Seeking Heirs to Wisdom

USC and senior African American clergy develop a program aimed at the next generation of church leaders.
By Wayne Lewis
Eugene Williams, Cecil Murray and Mark Whitlock, from left, collaborated on the development of Passing the Mantle.

Photo/Matt Gainer
USC College has launched a new program dedicated to passing on knowledge from senior African American church leaders to the next generation of Los Angeles clergy and congregational leaders.

Passing the Mantle, supported by a grant from the James Irvine Foundation and administered by the College’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture (CRCC), is an eight-session course that trains a cohort of 30 black leaders in the basics of economic development, community organizing and church leadership.

Participants in this certificate program attend a series of seminars and public lectures, receiving one-on-one mentorship from senior clergy.

The Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray, holder of the John R. Tansey Chair in Christian Ethics, directs the project. Donald Miller, Firestone Professor of Religion and executive director of the CRCC, serves as Passing the Mantle’s principal investigator and is a member of its executive committee.

“This is important because the essence of the struggle for black equity is based in the black church,” Murray said. “It was the first economic base, it’s the first communication base, first educational base to this day. If you want to affect the larger black community, your point of contact will ultimately include the church.”

Murray has been assisted in developing the program by the Rev. Mark Whitlock, pastor of Christ Our Redeemer American Methodist Episcopal Church in Irvine, and the Rev. Eugene Williams, founder of Regional Congregations and Neighborhood Organizations, a nonprofit that works with black churches to provide services to their communities.

Passing the Mantle was the brainchild of Williams and Miller. In the wake of Murray’s 2004 retirement as pastor of the First AME Church, as well as the deaths of senior clergymen Thomas Kilgore and E.V. Hill, Williams anticipated a leadership void in the black church community.

“This network of civic-minded pastors was passing away, and there was no formal process for transferring their knowledge and skills,” Williams said. “The people assuming leadership didn’t have the same understanding as these senior pastors. So I said to Don, ‘We’ve got to do something, and I’m wondering if Dr. Murray would be interested.’ ”

Williams and Murray agree the College is the perfect place to act as a conduit for knowledge between the generations. “The CRCC has a long history of engaging with the religious community in California,” Williams said, “and USC has a history of bringing leaders like Dr. Kilgore and Dr. Murray to campus.”

Added Murray, “USC chooses to reach out to the community rather than run away. It’s an ideal relationship. If this program doesn’t work at USC, it cannot and will not work anywhere.”

Plans are in the works to produce a DVD and manual for Passing the Mantle, so the project’s curriculum can be disseminated to black churches nationally. Eventually Murray and his colleagues hope to share the knowledge with other ethnic and faith communities, such as Latino and Korean churches, mosques and congregations outside the U.S.

Although the issues facing today’s church are complicated, Murray is confident that Passing the Mantle will build a vital bridge between experienced clergy and the church leaders of tomorrow.

“We need an extremely sophisticated pastor in the new generation,” Murray said. “Passing the mantle on to them just means that somehow we’ll finish the race.”

For a Q&A with the Rev. Murray, click here.