Rev. Cecil Murray is remembered as force of good for L.A.

Wave Wire Services

SOUTH LOS ANGELES — Political figures and community and spiritual leaders honored the late Rev. Cecil L. “Chip” Murray April 27 at First African Methodist Episcopal Church, where Murray served as pastor for 27 years.

Mayor Karen Bass and former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa were among the many dignitaries in attendance, and both spoke fondly of Murray’s importance to the community over the decades.

Bass called Murray a “giant” who “touched all of us.” She recounted how Murray “didn’t know me from Adam” 34 years ago when she asked him for guidance during Los Angeles’ crack cocaine epidemic, and how she again turned to him for guidance during the deadly 1992 riots.

“He made people feel special, and he made them feel like the change was within us,” Bass added. “Let us cherish the good time we had with Reverend Murray, let us not cry because it’s over.”

Villaraigosa, who served as mayor from 2005-13, called Murray “a drum major for compassion and empathy and for all of Los Angeles,” and “the weather vane that pointed us in the right direction.”

Villaraigosa said Murray was “a man of faith who lives his faith, not just quotes the Bible.”

Vice President Kamala Harris issued a statement that was read during the service.

“The Rev. Cecil ‘Chip’ Murray was a force for good in Los Angeles,” she said. “He used the power of the pulpit to bring healing to the city, and he addressed racial and economic injustice with tenacity and grace.”

Murray died of natural causes April 5 at his home in the View Park section of Los Angeles at the age of 94.

During his tenure at FAME — the city’s oldest Black church — from 1977 to 2004, Murray helped grow its congregation from 250 to more than 18,000 members and attracted high-profile visitors including former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, along with multiple governors and Los Angeles mayors.

After his death was announced, Bass called Murray “a giant” who had “dedicated his life to service, community, and putting God first in all things. I had the absolute honor of working with him, worshiping with him, and seeking his counsel. My heart is with the First AME congregation and community today as we reflect on a legacy that changed this city forever.”

Following his retirement, Murray embarked on a second career as a professor of Christian ethics and chair of the Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement at USC from 2005 to 2022, where he trained more than 1,000 faith leaders in the “Murray Method,” which focused on tackling community needs by moving from what he called “description to prescription.”

In 1992, Murray gained national attention for helping to calm tensions during the riots sparked by the April 29, 1992, acquittal of four police officers videotaped beating motorist Rodney King, and playing a key role in rebuilding South Los Angeles after the uprising ended.

“We are not proud that we set those fires, but we’d like to make a distinction to America this morning about the difference between setting a fire and starting a fire,” he told his congregation on May 3, 1992, the day the unrest ended. “We set some of those fires, but we didn’t start any of those fires. Those fires were started when some men of influence decided that this nation can indeed exist half slave and half free. Those fires were started when some men poured gasoline on the Constitution of the United States of America.”

Murray tapped one of his parishioners, Mark Whitlock, who worked in commercial real estate, to secure investments and real estate developments to help restore communities left devastated by the rioting.

FAME hired 180 people as part of the effort and Murray oversaw the launch of FAME Renaissance, the church’s economic development unit, which attracted $400 million in corporate investment for the community.

“We were able to create 4,000 jobs,” Whitlock, now a pastor at Reid Temple AME Church in Maryland, told PBS in 2020. “We developed real estate extensively throughout South Central Los Angeles. He [Murray] is a remarkable leader. He’s 90 years old, but his legacy continues through many of the real estate projects. He was the spiritual leader, the voice that moved the city and kept the city peaceful.”

Then-President George H.W. Bush named First AME the “177th Point of Light” as part of his Points of Light nonprofit initiative. 

“Pastor Murray was one of the most prominent and influential faith leaders in the nation. He was hard working and sincere,” said Najee Ali, civil rights activist and community relations ambassador for the nonprofit Operation Hope. “He helped transform First AME Church under his leadership into not just a must stop for political leaders looking for support. FAME was always in the trenches first to serve with a uncompromising track record of social justice advocacy.”

Murray was born on Sept. 26, 1929, in Lakeland, Florida.

He earned his undergraduate degree from Florida A&M University in 1951 and joined the U.S. Air Force after graduation where he served during the Korean War as a jet radar intercept officer in the Air Defense Command and as a navigator in the Air Transport Command.

Murray retired as a reserve major in 1958 and was decorated with a Soldier’s Medal of Valor.

He earned his Ph.D. in religion from the School of Theology at Claremont College in 1964 and served as a pastor at churches in Pomona, Kansas City and Seattle before coming to FAME in Los Angeles where he showed up sporting an Afro and a dashiki and started to transform the church from a staid congregation of traditional hymns and little civic activism to one that included drums and guitars during services.

Longtime parishioner Toni Scott told the Los Angeles Times in 2004 that Murray’s high spirits and joyful manner were “contagious.”

Murray’s wife of 54 years, Bernardine, who gave him the nickname “Chip,” died in 2013. His survivors include his son, Drew.

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