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Perspective: Way Of The Black Yoda (An Open Letter To Cecil Murray)

By Peter E. Matthews



Dear Pastor Murray (“Pops”),


On my way to see you now—to your homegoing celebrations, that is. I know you will not be there, but as I am packing, my heart is overflowing with a tsunami of emotions, each carrying the weight of a lifetime's worth of lessons you taught me and the love we shared. For 25 years, your irrepressible spirit left an indelible mark on my soul, a mark in no way measured by your otherworldly accomplishments as a pastor, social entrepreneur, or mentor to thousands. You were and remain my Black Yoda.


Your fierce commitment to the human soul of all persons, embodied by your own splendid imperfection, served as my vocational North Star. Now that you are sitting with the ancestors, my soul admittedly has a hole in it. I am just now beginning to acknowledge how you did all that you did—by covering the hole in your own beautiful soul with the vulnerable virtue of authentic service.


“Forget about yourself and become obsessed with the dreams that God gave you, Petros.”


The above quote was your constant admonishment to me, most routinely each time I summoned the discipline to meet you at the altar inside First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME) for daily prayer at 6:30 AM during my brief tenure as your Youth Pastor. Like clockwork, your administrative discipline and people-centered approach to ministry reminded me that every life mattered and every conversation possessed the potential to yield untold opportunities to those most in need of God’s unrelenting love. Ironed shirts. Clean fingernails. Fresh breath. Polished shoes. Your innate military sensibilities still remain with me almost a quarter of a century later. Now, generated by the pangs of your death, my soul has just now sensed the vulnerable roots of your herculean ministry—a ministry rooted in your own brokenness that was not only prophetic in its handling of the wake and aftermath of the LA Rebellion of 1992 but time and time again demonstrated an unusual gravitas.


"This man... envisioning a world where none is lonely, none hunted, alien; this man, superb in love and logic, this man shall be remembered... not with statues' rhetoric, but with the lives grown out of his life."


On October 6th, 1998, you used these words to eulogize Mayor Tom Bradley. I now know the poet Robert Hayden was talking about Frederick Douglass, but were you speaking about yourself? I remember meeting you at the church that day at 4:30 AM and placing a small desk five feet behind yours. I can still see you composing your eulogy as elected officials, civic activists, professional athletes, and celebrities like Stevie Wonder came to your door wanting a moment of your time. I remember my wanting to dismiss them and how you chastised me to prioritize their grieving above and beyond your eulogy that was set to be witnessed by the world. Somehow your light always remembered to shine itself in the direction of those who needed it most at the time they needed it most.


Tomorrow and Saturday, people will convene by the thousands remembering how your light provided warmth for their souls as well. They will, by and large, not be professional athletes or celebrities coming to see you. Instead, they will be those persons in whom your smile, your laughter, your wisdom, and your giant hands filled the hole in their soul. Akin to those who visit the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, we will return to the space where our individual souls become reacquainted with their innate dignity. Bound and bloodied by the vicissitudes of life, FAME was a space marked for redemption for the rainbow of humanity. A space marked undeniably by the courageous heart of a black boy from the Deep South. One who admittedly was raised by an alcoholic father and a mother who was called “home” when he was only three years old. A space you created.


“Looking back over my life, I cannot distinguish between tears of joy and tears of travail.”


In the wake of your passing, I have re-read your memoir *Twice Tested by Fire*. I found myself haunted by its subtle and not so subtle self-disclosure. I wept reading it. Never once in my ten or so annual visits was your heart ever on the table as I see it now. Yes, you always teased me about getting too big for my britches and resigning from FAME, but never once about how you were dealing with the loss of your beloved wife or the horrors of growing up having witnessed lynchings. I gushed as you went on about the hundreds of clergymen you were systematically passing the mantle to, but never in depth about the ways in which you were impacted when your two best friends, Rev Earl Green and your sister Louise, decided to make heaven their home before you.


Your favorite daughter, Dr. Najuma Smith’s forthcoming


 tome on your life and ministry will rightly convey your herculean achievements consistent with your almost mythical life. It will be a bestseller. I am just hoping that someone this weekend offers up your vulnerability and not merely your accolades. A vulnerability embodied by FAME’s motto, “First To Serve.” A motto consistent with the nickname you gave me. A nickname I am only just beginning to make sense of.


Forget about yourself and be obsessed with the dreams God gave you, Petros.


Loving and listening. Learning and laughing. The way of the Black Yoda fills the holes in their respective souls with a disciplined life filled with vulnerable acts of meaningful service. I get it now. We never needed you to be a saint, but as I reflect upon what you knowingly gave up for all of us...


You will forever be our hero.


See you on the other side of the bridge,





Peter E. Matthews, currently the founder/CEO of the Dayton Equity Center, a protegee of the venerable Cecil L. “Chip” Murray for more than 25 years at the historic First African Methodist Episcopal Church and the University of Southern California’s Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement. Peter will begin his new position as the Pastor of Protestant and Interfaith Life at Xavier University (Cincinnati, Ohio) on July 1st.

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