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Church Leader Gets Sign From City as He Retires

Rev. Cecil Murray, who led First AME for 27 years, has a stretch of road named after him.

September 13, 2004|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

The circular stretch of a South Los Angeles road that runs by First AME Church was named for minister Cecil L. "Chip" Murray on Sunday morning, in appreciation for a man who is retiring this month after reinvigorating the city's oldest black congregation and helping Los Angeles heal after the tumult of the 1992 riots.

Murray, 74, alluded to those two accomplishments at a ceremony in front of the new street sign bearing his name.

"Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it," he said, quoting from Psalm 127. "Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh, but in vain."

Murray made few other comments, which did not surprise Bernard Kinsey, the former co-chairman of the post-riot development group Rebuild L.A. Kinsey said it was typical of Murray to let actions, not his words, take center stage.

"Every president, mayor, governor, or councilman that ever needed advice or votes or whatever came here," Kinsey said. "He's one of the few ministers who can go into every ZIP Code of the city and everybody embraces him."

First AME has long claimed a special place in the history of black Los Angeles: It was founded by former slave Biddy Mason in 1872 and housed the first black school. But it was Murray, in his 27 years at the church, who expanded its membership from 300 in 1977 to about 17,000 today.

Under his guidance, the church established a K-8 school and started FAME Renaissance, a program that helps entrepreneurs start businesses in low-income areas.

In the aftermath of the riots, Murray also took a leading role in denouncing the violence -- also insisting that the blame should rest not just with looters, but the policies and politicians that failed the inner city.

"He's a person that speaks his mind grounded by the needs of his community," said Los Angeles City Councilman and former Police Chief Bernard Parks. "He's not one that will trade on principle."

A number of church members said Murray's personal touch is just as important as his politics. Usher Charles Wiggs, 69, called Murray "my mentor, my friend, my homeboy." Bettye Woods, 64, said her ill mother-in-law recently received a phone call and a prayer from the minster -- even though she was in a Pennsylvania hospital.

"He's never too high to reach a lower person," Woods said. At 8 a.m. services, church officials announced the unveiling of the new signs for "Cecil L. 'Chip' Murray Circle" at 25th Street and Harvard Boulevard, and a banquet and birthday celebration later this month.

As the church band got loose and the chorus roared behind him, Murray danced with sprightly grace and threw his hands toward the sky.

When he gave his sermon, he told the stories of Ezekiel, King Saul and King David, but added anecdotes about John Philip Sousa and the plight of a lost puppy at a football game. He called attention to the special needs of the deaf -- it was "Deaf Awareness Sunday" -- and he gently scolded some church members, saying, "I don't like you coming to church and looking like you are part of the bench."

He shouted and stomped and sometimes cajoled the themes together -- all the while sounding like a man beginning a preaching career, not ending one.

"Is anybody listening?" he asked at one point.

The congregation roared: "Yeah!"

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