Conversation With the Rev. Cecil Murray

The former AME leader talks about values, the nuclear family and Passing the Mantle, a program for black ministers in the community.
By Allison Engel
"I think people are hungry, spiritually," the Rev. Murray said.

Photo/Philip Channing
For 27 years, the Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray headed one of Los Angeles’ most visible churches, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, presiding over more than 18,000 parishioners and a staff of as many as 180. In 2005, Murray joined the university, becoming the holder of the John R. Tansey Chair in Christian Ethics and a senior fellow at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture. This summer, he is directing Passing the Mantle, a program that trains up-and-coming black ministers in community development.

AE: After a long and celebrated career in the ministry, what is it like being at a university?

CM: It’s like starting all over again. I would suggest to all of my generation, do not retire but retread. Because if you retire, you go flat and then you have to be hauled in. But if you retread, you can just keep on rolling on a new road.

AE: Before you were here, did you have a different view of the university?

CM: No. I go back about 15 years with USC President [Steven B.] Sample. He would have me come and lecture at the leadership class he teaches with Warren Bennis. So I had an appreciation of this magnificent school that did not pull up and run away when the community changed. But to get to know it closer gives you an even deeper appreciation for what it has gone through and the positive transitions that it has made, determined to lead its community and to lift its community.

AE: You seem to be yet another example of USC valuing its older intellectuals.

CM: Dr. Steve Sample does not throw you away. As long as you are all right in the attic, USC doesn’t care about the basement.

AE: When you reflect on America, what do you see?

CM: I think people are hungry, spiritually. And if they can be fed with sincerity and substance, it will make a difference in their lives. We tend to become saturated and then we just want more, more, more and pretty soon we get away from the inner space, concentrating upon materialism. Or if we do get spiritualism, it becomes so fundamentalistic and pentacostalistic that everybody is going to hell but us. But somewhere there is balance between spiritualism, materialism, optimism, pessimism, cynicism. If we can find that balance, then I think this will be the most fascinating era of the world.

AE: The “Passing the Mantle” project began in June with 40 Southern California ministers. What are they experiencing?

CM: We are taking black ministers of modest-sized congregations and helping them with civic initiative, leadership, counseling and economic development, using veterans who are tested, tried and proved and now are either in retirement or on the border of retirement. Then we will move to the Latino community and then to the community at large, once we refine the model.

AE: What are your hopes for the communities served by these pastors?

CM: A super emphasis on education. Our young people have to get an education, with high school as just step one. Secondly, black Americans need to go from being consumers to being producers. For instance, 25 percent of movie ticket sales are purchased by blacks, but we don’t own the movie theaters, and we don’t produce the movies. A third would be the restoration of the nuclear family, because only 39 percent of black kids have a mother and father in the home, as compared to 66 percent of whites and Latinos and 77 percent of Asians. And we’ll have to do it through the extended family, with the church and the religious sector holding on until the nuclear family can be restored.

AE: Is there a risk when you speak out and say we need to focus on not being consumers and reestablishing the nuclear family? Bill Cosby was vilified when he said some of these things.

CM: I commend Bill Cosby on speaking the truth. His critics, of course, were many and yet, as the months go by, they will probably come to laud him. He sounded an alarm that we must hear for our very survival. One criticism was that you don’t air your dirty linen in public. Well, that perhaps was true of my generation, but now blacks have a little less to prove to mainline America. There are possibilities and doors open, and we must challenge ourselves to walk through them. In the long run, the truth will set us free.

AE: How did you get your nickname, “Chip"?

CM: My father was the principal of our school in West Palm Beach, Fla., which included first grade through 12th grade. That was a time of deep segregation and Daddy did declare you must be punctual. When it was time for school to start, he would be looking for everybody coming late. And if you were late, you better come running. The place had to be very clean, and the teachers were determined that you would learn. They said I was a chip off the old block. So “Chip” kind of stuck with me.

AE: How many ministers are in your family now?

CM: My wife of 48 years, Bernadine, had a father in the ministry. Her brother is a bishop in the AME church and his five sons are all ministers. Our son is a minister and he’s working on his doctorate. The bishop has committed to appointing him to a church in September. So we are well surrounded.

AE: When you get together for Thanksgiving, who says the prayer?

CM: We have to flip a coin.

AE: You said you haven’t taken a class here yet, but when you do, what classes will you take?

CM: I earned my doctorate in religion at the School of Theology in Claremont, an outgrowth of USC. Here and now I would probably be interested in history, but I’m interested in all of the professors, just about. They energize the students. They all seem to know the 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not bore people.”

For more on Passing the Mantle, click here.