelings (that many churches were) being overlooked as far as food and donations,” says the Rev. Frank J. Higgins, president of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Los Angeles and Southern California. “I do recognize he’s been under attack, though it’s not all his fault. There’s always a tendency toward professional jealousies.” Relations became so tense that at one point the Rev. Kenneth Flowers, the youthful pastor of the fast-growing Messiah Baptist Church, was dispatched to soothe tensions between Murray and three ministers whom Flowers declines to name.

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Murray willingly plays the diplomat in these turf battles, but only to a point. “You hold together because black folks got to hold together, whether a phone call will do it or swallowing pride will do it,” he magnanimously intones. “Because they are not the problem, they are the victims.” Yet privately, in staff meetings where he can freely name names, he frequently expresses wariness about working with the “insecure minister . . . who makes it by keeping blacks pitted against blacks” or the church “who lets us do all the work and then comes in to take the credit.”

ON A WARM AFTERNOON IN JUNE, AN EARNEST YOUNG MAN in his 30s nervously hovers over a thick pile of documents on Murray’s coffee table. He and his partner, a woman of the same age, are dressed in power-suits that scream “young professional.” As the man picks up the papers and distributes them around the room, he stresses in hushed tones that the plan he and his partner are about to present should be viewed in the strictest confidence.

As Murray quickly flips through the pages of charts and graphs, the pair propose their own rebuild-L.A. organization, saying they plan to raise money from the public through a stock offering. Their presentation is heavy on business-school-speak but short on information.

Murray doesn’t miss a beat. “Now, I’m just a layman,” he says, with feigned innocence, “but if I buy 5,000 shares, what am I buying?”

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“An extensive information and communication network,” the man answers.

“Ah, I see,” he says, nodding. “But, now, it’s got to be more tangible. What are you selling?”

“We’re selling a service, an information network.”

“I see,” answers Murray. “You want to be all-purpose consultants. A sort of welcome wagon for the community. Where’s the market for that? . . . It sounds to me like you said, ‘Let’s get an umbrella organization and we’ll decide what to do with it later.’ ”

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Murray has a well-honed B.S. radar--and it’s on alert for what he calls “poverty pimps. . . . They were deadly in the 60s.” Murray’s opening question to visitors usually goes something like this: “What motivates you?” or “Where do you see yourself going in your life?” The visitor might find this interest immensely flattering; in fact, the answer also gives Murray a fast reading on the person.

John Murray (no relation), a longtime church member who is on the L.A. Board of Public Works and has seen Murray in action, says the pastor reminds him of a loan officer in a bank. “He’s very probing. That’s not something you commonly find developed to that level among many ministers.”

Murray is known for integrity and honesty, according to government officials who administer grants to the church. But one of his predecessors, the politically influential H. H. Brookins, who headed FAME between 1959 and 1972 and is close to Mayor Bradley, was more controversial. In 1990, city investigators concluded that Brookins, as AME bishop of the region in the 1980s, used government poverty funds to renovate his own office complex, while claiming it was owned by a nonexistent church corporation. Brookins’ attorney, J. Stanley Sanders, says the city’s accusations are false and attributes the investigation to an atmosphere of suspicion surrounding “anyone associated with Bradley at the time.” (Sanders is referring to conflict-of-interest charges leveled at the mayor over his connections with L.A. financial institutions.) A city suit seeking to recover funds from Brookins, now a bishop based in Washington, is pending.

Brookins obtained the funds in his capacity as head of the South Los Angeles Development Corp., a community education program that Murray, as its chairman, helped run. No allegations of impropriety were directed at Murray or other community leaders sitting on the agency’s board, and when asked about the episode, Murray referred all questions to Sanders.

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The highly publicized incident may be one reason behind the pastor’s penchant for detail in his business dealings. Murray takes very seriously this business of business. In the midst of an eloquent, uplifting thank-you to employees at a Culver City company who donated $14,000 to the church’s relief efforts, he drops this clunker: “We shall send verification so that you shall have it for your auditing.” On every proposed project, he leads a lengthy discussion about the “audit trail,” and at the end of every substantive meeting he asks, “So what’s your understanding of what we’ve agreed to?”

If you think Murray is too harsh on whites, just listen to his oft-repeated complaint about some black-run enterprises: “Everything black folks do fails because they don’t take care of the business. We ain’t gonna be no casualty.” Or, as he sits down to lunch at a soul food restaurant without air conditioning, overhear his grumbles about the reputations black businesses get because of “Amos and Andy operations like this.”

Murray does have his soft spots. Late one Friday afternoon, a couple in their 20s, broke and about to be evicted, show up in his office. Nicole and Roy, who have three kids, joined the church six months ago after Roy lost his job and their marriage began to founder. Murray quizzes them about their finances, scolds them for letting themselves get into this situation, and then gets on the phone to browbeat Hill into bending church rules. He wants her to come up with $100 to get the family through the weekend and a promise of temporary work for the following week.

“Sorry, Peggy,” he says in a tone suggesting he’s in no mood for an argument. “They don’t have no bad habits. . . . They need it, Peggy. . . . Sorry.” Then he flashes his ear-to-ear grin at Nicole as he says into the phone: “You ain’t the one that’s going to have to put up with this broad’s tears when you hang up.

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“You know what they say about being black and broke,” he says as he ushers the couple out. “It’s not so bad, it’s just inconvenient.”

MURRAY DIDN’T GROW UP POOR, EXACTLY. IN HIS ALL-BLACK neighborhood in West Palm Beach, Fla., houses ranged from a handful of mansions to shotgun shacks--meaning you could aim a shotgun through the front door and shoot clear through without hitting a wall. Murray, his siblings, Louise and Edward, and their parents lived in the no-frills middle--a porch in the front and food on the table.

The children’s mother died when they were very young. After briefly shipping the three off to relatives, their father, Edward, married a public housing administrator and brought them home. Chip was the middle child and his sister, Louise Bowman, remembers him as a relentless tease. “Chip was devilish,” she recalls. “He would start something and then look innocent. And guess who would get the whipping?” (Murray is still a tease: Introducing his sister one day in the office, he says, “Just a year ago, she was lying up in the hospital with a severe aneurysm.” Pause for effect. “They took her whole brain out and next year they’re going to give her a new one.”)

In the division between the “street boys,” that era’s version of gangs, and the “school boys,” Chip--from “chip off the ol’ block"--was firmly entrenched in the latter. One of his former teachers, Ulysses B. Kinsey, recalls Murray as a precocious child who stood out even at a school full of high achievers, most of whom went on to college. “He was very perceptive and had more depth of understanding than most high school students would ever have,” Kinsey says.

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Murray’s father, known in those parts as “Prof Murray,” was the school’s principal. Kinsey describes him as a commanding figure whose willingness to openly defy racism was unusual in those days. Murray vividly remembers that as a teen-ager, he once accompanied his father and brother on a mission to confront a group of white racists terrorizing the poor blacks who had walked several miles to collect free government food. Prof Murray tried to reason with them, but his words were met with fists. All three Murrays got beat up pretty badly--"roughed, pushed, pushed, sand in face, kick, kick, ‘Get out of here, nigger,’ ” the pastor recalls. Afterward, the boys’ father took blood from one of his own cuts and sealed a blood oath with Chip and Ed, making them swear to love and protect their black brethren.

“I guess my dad was about the most fearless person I knew,” Murray says one afternoon, as he leans back in his chair, feet on his desk, staring out the window. “I never knew if he was scared and would do things in spite of the fear.” He stops to think for a moment. “I’m sure he must have felt the fear, so he must have gone on it spite of it.”

And he must have felt another kind of pain, for Prof Murray hit the bottle. Murray recalls that his father would come home drunk and line all three children up to sing, “Take good care of mother,” hoping to lighten his wife’s mood. “He’d keep checking to see if that was softening her,” he recalls. “I think she’d soften just for our sakes.” Murray’s stepmother kept the family together, for the children’s sakes, but eventually her husband’s drinking was too much and they divorced. She died three years ago.

The last time Murray saw his father was in 1951, during his senior year in college at Florida A&M; in Tallahassee. He returned home one evening while his father was out and sat on the porch. After a few hours, Chip looked down the darkened road and saw a man, bobbing and weaving. It was his father. “When he got closer, he looked and saw it was me, and he burst into tears and turned away. I went out to meet him and we walked back home and sat on the porch,” Murray recalls. His father kept muttering that everything was going to be all right, that someday he was going to take the whole family up North, to Mecca, where they would thrive.

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Murray left by bus the next day. Not long after, when Murray was in the Air Force, his commanding officer handed him a telegram saying his father had died. He was 52.

“Alcoholism was extremely prevalent among black men. On every hand there was utter frustration. Utter frustration,” he says. “It’s funny,” he adds, wiping away a tear, “but you don’t remember the weaknesses. You remember the greatness of spirit and the sensitivity that allowed him to absorb the pain. Eventually it destroyed him.”

That may explain why Murray, a loner who counts few if any close friends among his peers, spends so much time shepherding young black men. His only child, 26-year-old Drew, who is studying to become a church counselor, describes his father as “my best friend. . . . We’re overprotective of each other.” But young men outside his family who describe Murray as a “father-figure” or “mentor” are legion.

The Rev. Kenneth Flowers recalls how Murray urged him to consider leaving his campus ministry at UCLA and take over one of the dying churches along Adams Boulevard. Now at Messiah Baptist--on Adams--Flowers still calls Murray for advice on building his congregation. “ ‘You’ve got to get young people,’ ” Flowers says Murray counsels him. “ ‘You’ve got to have a good music department. People like music.”’

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Ask Mark Whitlock about Murray and he tells how the pastor counseled him to be pro-active, rather than reactive, in setting goals. “Pastor Murray made me feel better about myself,” he adds. “I felt almost like I was adopted.’ ” And 26-year-old financier John Bryant says Murray keeps him on track with lectures about “the value of humility, of balance in life.”

When Arsenio Hall started attending services at FAME in 1980, sitting quietly in the upper balcony, he was a nobody--a broke nobody. But Murray treated the budding comedian like those days were numbered, once accepting an autographed copy of his 8 by 10 “like it was a picture of Kirk Douglas,” Hall says. Murray provided uplift and counseling at critical points in Hall’s career. After one lecture about believing in oneself, Hall broke up with a girlfriend who had been naysaying his career. Today Murray keeps the TV star in line. Hall vividly remembers how Murray once shot him a look that could turn water to ice, and said, “Don’t take yourself too seriously.”

The other tragedy that shaped Murray’s life happened at an Oxnard air base in 1958, seven years into his decade-long Air Force career, first as a jet radar intercept officer in the Air Defense Command, later as a navigator in the Air Transport Service. During takeoff, the nose tank of his jet erupted and the plane burst into flames. The pilot made it out of the cockpit, only to slip on the wing and become engulfed in fire. When Murray finally managed to slip out the other side, he ran to his crew mate and smothered the flames. The pilot suffered burns over 90% of his body and was flown to a burn center in Texas.

“Then he sent for me, just to thank me, just to tell me he loved me. And he was this young white Southern guy from South Carolina, where racism was rife.” Murray recalls the man’s gesture as if it gave him a much-needed glimpse into a brighter side of human nature, a glimpse he wouldn’t easily forget. The pilot died a few weeks later. And Murray was decorated for valor.

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Murray loved the Air Force, the exhilaration of flying, of seeing the world from Europe to the Pacific. But he also knew that his mission in life was to help fellow blacks--and that he could best do this inside the ministry. He was raised in the AME tradition, and the high school sweetheart he married, Bernadine Cousin, had a family steeped in its ministry.

Murray took his doctorate in religion from the School of Theology at Claremont while he worked part-time as a janitor and Bernadine worked as a clerk at the school. He started off at a tiny wooden church in Pomona, with only outdoor plumbing, and was soon transferred to Trinity AME in Kansas City. The next stop was First AME in Seattle, where church members credited him with turning around the finances and doubling the congregation to 2,000 members during his six-year tenure.

After his transfer to Los Angeles, Murray did more than liven up FAME’s services and bring in new members. He also stirred up lots of controversy. Probably the biggest attention-getter was his 1991 program to pass out condoms--after Sunday services--as part of an AIDS awareness campaign. The previous year, some in the community questioned the wisdom of allowing Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan, who in the past has been accused of anti-Semitism, to preach at the church.

But Murray has maintained strong ties with the Nation of Islam. FAME is part of a coalition that, with Flowers’ Messiah Baptist, the Nation of Islam and other area churches, meets regularly with gang leaders. Flowers notes that appealing to gangs is difficult for Christian churches because these young men tend to identify with the more militant Nation of Islam. “They see the churches as passive,” Flowers says. Murray says simply that most churches are afraid of gangs.

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FAME’s efforts to reach out to gang members have had mixed success. During a May 1 broadcast of “Nightline” at FAME, Ted Koppel interviewed two gang members outside the church, saying church officials would not allow them to enter the sanctuary. Murray says the church maintains an open-door policy with gangs, but that he objected to Koppel’s initial plan to use gang members as the only representatives of black youth.

After the “Nightline” episode, Little Monster, one of the two gang members, backed Koppel’s story and said it reinforced FAME’s image as “a bourgeois church where people hang out and don’t do anything.” But Jim Smith, community services director at Watts’ Nickerson Gardens housing project, praises Murray’s efforts. “Chip is opening the doors to gang bangers,” he says, “and a lot of other (church leaders) are taking heed of his leadership.”

INSIDE THE PACKED CHURCH SANCTUARY ONE HOT SUNDAY morning, Murray works the crowd, voice booming, pacing the stage, timing his jokes, reaching toward the heavens and falling on his knees, pleading with his congregation.

“Jesus knows that there is reputation, and there is character. Reputation is what people are saying about you. A reputation is most often your rap utation, what they are saying on the street about you. CHAR - acter. Character is what God is saying about you. To be great is to be a servant, to be great is not to rear back and say, ‘I’m so-o-o-o bad, I carry .45s.’ To be great is not to measure your bank account: O-o-o-o, I made a hundred and fifty thou last year.’

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“Thou art a fool to think you’re great. . . .”

Anyone who wants to hear his Sunday messages must drive past the burned-out remnants of stores and gas stations and apartment houses. The fires of those awful nights when Los Angeles became a hothouse of smoke still burn in Murray’s mind, still drive his ambitions for his church, and his 14-hour days.

But he worries that as the bulldozers raze the ruins, Los Angeles will forget. In the heat of August, Murray is a man in a hurry--solidifying his plans for change, grabbing at any offer of help, telling anyone who will listen that South-Central’s young people need jobs and they need them now.

“No one goes around burning who has a job, who’s been allowed to have his family,” he says in an impassioned monologue one afternoon. “If the book is written on what starts fires, it’s unemployed people who are in a depressed area, who have to take a gang as a surrogate family, whose great-grandmother has been raped, who’s not been allowed to have his own culture or history, who has been told that God is white. That’s who starts fires. When you write the book, that’s what you’re gonna write.”

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