Thousands Bid Farewell to First AME’s Murray
In exuberant services that drew political titans and the poor, thousands of worshippers turned out Sunday to bid farewell to the Rev. Cecil L. “Chip” Murray, senior pastor of First AME Church, after 27 years in the pulpit of one of the most important black churches in Los Angeles.
An estimated 11,000 people crammed into three services to send off Murray, who is retiring at 75 after transforming the church from a small, low-key congregation to a religious and civic powerhouse that has steered its community through the Los Angeles riots, gang warfare, police brutality and the AIDS crisis.
With a motto of “Prayers With Feet,” Murray has exhorted his congregation to go beyond Bible studies and reach out to build 2,000 units of low-income housing, provide thousands of jobs, expand neighborhood food programs and educate young people through college scholarships and its own elementary school.
Murray said his departure would not change the church’s activist direction. “Especially the black church ... must be a servant church or we are in default,” he said in emphatic remarks to reporters after the services. “The church must reach beyond its walls. It must have more than prayer, more than worship. The word must become flesh.”
Murray’s extraordinary reach was exemplified by two visitors who shared the pulpit with him Sunday: former Gov. Gray Davis, who declared Murray to be the city’s “most powerful voice for justice,” and a bearded, homeless man whom the preacher invited to step forward for an embrace and words of encouragement.
The preacher shed no tears over his farewell, and chose not to speak about himself at all during his farewell sermons. Instead, in high-octane performances of stomping feet and sweaty brow, he pounded on his social gospel to the very end.
Ticking off figures on how much blacks spend on Cadillacs, movie tickets, cosmetics and the like, Murray exhorted the crowd to stand against arrogance and share their wealth with needy neighbors.
“What you do with what you have reflects who you are,” he said. “If you can eat a full meal in front of a hungry person, you ain’t got no religion.”
Murray shared his personal feelings later, saying he was thrilled that his church is now so organized that it would carry on its mission without faltering.
Murray’s successor is expected to be announced today in St. Louis by the Right Rev. John R. Bryant, the African Methodist Episcopal Church bishop who oversees states west of the Mississippi.
Asked to name his proudest achievement, Murray responded: “That congregation. They have to be the center of pride that they would go from being pew members to public workers.”
He added that he would announce his next move in a month or so, after weighing options that he declined to discuss. “I just follow God’s lead,” he said.
Murray’s stature as a community builder was enhanced Sunday when ChevronTexaco announced that it would donate a former service station site worth $240,000 to the church’s nonprofit economic development agency, FAME Renaissance, as a gesture of thanks for the pastor’s service. The agency plans to build an $8.5-million business-development center.
Sunday’s services capped five months of tributes and awards for Murray, a Florida native and fifth-generation African Methodist Episcopalian who said he was born to preach and began serving as a junior pastor when he was in junior high school.
After earning his doctorate in religion at Claremont School of Theology, he served at AME churches in Pomona, Kansas City and Seattle before moving to Los Angeles in October 1977.
Arriving in an Afro and dashiki, Murray soon transformed what longtime church member Toni Scott recalled was a staid congregation of traditional hymns and little civic activism. Murray raised eyebrows when he brought in drums and guitars, Scott said, but his high spirits and joyful manner soon became contagious.
So did his approach to church. Before he met Murray, Los Angeles media consultant Kerman Maddox said he had avoided church because of what he saw as the hypocrisy of people who worshipped on Sundays and sinned the rest of the week with adulterous affairs, alcoholism and the like.
When he turned up at First AME in 1984, it was only to hear the Rev. Jesse Jackson make a pitch for his presidential campaign. But it was the other reverend, Chip Murray, who caught his ear with his passionate social gospel.
“I saw this guy and said, ‘Wow, he’s different,’ ” Maddox said. “He was getting involved in the neighborhood, the community, Jesse’s campaign. I still wasn’t sold, but it made me go back again.”
Three years later, Maddox took the plunge and joined. He recalls walking the streets with Murray, handing out condoms and warnings about AIDS long before other black preachers were willing to publicly address the health threat. Doors were slammed in their faces and people publicly accosted them for their controversial work, but the pastor turned out to be prophetic, Maddox said.
As word spread about the church’s work, its congregation multiplied from 1,000 members to its current total of 18,000. First AME, on Harvard Boulevard in the West Adams district, became a requisite pilgrimage stop for Democratic politicians. Former President Clinton visited at least twice, and he mentioned Murray in his memoirs.
On Sunday, the phalanx of political heavyweights who came to pay tribute included Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas, county Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Mayor James K. Hahn, state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, several Los Angeles City Council members and Police Chief William J. Bratton.
But hobnobbing with the political high and mighty never made Murray lose his touch for the down and out.
Sharon McDade, a 43-year-old customer service representative, said she was a single mother of two struggling to get off welfare and make ends meet with a part-time job when she visited the church for the first time 10 years ago. The church rescued her by getting her situated in a low-income housing unit and surrounded her with a spiritual support network that has helped change her life, she said. McDade is now working full time, praying regularly and readying herself to leave low-income housing.
“I never thought I was important, but Pastor Murray looks me directly in the eye and smiles and asks me how I’m doing,” she said. “It makes me feel good.”
Scott, a Los Angeles educator, recalls Murray’s faithful sick calls when she was hospitalized, staying with her for hours in the emergency room to ensure that she was well-treated. He offered to temporarily house her then-wayward daughter and wrote letters of recommendations for another child’s college application. Such personal gestures of caring are rare for pastors of mega-churches like his, Scott said.
“Whenever I needed him, I always knew he was a person I could count on,” she said.
The grateful congregation has showered Murray with plaques, photo albums and personalized compact discs of music and tributes. On Sunday, it unveiled a stained-glass window immortalizing his visage.
Milita Caddell, a 37-year-old L.A. resident and YMCA director, found herself on the verge of tears despite the festivities.
“Wow,” she said. “It’s the last time for us. It’s a new generation.”