a review by Jim Burklo of
“Twice Tested by Fire: A Memoir of Faith and Service”
by Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray
(Figueroa Press – 2012)
It’s no accident that Chip Murray’s autobiography comes into print at the 20th anniversary of the 1992 LA riots. At that time, he was the pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church, still the epicenter of black religious, political, and cultural life in Los Angeles. He and his church strove to keep the peace and pick up the pieces as violence raged around them, and that was enough to assure him a place in history. He brokered reconciliation between the black and Korean-American communities. He led the church in remarkable efforts to rebuild South Central LA in the aftermath. He remains one of the most influential contemporary black pastors in the United States. Now in his eighties, he’s working as a University of Southern California religion professor. The new USC Cecil Murray Center carries on his legacy of community engagement by training and organizing church leaders to be agents for economic and social development.
But there is much more to the man than his fame, or his role at FAME Church, would suggest. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know Chip as a colleague over the past four years, and just being able to say this is a sign of his generosity of spirit. He shows up at campus events from which he has nothing to gain for himself, just to be supportive of his brothers and sisters of all faiths and ages. His natural humility glows from within. He speaks gently, his words effortlessly flowing into poetry. He’s a beautiful and beloved person on our campus.
He had to be persuaded vigorously by his colleagues at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture to write this book, which is half a lyrical autobiography and half a rumination on how to end the scourge of racism. Reading his story helped me understand the man in a new way. He’s associated with matters of race, and he has plenty to say about the subject. But that’s not the primary fuel for his fire. He’s driven by a mystical spirituality that was evident from his early childhood in Florida.
Chip Murray grew up in a world where he and those around him knew their places – whether or not those places made any sense – and found a certain security in knowing where and to whom they belonged. Despite the outrageous racial oppression and the Great Depression that shaped his circumstances, his youth mostly was a happy time. That gave him an inner emotional and spiritual confidence that propelled him into leadership. He went on to excel at Florida A&M and from there entered the Air Force where he had a distinguished career. As the civil rights struggle was heating up at home, Chip was growing accustomed to the racially integrated environment of the military, serving in places as far-flung as Greenland. (Military discipline appears to have served him well: he looks and moves like a man ten years his junior.) He survived a plane crash that killed a fellow pilot – his first test by fire. He married and then left the Air Force to go to Claremont School of Theology, where Dr. John Cobb, foremost scholar of process theology, was his mentor for his Doctor of Religion degree. While there, he served a church in Pomona in the culminating years of the civil rights campaign. He held pastoral posts for the African Methodist Episcopal Church around the US before being called to Los Angeles in 1977. He started building a congregation of 250 people into a megachurch of 18,000. His was a message of mysticism and activism, building faith and encouraging practical self-determination. He had come to a church that had a big picture of a white Jesus on the wall above the pulpit. When he retired, he left a black Jesus on that wall. He shepherded the creation of the FAME Renaissance Center, a conglomerate of enterprises generating subsidized housing complexes, a minority business incubator, and many social services. The second test by fire, the 1992 civil unrest, was but one of the many challenges he and his church had to confront. A racist skinhead group planned to kill him until the FBI infiltrated it and ended the threat. Street gangsters repeatedly terrorized the church. Through it all, Chip Murray maintained a sweetness of soul and a profound openness of mind and spirit.
I heard him give a talk at a Christian group on campus a few years ago. He disturbed a number of those in the audience by saying that he did not believe that Christ was the only way to heaven. He said something similar to these lines in his book: “My belief system has room for atheists, agnostics, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Taoists, Catholics, Protestants, Scientologists, the Church of Religious Science, Quakers, the Unification Church, Mormons. Are there any among us who teach/preach other than God is love?” (p 85) His book is salted with quotes from his friends from other faiths, such as this one from the late Hassan Hathout, a great leader of Muslims in America: “Atheism is when God is denied. Microtheism is when God is acknowledged, but with greatly reduced reverence.” Chip continues with a characteristic turn of phrase: “I see a third possibility implied by the other two: Macrotheism, when God is acknowledged with unconditional love and maximum reverence… Love is always an extension – beyond limitations, beyond time and place, beyond anger, beyond categories, beyond war and factionalism.” (p 87) Religious pluralists are a minority group in Christianity, and a yet smaller one in the generally theologically conservative world of historically black churches. So to hear this kind of macrotheism from a pastor of his stature among people of all faiths and sects is especially powerful.
“How did our generation make it?” Chip muses about his peers from childhood. “I think we made it because we were in large part dream-driven. Being a starry-eyed dreamer myself, I long ago began to nurture a fantasy about a model nation called Freeland. It is there that I retreat on sleepless nights. It is Nirvana when the fires of hell threaten my peace or my existence. Love is the hallmark of the perfection that this vision models…” (p 22) His book is a celebration of all he has done, and a reminder of all that is left for the rest of us to do, in moving Freeland from dream to reality.
Rev. Jim Burklo is the Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California. He is the author of OPEN CHRISTIANITY: Home by Another Road (2000) and BIRDLIKE AND BARNLESS: Meditations, Prayers, and Songs for Progressive Christians (2008) His blog site: MUSINGS – his personal website: www.jimburklo.com .