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POWER TO THE PASTOR : Cecil Murray's First AME Church is Action Central for a Wounded South Los Angeles

August 16, 1992|NINA J. EASTON | Nina J. Easton is the magazine's staff writer. Her last story explored the impact of absent fathers on the American family.

TALK ABOUT GALL: THE REV. CECIL MURRAY IS CONSUMED WITH the revitalization of South-Central Los Angeles, now a checkerboard of charred ruins, and this prim young woman in pink linen sits on his couch wanting help in launching her toddler's show-biz career. Sift through her strained explanations about needing guidance from a "man of God," and it becomes clear that her mission is to get Murray to pull strings with Arsenio Hall, a member of his activist congregation at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Murray acts as if the little nugget sitting on his couch could be the next Shirley Temple. He even makes a couple of calls. But he's not about to bother Arsenio Hall. He scolds his visitor, so gently that it zips right past her. "I'm going to make this call for you--you don't even know how to properly fawn over people doing you a favor." Then, shaking his head over the predicament of this naive Midwestern woman lured to Hollywood: "Where you say you're from? . . . No wonder they make jokes about Cleveland."

The door to Murray's office opens. A 28-year-old gang member walks in and plops down next to the toddler and her mother, telling Murray he wants to make amends for an earlier confrontation with the pastor. "I am your friend, your father," Murray responds. "If there is a wall, there shouldn't be. What are you put here for? What do you feel your mission is for the next 60 years?"

The young man, whom we'll call Moon, talks of the plight of black men, of God and the devil, of his own fatigue. "Selling crack is harder than picking cotton, man." His words start to wander. The toddler babbles. The mother looks nervously at her watch. Moon volunteers that he smoked a joint half an hour ago. Murray makes a pitch to get Moon into the church's drug treatment program. "God is walking with me already," is all the young man will say.

Murray has this habit of letting one meeting flow seamlessly into the next, so visitors can spend entire afternoons sitting through two or three other "private" meetings. He relishes the interplay of ideas these sessions provoke. But the exaggerated sense of access and stature it gives his guests can drive the First AME staff nuts. "They come for food, to be fed by him," says special projects director Peggy Hill. "No one walks away without feeling super-important. Unfortunately, sometimes people take off with his praises, they take his words as a guarantee."

As this afternoon stretches into evening, guests are piling up and chairs are running short. The mother-child duo and the gang member are long gone, but now there's a hunger activist who wants to work with the church and a Filipino nurse who has just presented his plan for saving Los Angeles, which Murray accepted like it was a million-dollar donation. There's Hill, and Lillian Phillips, who controls the church purse strings, and--"Leonard, bring in some more chairs please"--Murray's right-hand man, the Rev. Leonard Jackson.

And there's a Hollywood producer and his songwriting companion. The producer--the only white man in the room--is in the doghouse. With the church's help, he has pulled together a fund-raising extravaganza. But in Hill's mind, he committed a cardinal sin by involving Peter Ueberroth's Rebuild L.A. panel without consulting her. Around these parts, Ueberroth is a sensitive subject. His business acumen commands respect. But he recently dismissed Murray's pleas to initiate a summer youth job program and promote black ownership of local businesses. The last thing Hill wants to do is let a church project fall under Ueberroth's control.

As guests squirm nervously in their seats, Hill spends the next hour upbraiding the startled producer. He lamely tries first to explain, then to apologize. But Hill won't drop it. It's hard to read Murray through all this. He lets Hill vent, but he also interjects to soothe the wounded producer, to thank him graciously for his "superhuman" efforts. "I don't want you to get disconcerted thinking that heat doesn't mean light," Murray says in his best Sunday-preacher talk.

With the clock moving past 7, everyone in the crowded office holds hands for a closing prayer. And zing --without warning the pastor lets everyone in the room knows where he stands.

Head bowed, eyes closed, he asks the Lord to forgive the producer for his transgressions.

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