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Remembering Reverend Cecil Murray

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Los Angeles has lost one of its beloved Black elders. The Reverend Cecil Murray was a leading voice in public life there as pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest and one of the largest Black churches in Los Angeles, and he played a crucial role in the city's recovery after the 1992 riots. Cecil Murray passed away last week at the age of 94 of natural causes. Pastor Steven Johnson, former chief financial officer of the church, joins us now. Pastor Johnson, thank you so much, and our condolences to you.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What was the Reverend Cecil Murray like?

JOHNSON: Well, he was like an amazing man, the kind who would receive all ages, all races, all ethnicities. He was gregarious in his open-armed-ness and a big smile and charisma in spades.

SIMON: You got to know him pretty well at the church, I gather.

JOHNSON: Yes. Absolutely. I met him in 1989, when I was a student at the Ecumenical Center for Black Church Studies. When I first met him, he treated me like I was a long-lost son and welcomed me into the church to such a degree that they invited me to become a part of the music department almost immediately. Most people who met him and experienced worship at First AME left there feeling empowered and strengthened.

SIMON: I want to take you back to 1992, if we can. A jury found police officers largely not guilty in the beating of Rodney King. And we have an audio clip of the Reverend Murray giving voice to what a lot of people were feeling at that time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CECIL MURRAY: Those fires were started when some men of influence decided that this nation can indeed exist half slave and half free.

(APPLAUSE)

SIMON: What role did the Reverend Murray play at that time?

JOHNSON: His role was as a bridge between the pain and the angst that the community had suffered, between what to do about it, how to seek justice, and, at the same time, keep peace. The church became a refuge for people from all walks of life to find solace and comfort and, at the same time, to make plans and to take actions. When the uprisings shut down transportation in LA, there was no buses running, no taxis running in certain communities. And consequently, the government set up a program called immediate needs transportation, and FAME was asked to run it.

SIMON: And FAME, of course, being First African Methodist, right?

JOHNSON: Yes. That's correct. Yes. And that program was funded - I recall it being almost $1 million in funds that basically gave vouchers and tokens to people to get to and from the grocery store or the doctor or the like. And even after the regular transportation resumed, that program, persisted for a couple of decades, in fact. But in addition to that, Reverend Murray led in the building of housing units, some 12 villas, economic development, jobs and job training and business loans and business incubator.

SIMON: Yeah. I remember interviewing him once. This would have been 10 years after the riots, and he told me, ashes don't always mean death. Ashes mean death to yesterday. Ashes may mean life to tomorrow. I wonder if he ever said that - I can't believe I'm the only person he ever said that to.

JOHNSON: No, you're not. And in fact, one of our murals at that First AME is the phoenix rising from the ashes to symbolize what you just described.

SIMON: I wonder if there's a moment you recall that you take in as a kind of comfort now and will carry around with you now that he's gone.

JOHNSON: Oh, gosh, there's many of those, but I remember the meetings we would have as we would discuss programs and activities that the church should engage in. And we'd be gathered as a group. And a program or idea would be put forward, and he would say, OK, we're going to put this on the table and shoot at it. And if it's still standing, it's worth doing. Or another phrase he would use - find a way to say yes. But if you have to say no, be firm and compassionate.

SIMON: Pastor Steven Johnson, talking about his friend and, in many ways, guiding light, the Reverend Cecil Murray, who has passed away. Thank you so much for being with us, pastor.

JOHNSON: Thank you for remembering our giant.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.