What does the pastor of the oldest Black congregation in Los Angeles have to say to those African-Americans who still don’t believe that AIDS is a major threat to the community?
“Denial is a river in Egypt. It could happen to any of us.”
Under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Cecil L. “Chip” Murray, the First AME Church of Los Angeles is going a long way towards making sure denial morphs into action, and action helps to save an entire race, not only in the United States but in Africa as well.
Rev. Murray serves as Senior Minister of the church and Chief Executive Officer of the FAME Assistance Corporation/FAME Renaissance. Not satisfied with effecting change from behind a pulpit alone, Rev. Murray and the church have established a “Beyond the Walls” ministry that includes a broad array of community programs, all supported by his 18,000 congregants organized into dozens of task forces. The ministry includes a number of groundbreaking HIV/AIDS prevention and care programs designed to address the devastating impact of the epidemic on the communities served by the church.
Among the programs is the FAME Operation of AIDS Prevention and Education (FAIDS), a pioneering initiative designed to reduce the number of new HIV infections among the church’s families, neighbors, friends, and relatives. Recognizing the need to directly address behaviors that put people at risk for HIV infection, the FAIDS program has forged innovative efforts targeting those at risk from unsafe sex or injection drug use. Condom distribution and needle and syringe exchange efforts are the norm for FAIDS—despite occasional opposition from other church and community leaders.
“Ninety percent of churches are enlightened today,” notes Rev. Murray, “Thanks to the high visibility of people like Magic Johnson. We’re more educated I think.”
But the Reverend also remembers a time when compassion for HIV-related causes encountered more widespread resistance.
“When we initially started the AIDS ministry in the mid-‘80s, we faced a lot of hostility—churches returning the safe sex kits, people calling and saying ‘don’t send us this mess.’ There was a lot of others treating people afflicted [with HIV] as beasts or demonic.”
But negativity did not stop Rev. Murray or his church.
“AIDS is a new plantation which enslaves body, mind and spirit. And people of color must exert every effort to set free those who are imprisoned with this malignancy.”
To that end, First AME Church also provides support through housing, transportation, and food programs to minister to the many needs of those living with HIV/AIDS. The programs are all components of a broad effort to address the health and well-being of the church’s community through poverty reduction, substance abuse prevention and treatment, early education, economic revitalization, and affordable housing development.
Rev. Murray has also been vocal on the need for greater leadership in the global fight against HIV/AIDS, supporting efforts to cancel the debt of heavily-impacted poor countries so that they have more resources to fight AIDS and care for the millions living with the disease. He is also very adamant about saving the AIDS-ravaged African continent.
“We are the ninth richest economy in the world,” Rev. Murray says of African Americans. “If we do not use some of those resources to assist our brothers and sisters in Africa, we are plotting our own demise.”
Rev. Murray came to Los Angeles in 1977 after serving congregations in Seattle, Kansas City and Pomona, California. He completed his undergraduate studies at Florida A&M University, earned his doctorate in religion from the School of Theology at Claremont University, and has lectured and been adjunct professor of Iliff University, Seattle University, Claremont University School of Theology, Fuller Seminary, and Northwest Theological Seminary. He has been featured in Time, Ebony, The Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles 900, and other print and television media, including CNN.
Rev. Murray spent ten years in the United States Air Force, first as a jet radar intercept officer in the Air Defense Command, and later as a navigator in the Air Transport Service. He was awarded the Air Force’s Medal of Valor in 1958. The first President Bush named First AME Los Angeles the 177th Point of Light for its courageous community outreach programs.
But neither Rev. Murray nor the church are resting on their laurels. Both want to see more Black involvement in the fight against AIDS, both at home and in Africa.
“AIDS is decimating Africa, decimating South Africa. Our coalition of health professionals goes to Africa two times a year, spends two weeks there and comes back energized, knowing we must do more. African Americans must build a bridge to Africa, economically and in other ways. We must economically empower Africa to help fight this disease. The organizations are already in place. When they call, we have to respond.”