Twice Tested by Fire: an Interview with Cecil Murray

Twice Tested by Fire: A Memoir of Faith and Service, Cecil L. Murray (Figueroa Press) $20

Dr. Cecil L. “Chip” Murray was pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles for 27 years and was an important leader in the city in the days immediately after the Rodney King verdict. Today he is Senior Fellow at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC and the director of the Cecil Murray Center for Community  Engagement. A few weeks ago we sat down with Dr. Murray in his office to talk to him about his new book, Twice Tested by Fire.

HR: The title of your book is “Twice Tested by Fire.”  What are the two testings, briefly?

Chip Murray: I would say the two testings – and there are many testings we all have by fire – but the first was my Air Force experience in 1957, November, at Oxnard Air Force Base.  We had returned from a year in Tula, Greenland.  And because it’s so isolated, no females, three months of total darkness, three months of total light, then the rest in between. Forty degrees below zero every day.  They gave you two choices of where you’d like to be stationed.  And my choice was California, and second choice was California.  So we were stationed at Oxnard Air Force Base, the 47th fighter interceptor squadron.  It’s a two-seated fighter – the pilot front seat, radar intercept officer in the back seat.  And we used radar to spot enemy planes, rather than visually contacting them, so they were all-weather fighters.

As we were taking off, Robert Burbich and I did not navigate the takeoff.  The front wheel exploded, the plane caught on fire, and I had released the cockpit covering, and it’s suppose to blow off, so then if you’ll find, you can bail out and parachute down.  But the mechanism had been damaged, so the cockpit canopy covering only opened a little bit, just a tiny hole, it had slid back from the pilot, so George was able to get out of the plane and move out, but I was trapped.

And then I thought to myself well, this is serious, it looks like goodbye. I heard a voice saying unto me as cleverly and as clearly as I hear it now – “Be calm, take off your helmet, take off your parachute, take off your life jacket.  Now place your head in that tiny opening in the canopy, push back, let’s go out back, let’s push, push.”

Soon I was out, and on the wing of the airplane, and I heard Robert Burbich calling, “Chip, Chip, help me!”  I looked, and he was running like a torch on fire, and I ran to him.  I jumped up the wing and rolled him to the ground and kept rolling him over until the fires had put out…because he was a bonfire.  By that time, the medics had arrived; they took him to the hospital.  I had only sustained some burns on the hands.  And later, they had to fly him to the burn center in San Antonio, Texas.

On his second day there, he asked the Air Force if they would fly me out, because he knew that he was dying.  And he wanted to see me, so they flew me out.  I went to the hospital, stood by his bedside.  He had suffered 3rd-degree burns so intensely that it was obvious he was slipping away.  He said, “I want you to know that I was coming back to help you.  I knew you were trapped, when I tripped and fell in the fire.” I took his hands, and we bonded, and I told him that “Now I live for two, for you and for me.”

At the time, there were different tensions in the Air Force with white and black.  To a large extent, it’s so much better now.  But the Air Force had integrated, military had integrated in 1948, and I went in in 1951, so things, I could see change and growth.  But that was a Kairos moment, with me and for me.  My life became focused and dedicated more than ever.

And I guess the second fire would be the civil unrest and its aftermath in April 29th, 1992. Twenty years ago – it seems like yesterday.  And that of course saw me at another phase of my life in ministry, because following the Oxnard event, three years later, and with the blessings of my wife, we separated from the Air Force and went to seminary at Claremont.  Then started ministering, pastoring, I was pastor at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest black church in Los Angeles, for 27 years.

And about midway was when we had the incident with Rodney King.  About 10 of us had been meeting with the mayor, Tom Bradley.  The last weeks leading up to the court decision, we knew that it could be a bit explosive if the verdict was not guilty.  We knew that if it was a reasonable verdict of guilty, then we might celebrate.  But no matter what, we would need to go on to the next step.  So we agreed that the night of the verdict, we would meet at First AME Church.  The community was there, 2,000 perhaps, on the inside.  And we had roof speakers in anticipation, and there were another 1,000 on the outside.

We had no way of knowing that, as we gathered, the fires were gathering.  And we were called outside after the mayor had finished addressing the crowd, and there we could see the city.

HR:  From the church, you could see it?

Chip Murray: We could see it, and in the neighborhoods we had fires.  Two blocks away was the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, one of the oldest black insurance companies in the nation – it was burning fiercely.  And up the street from us, houses were on fire.  The bank down on Western Avenue was on fire.

We had asked the fire department, our neighbors to the north, and we had good relations with them, “Where are you, can you please come?”  They said “Yes, but there are gang members out there, and they’re throwing rocks at the firemen, and the firemen will be damaged.”  We said, “If you come, we will protect you.”

So went back in the church and got about 150 men who were in attendance, we went out near the intersection of Western and Adams and formed a line between the firemen who were busy putting out the fires, and the gangs they were behind the trees and houses hidden, throwing rocks at the policemen.

We were frustrated a bit by the police who had arrived rather late.

HR: They didn’t want to get involved, it seems.

Chip Murray: Their involvement became negative because they wanted to advance on these young gangbangers.  And we said to them, “Please let us handle that – otherwise it’ll escalate.”  But the sergeant in charge was adamant, and they started doing their lockstep walk towards the areas.  And I knew that would explode, so I asked the men, “Come, let’s gather, go in front of the police, put them behind us,” and we went out.  Two of our men were damaged by stones hitting them.  One was taken to the hospital – the other recovered alright.  And we went behind and chased out and mediated with some of them and pleaded with others.  And pretty soon, about 30 minutes later, they disbursed.  And we stayed there for another hour or so.  Then we disbursed.  The next was to begin to bring those families that had been burned out in the neighborhood, we brought them into the church, and they filled the basement and the sanctuary.  We kept them there providing for them for three days until the Red Cross arrived.  Then we went into high mode as the communication center.  PacBell put in land lines, 10 land lines, so we would have telephone availability.  Volunteers manned the lines 24 hours – the church was open 24 hours a day for about the first three months.  And we began to receive workers, gifts, clothing, toys.  Mattel sent toys.  Ron Burkel sent food – he’s with Food for Less – and we had a relationship with him over the years, as every Christmas they gave us 3,000 turkeys.  It really helped us because our Christmas feeding we had about 4,000 people, and they would line the streets about 3:00 in the morning, and we would start at 8:00.  And they were persons in need, so we had monthly feedings and weekly feedings and they were with us there.

HR:  Can I ask you a question about this? I’m thinking to myself as I’m listening to you talk about this, that you don’t as a pastor put on your calendar Rodney King verdict, civil unrest, help mediate peace in the community. You don’t plan ahead for that kind of thing, right?  It happens, and you’re either ready or you’re not, as a congregation.

And my question for you – I’m a pastor, Syd is a pastor, we talk to pastors all the time – what would you say to pastors? How do you prepare for the unpreparable things?  Like, what made your church ready? What was your approach to ministry that when that verdict came, you were ready?

Chip Murray: I think that if you care about the underserved communities, then you find a way to take the church beyond the walls.  We had the within-the-walls programs, 80 programs, standard stuff.  And beyond the walls, we had 80 outreach ministries, skid row, prison ministry, mental health, substance abuse, and so forth and so on.

And we ask each member of the church to join a taskforce that takes the church beyond the walls, at least join one taskforce.

HR:  And how did you do that, how many of your members did that?

Chip Murray: I would say about 30% of them really gave us their time.  We had grown to 18,000 members and we had no trouble getting manpower and womanpower to supplement our programs, whether they were Africare, the doctors and nurses would go once a year to Africa, Uganda, and they would stay for two weeks with medical outreach to poor communities and all.

And each person, we felt, had an obligation to help the helpless, to lift the fallen, to heal the broken, find housing.  We had some 13 housing villas, 2,000 tenants, and we housed HIV-AIDS families, the elderly, and the physically handicapped in separate units.  And yet you couldn’t just build this without having a wraparound of services to make sure it survived.

So the men of the church, usually about 100 or 150, would walk the premises of those housing villas once a week.  They would try to send out a message, “no foolishness here.”

And then we took up different portions of South Central.  We would walk once a week, and there we would try to make friends with the young street hoodlums.  We would try to bring comfort to those who would need supplies and all, just sort of building a bridge to say, “You’re better than that, we’ve got to rise to the occasion, and here are some open doors,” and so forth.

Disney was kind enough to give us 300 job slots for youth for the summer.  And they provided bus transportation to pick them up and bring them back to the church.  And our job, of course, was to prepare these young people weeks before, be punctual, be cordial, that you’re not to hurt the customers there with being offensive and so forth, do not steal, so forth and so on.

And so they were ready.  And to receive that paycheck made a difference in those kids, I’m telling you.

HR:  So to say that you had a comprehensive ministry for the community is an understatement.  I mean everything, over 150 ministries covering every aspect of people’s lives.

Chip Murray: It had to be.  We had adopted as our motto for the programs, “Find a way to say yes.”   “Pastor, my son is in jail.”  “Alright, so-and-so.”  “Pastor, my daughter has a baby, and she’s only 16.”  “Alright,” so on.  Whatever they come, if it’s a genuine need, find a way to say yes and to meet that need.  A lot of the need was mentoring.  And the joy, oh golly, it gave me such joy to see the men respond.

Because the women are there, 75% of American congregations are female, and women are the heart of the faith-based community.  And the black community is closer to 85% of the congregations are female, because the prison system . . .

HR:  …has the rest of them – mercy, we could talk all day about that.

Chip Murray: One million right now locked up and so forth, so on.  Then the drugs were coming and proliferating at that time. So they were there for mentoring.

HR:  I wonder if you would reflect on this statement – on page 49 [of your book], you write, “Looking at the family plagues we humans inflict upon ourselves, all the while waiting for the God we worship to rescue us from one another, I am in full agreement with the emerging sentiment from sources dedicated to finding solutions for suffering, quote, rather than hoping for anything from the Lord, besides his love, let us place all our hope in his love itself.”

Chip Murray: Yes.

HR:  So a couple questions – who says that, is that your quote?  And second of all, I’m fascinated by this idea that God’s love, as we have it, is all…that’s enough, right?  Like we don’t need to hope for something else.  Or God is not going save us from ourselves while we’re not investing…

Chip Murray: It’s the conflict between personal salvation and social salvation.  And I really don’t see a wall as a necessity.  The two go together.  Personal salvation, yes, yes.  People come to worship – they must be healed, they must be helped, they must feel stronger when they leave, even than when they came.  So personal salvation is there.

Social salvation, though, you can’t have personal salvation without social salvation, reaching beyond yourself, going out to raise the fallen, to lift the fallen, to bless the fallen.  You must have the two of them together.

Our problem is, we get the personal salvation people who are, “I just wanna feel better.  I don’t wanna hear all that political stuff.  Don’t bring all that stuff in here.”  And I can understand their point of view, because you have to be extremely creative and careful to not overdo the social aspect.  People really want to feel good when they come to church.  And I don’t see a dichotomy.

If you start working early enough for your weekly sermon, you can see what is relevant to that scripture.  And that scripture will take the job of social concerns far better than you can.  They’ll take it from the scripture there.  But to feed them overly with “help this, do this,” I think it would wear people out.

So it’s a combination of personal salvation and social salvation.  And taking the time to be sensitive to people in the pews, that they are really hurting inside.  And to heal that hurting, as well as to help them to see the hurting also on the outside, so that they’ll stay aware of that too.  It’s a fine balance that it can be reached.

HR:  That’s encouraging.  It’s something we struggle with a lot to try to find that balance.  And I love how you frame it as being about God’s love.

Chip Murray: Yes.

HR:  Because that’s something . . . it’s not “there’s God’s love, and then there’s political action,” right?  But God’s love encompasses the whole thing.

Chip Murray: Yes.  And God’s love is for all of us, and not just for me because I keep his commandments, or for me because I don’t miss church.  God’s love is for all of us, and if God’s love is for all of us, then all of us have to reach beyond the inner self to the outer community.  There’s no option.

I know that safety is to be valued, and some of us suffer compassion fatigue.  We get worn out trying to do good.  Because you don’t get a lot of thanks, the people you help are not necessarily gonna be in your fan club.

HR:  There’s this text in Jeremiah 20 – I’m sure you’re familiar with it – comes around for me once in a while – where Jeremiah says to God, “Oh, Lord, you duped me, and I was duped,” or seduced, you know, Jeremiah is saying, “God, you tricked me into this, and I was willing to be tricked.”

And with all those ministries, and all those people depending on your congregation, and on you personally, frankly, right?  They look to you.  And I saw how folks love you, and how they look to you.  Did you have that Jeremiah experience where you were saying, “God, you tricked me into this, and I want out!”  And did you have those moments where you were able to go through that?  And how did you sustain yourself?

Chip Murray: My faith system has never been one that pointed a finger at God.  I can understand it – Jeremiah, they called him the weeping prophet.  If he didn’t care, then he wouldn’t weep so much.  If he didn’t care, he wouldn’t get a little offended at God.  Even Jesus, in his dying moments, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  I think that’s just a part of human nature.  But I always rejoice that Jesus didn’t end up with the note of condemnation, but the note of praise, “It is finished, I’ve done it, I’ve carried out my mission into thy hands, I commit my spirit.”

I think God takes the negative, and he intercedes with the positive, the horizontal flow of time, and the vertical intrusion of eternity.  And it is where they meet at that intersection that Jesus lays his head on that cross.  I think the negative goes with time, and the positive goes with eternity.  And God takes a negative and turns it into a positive.  I think they call it God’s dialectic, how God takes the thing working against you and makes it work for you.

I had moments or the threats that would come from the Third Reich skinheads and the Klan and so forth and so on.  Whenever I was utterly depressed, I had my way of driving up the Pacific coast to the ocean near Malibu.  And I would park there on the ocean, and I would just sit.  And it’s as if the water washed me clean.  I would not even need to be communicating verbally.  I went alone.  I did not even need to communicate spiritually because I communicate with God in pictures.  I see pictures, and I see God’s hand saying yes, or God’s hand no.  I was washed.  And I’d stayed there for maybe 30 minutes or so.  Then when I come on back to church, I was ready for anything.  No power on earth can keep me down, as we say now, rise again.

That is my cleansing, and that has continued even up to now.  About a month ago, I took my little trip and went up to go get my sanity.  For some things, oh God, have mercy.  People, human nature, and mother nature.  If you have your choice, take your mother nature every time.  At least when mother nature gets through, there’s something left, there’s some bones left if nothing else.  But with human nature, it’ll wipe everything out – ain’t nothing left.

So you’ve got to be prepared for that.  I know they want something.  I know they’re manipulative, I now they’re not going to give you anything but negative so forth and so on.  That preparation sort of let’s me handle it because we are who we are, and we have to be loved, not because of at times, but in spite of.  You meet some good people you love because of, but you meet some bad people you love in spite of.  And we go on.  Don’t let them get inside.  Because I love that statement, “All the water in the world, however hard it tried, could never ever sink a ship unless it got inside.”  And I think if we ask the Titanic, they’ll say yes.

Chip Murray: I’m deeply honored that you take this time with me.  And I pray for your ministry.

HR:  Thank you so much.  This has been fun.

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