Social Media Controversy Propels Watts Church into the Spotlight
Categories // LA Focus Thursday, 05 October 2017
In August, the pastor of an L.A. church found himself at the center of a social media firestorm after a video of the church playing a cut off Jay Z’s new 4:44 CD during a praise dance performance went viral. From local bloggers to BET, the Atlanta Journal and Christian Post, the video received more than 4 million views. Everyone it seemed had an opinion—the majority of it not good.
“Playing Jay-Z, a Luciferian whose message is about self-gain and being a thug, in a church – God’s house - is disgusting!!” read one post. “This guy is supposed to be leading people to Christ and praising Him only, not playing profane music that preaches worldly endeavors during the time set aside to praise The Lord.”
And from another post, came this: “How does playing worldly music from a lost soul to a congregation glorify God???”
So upset were some people that Tree of Life Baptist Church pastor, Marcus Murchinson received death threats.
Blindsided, the pastor could not have imagined the response he received as the unauthorized video posted by a former drummer sparked both local and national news.
“Emotionally I was hurt,” Murchinson said. “I couldn’t imagine that people who had never met me were saying I was a devil. That 3.6 million people were upset with me without even meeting me and had based my ministry—three years of blood sweat and tears— on a 90 second clip.”
As if that weren’t enough, the story was only made worse when it was revealed that the young man who shared the video on Facebook was fired. An action Murchinson says was taken because of the way the video was released coupled with a violation of church policy.
For the 33-year old pastor and sociologist by trade, the decision to play the track was part test and part dare. He’d hoped to get his members to understand that there was a difference between righteousness and piety.
“Something is wrong with the black church that it does not address issues that are relevant and prevalent amongst our people,” Murchinson stated. “What we wanted to do was to try and show that young folk can praise God with a conscious message that speaks empirical truth. Jay-Z's message, whether you agree with his presentation or not, was empirically true."
“It’s been said that the church was the most segregated place in America on Sunday mornings, but today is not so much racial divide but the pious versus the real. We have people who behave as if they’ve never cussed when the truth is most cannot say that anything Jay-Z said in that song really offended us.
“If the one or two cuss words in the song offends you, I have just one question: have you heard those words and weren’t offended before?
“What makes you think God isn’t offended when you use them outside of church or use them inside of church under your breath?
“We’ve put so much equity in the church when Jesus said we are the church,” Murchinson stresses. “He isn’t coming back for a building. Instead, today’s church so often seems to be a members-only fraternity and club where we incubate people’s feelings. A church where we cook fried chicken, eat pound cake and die of heart attacks and will serve the same stuff at the repast.”
Ironically, Murchinson had only just discovered for himself Jay-Z’s empirical truth, after being turned on to the song by a Watts gang member he’d met by chance, when while at a local hip hop spot, Murchinson decided to ask some of the patrons if they went to church.
“When they said no, I said why not,” Murchinson stated. “They gave any one of a number of reasons from the church wasn’t relevant to it didn’t match their level of consciousness. So, I asked well, who do you listen to.”
Kendrick Lamar, Common, The Game, and Jay-Z were their responses.
“Now, I’ve never owned any of Jay-Z’s albums, but this young brother said to me there is a song on Jay-Z’s newest album called “Story of O.J.- Still N****”. He said, ‘Reverend, if you listen to that and if a preacher was to preach that and teach that and speak the truth in that message, I will bring my whole gang to church.”
It was a challenge Murchinson—who saw a desperate need to engage the unchurched and the community—couldn’t resist, but only if the song was as profound as the young man claimed.
“I listened to the song immediately when I got to my car,” Murchinson recalls. “It took me about 3-4 times to really hear it, but I saw the message of what he was saying and you couldn’t deny the empirical truth of what was being articulated.”
What’s more, it was a message Murchinson wanted to share. Yet, sensing it might offend some, Murchinson told members of the congregation that he would be playing a track from Jay-Z’s album, The Story of O.J., during the July 29 Sunday morning worship service a full four weeks in advance. He suggested that it was okay for those who felt it might be offensive to stay home.
“I called the young brother up and said, make sure you are at church on the fifth Sunday of July, I’m going to do this sermon called Story of O.J.—Still N****,” Murchinson continued. “There were some young girls—who were not a part of the church— who asked if they could do a praise dance to that as well, and we said yes.
“The guy came to church and brought two gang members and they joined the church that day, telling me that the only time they been to church was funerals.”
“Ultimately, it’s not my church that had the problem,” Murchinson reported. “I believe we lost three people. The irony is the people that left the church weren’t even there that Sunday. Another local newspaper spoke to an individual who had not been at this church in over a year and another individual who has not been here in two years. People who were never really been a part of what we have been building over the last three years. There were no real investment and that’s what was disheartening. So too was the fact that the local newspaper that—though invited—wasn’t there to cover the opening of our Montessori School or free health clinic—was instead so eager to give voice to mess that they tracked me down on my cellphone.”
Most offended, he contends, were people in the Bible Belt or those on social media who knew nothing of his church.
“People who don’t know anything of our civic engagement or how we help this community,” Murchinson said. “I’m just 33 and most of the stuff I’ve done here in three years, many churches haven’t done in 300 years.”
Why Murchinson thought couldn’t the attention he received from the video couldn't have instead been for the outreach he was attempting or for the life changing programs Tree of Life has launched in the community. But as the initial uproar died down, people started playing closer attention to Murchinson. Who was this young pastor who’d dared to be relevant to the un-churched?
Support began to come in from celebrities like Mike Epps. Even Dave Chappell weighed in. Donations started to come in as well—some anonymous—for those outreach programs that Murchinson at first feared were lost in the controversy.
The attention began to shift to their Montessori School, prison re-entry program and primary health care.
“You look at your church and see people dying of diabetes, high cholesterol, —we have a high epidemic of cancer in our community which could be controlled and contained with dieting well. Today, we are the only church that has a fully-functional health clinic that provides free medical health care to anyone free of charge,” Murchinson states. “We are capable of being anyone’s primary care physician (PCP).
The program, in conjunction with the National University Nurse-Managed Clinic, is operated on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9am to 2pm and in addition to standard physical examinations treats everything from the common cold and flu to diabetes and regularly provides testing and screenings that span HIV and vision to mental health.
Murchinson believes that while church happens on Sundays and Wednesday nights (Bible study), ministry should be Monday through Friday.
“It’s not just a message of faith, a message of inspiration. The Bible says faith without works is dead and so after we inspire you on Sunday morning we empower you Monday through Saturday.
“We have the only Montessori preschool in the city of Watts. We reached out to the Montessori in West Covina and found that they had just received a grant for a priority zone, which is where our church fits. So, we sat down and forged a partnership with the Montessori association in Covina and they decided to come on in.
Developed by Dr. Maria Montessori, Montessori schools often a child-centered educational approach based on scientific observations of children from birth to adulthood and more keenly adapted to meet the child’s gifts.
“Because I’m a sociologist I have another program called Dad’s Back Academy. It’s a $6.8 million granted federal program (under the National Fatherhood Initiative) that deals with prison re-entry. Fathers who are just getting out of prison can come here and get a host of services, including resource referrals, parenting, self-esteem, finance classes and job placement.
“We actually pay them to go through the program and for whatever excuse they come up with for not being able to make it on any given day, we have an answer. If you tell me you can’t get here, we give you a gas card for the month. If it’s not having anyone to watch your kids, we provide childcare.
“On top of that, they get job employment services,” Murchinson adds. “There’s a job developer we employ to come here and help them get a job after they’ve completed the program. We have a young man who served 27 years behind walls. He got out and went through our Dad’s Back Program. I met him and was impressed by his commitment. He came to church, joined and immediately I said this is somebody we can make an investment in, so we hired him.”
For Murchinson to do any less than all he is doing would be contrary to what the dream he had of helping others when at the age of 12 he was called to the ministry and went by the nickname “preacher boy”.
The Portland, Oregon native, who founded The Family of Faith Church before being appointed senior pastor at Tree of Life, grew up believing in the power of the church to change lives.
“I would be a bad pastor to keep preaching to them about Jesus and not show them that this is what Jesus would do. I don’t view the scriptures through the same lens as others do. I use different motives to bring people to God. For example, in the next few weeks we are going to do a haunted house here at the church for Halloween. If we did ‘hallelujah night’ (as some of the other churches), they would not come.’”
“I believe the level of consciousness has changed,” stressed Murchinson, who has dubbed Tree of Life, the “church of unusual.’
“Jesus said be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind not your feelings. I believe the church is the place where the uncomfortable find comfort and the comfortable become uncomfortable.”
With the controversy dialed back, the former Navy sailor is devoting his energies to creating even more programs to engage the surrounding community. In November, the 200+ member strong church will celebrate the grand opening of the Five Keys Adult Charter School, which will provide a free GED curriculum to those at least 20 years of age who did not graduate from high school.
Also in the works as the church has begun to purchase land, is low-income housing and then perhaps even an expansion for the church, which currently seats 200.