The Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray’s first trial by fire happened in the early 1950s. Then a young U.S. Air Force navigator, Murray was in a warplane when it erupted in flames on the tarmac. The pilot escaped the cockpit, but Murray remained trapped.
Murray tried to escape, but the glass canopy over his head failed to open.
As the flames spread, he heard a clear voice directing him to stay calm, remove his helmet and parachute, and squeeze through a tiny opening behind him. He obeyed the voice and survived.
"We are not saved from the fire, we are saved in the midst of the fire," Murray said he has learned.
Murray shares some of his life in his new book, Twice Tested by Fire: A Memoir of Faith and Service (Figueroa Press).
Four decades after the tarmac near-disaster, he explains in his book, that same voice led him from the military to the pulpit of one of the most vibrant congregations in Los Angeles. During the Los Angeles riots of 1992, it sent him into the streets as an agent of peace for the six days of burning, rioting and looting. His book chronicles the challenges that shaped a ministry widely credited with helping to heal a broken metropolis.
Recently, USC President C. L. Max Nikias hosted an event at Doheny Memorial Library celebrating the legacy of Murray, the John R Tansey Chair in Christian Ethics and professor of religion in USC Dornsife, and the publication of his new book.
Varun Soni, dean of religious life at USC, began the evening by noting that the gathering “brought together two great peacemakers,” Nikias and Murray, on the fortuitous date of Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday.
Murray, who graduated from the Claremont School of Theology, held many posts at various churches, helping to expand the congregations as well as championing many community-minded focus groups.
During his 27 years as a pastor at First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME), Murray transformed what began as a small congregation into a church with more than 18,000 people. His church established economic development programs that created housing and job opportunities in South Los Angeles neighborhoods. After retiring from this post, Murray joined the faculty at USC Dornsife, where he also serves as senior fellow of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
“For us at USC, he is a spiritual leader, a role model, a moral touchstone and friend,” Nikias said of Murray. “For many throughout Los Angeles, he is a senior statesman in the African American community and a trusted compass for very complex ethical questions.”
Nikias also congratulated Murray on the launch of the newly created USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement. Housed in USC Dornsife, the center trains members of the faith community to promote economic development and civic engagement in low-income neighborhoods.
After his book reception, Murray sat down for a conversation with the Rev. Mark Whitlock, executive director of the Murray Center.
Murray spoke of the need to become “life preservers” for others, addressing what Martin Luther King Jr. described as the triple evils of poverty, racism and war. Young people, Murray said, must “avoid the snare of cynicism” and recognize that no man or woman is an island.
"The challenge of the 21st century is to realize that we are all family,” Murray said. “Under the skin, all people are kin.”
Following a question-and-answer session, opera singer Brenda Jackson performed “The Impossible Dream” and a representative for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa presented Murray with a proclamation in honor of his community service and recent 83rd birthday.
Distinguished guests at the event included first lady Niki C. Nikias, USC Senior Vice President of University Relations Thomas S. Sayles, Los Angeles County Supervisor and USC Dornsife alumnus Mark Ridley-Thomas (Ph.D., religion, ’89), Bishop Kenneth Ulmer and former FAME parishioners.
The Office of the President, the Office of Religious Life, the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture housed in USC Dornsife, and USC Spectrum presented the event.
During the event, Murray shared some of his nuggets of wisdom.
“The smallest bundle in the world,” he said, “is a person all wrapped up in himself.”