The Rev. Marcus Murchinson of Tree of Life Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, California, is unapologetic.
There is nothing wrong with a few expletives in church, he says, because he knows God can handle it. And he is standing his ground even though he’s been getting death threats for his belief.
“The truth is sometimes when I’m praying, my prayers are not ‘guide me o thy great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land.’ I’m not quoting from the 23rd Psalm. I’m not quoting from Philippians. Sometimes my prayers have explicit language in them. God I am bleep, bleep, bleep upset. And because of that, I learned that God can handle that,” Murchinson explained in an interview Monday.
His small church in Watts has been at the center of a viral video storm since one of his now fired drummers posted a recording of three young girls doing what he describes as an avant-garde performance of Jay-Z’s “The Story of OJ” from the rapper’s platinum album, 4:44, on Sunday, July 30.
“Jay z and Tasha cobs (sic) praise dance in church…What are your thoughts?????” the fired drummer Ben Thompson asked with a flush faced emoji.
In the recording that runs for about 90 seconds, Murchinson’s congregation appear to watch in silence as the girls step, twirl and throw faux cash in the air to represent “follies” like wasting money on strippers described by Jay-Z in the lyrics of the song replete with the N-word and other explicit language.
Said Jay-Z in part:
Light n*gga, dark n*gga, faux n*gga, real n*gga
Rich n*gga, poor n*gga, house n*gga, field n*gga
Still n*gga, still n*gga
Light n*gga, dark n*gga, faux n*gga, real nigga
Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga
Still nigga, still nigga
You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club? Credit
You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? This how they did it
Financial freedom my only hope
F**k livin’ rich and dyin’ broke
I bought some artwork for one million
Two years later, that s**t worth two million
Few years later, that s**t worth eight million
I can’t wait to give this s**t to my children
Y’all think it’s bougie, I’m like, it’s fine
But I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99
I turned that 2 to a 4, 4 to an 8
I turned my life into a nice first week release date…
“The one thing that’s apparent about language is that there’s a difference between cursing or using derogatory language and using colloquial language,” Murchinson said. “What Jay-Z was using in this particular presentation was not inflammatory or derogatory. He was making a point to just communicate in a colloquial dialect that people understand … Ain’t a word in that song that I don’t know myself, that my congregation doesn’t know and or have used. So why do we come into God’s house and act like we don’t know it?”
While the controversial post also included a dance performance by the young girls to Tasha Cobbs’ more traditional gospel song “Break Every Chain,” it is the performance set to the secular Jay-Z song that has received the most attention. The clip has received nearly 4 million views on Facebook alone as of Tuesday evening, four times the views of the performance set to “Break Every Chain.”
And most reactions to the clip do not share Murchison’s appreciation for colloquialism in the house of the Lord.
“Let me just say, I don’t know how this happened guys. I like to think of things from everybody’s point of view and try to understand the logic behind when things happen crazy in church. I don’t know the logic because generally the kids got to get this approved by somebody and I just don’t know who approved it,” he said.
“I don’t know where the people are that stop these things. The dance team? The parents, the pastors, the sound board, the motherboard? They threw money at the motherboard. They made it rain on Mother Gladys, she been in church 80 something years,” he quipped.
“The only logical thing I can think of is the church is hard of hearing, like literally they have hearing aids in and the kids jam the frequency ’cause I can’t fathom any other way that this got approved and actually happened in the church. It’s unedited. They make a clean version of this song. Not to say that this should be performed in church anyway, but they have a clean version of this song,” he added, expressing further shock about the Jay-Z selection.
Some people were so upset said Murchinson, who is a trained sociologist and military veteran, said that they threatened to kill him.
“We had death threats here at the church. Religious zealots just like the Pharisees and Sadducees wanted to kill Jesus. I don’t believe that they want to kill me, I just think that they want to scare me but here’s the problem, you’re dealing with someone who served in the United States military and served in two war tours. I committed myself to God that I will be what He was — committed unto death … We had about five or six that came across here,” he told CP.
The Navy veteran said the decision to include the Jay-Z song in his presentation two Sundays ago was due to a study his church conducted in Watts to find out why they did not attend neighborhood churches.
“Most of my congregants, and I’m not too sure if this is a cross-country problem or just specific to Watts, but I do know that in most of our predominantly black churches in the innercity … our parishioners do not live in the community that the church sits in. They’re often commuters. So what I wanted to do was try to find out why the community doesn’t come to the church,” he said.
“We found that a majority of the people didn’t come to church because they no longer related to the Judeo-Christian understanding that the prophet was no longer myself or some of our black pioneers Bishop Jakes, Bishop Jones … they no longer had the prophetic conscience of this community. But there was a different prophet that did … p-r-o-f-i-t.
“They looked at the black church only as being the profit entity and not prophetic. They no longer found them to be oracles of God but just institutions that were trying to make money. And so we asked them, who do you look up to? Who are the voices that speak prophetically to your generation, your issue? And they told me, Chance the Rapper, who I did not know. But I did go back and do my homework on him and found out that he donated $1 million of his own money to help right the wrong of Chicago and not one church is on record doing anything of that caliber,” Murchinson said.
“They told me that they listened to Jay-Z and that this song, ‘The Story of OJ,’ was so pertinent to some of the socio-economic dysfunction that they were seeing in Watts as we are watching Watts become regentrified, through its housing development. So what happened was, I then took that and revisited an argument from academia,” he explained.
He then pointed to the argument of social critic and author James Baldwin against the church and complained that the church had become too pious.
“James Baldwin said he did not support the church because the church on Sunday mornings in America is the most segregated place. I don’t think it is so much of a racial divide anymore, I think that the divide is now, it’s become piety. We have this generation of individuals who are pious and out of touch, who want to hold on to traditions that may not be effective, may not be working but all the more they just expose it and not address the concerns of now. So we have a generation of individuals who are transparently struggling and no one completely cares,” he said.
“What I have noticed in just looking at this particular fiasco is that there are so many individuals who are judgmental, traditional, who are addressing this only from the confines of their religious asceticism. They are trying to tell me that I’m not holy, that Jay-Z is a devil worshiper.
“I don’t know consciously if they’ve ever heard Jay-Z worship the devil or if Jay-Z has ever come out and said that he worships the devil but what I do know is that Jay-Z single-handedly on Father’s Day bailed out 107 black men out of jail so that they could be with their families. Our church did something similar. I took the template from him. On Mother’s Day, we bailed out two women out of jail. We have a fatherhood program. So my point is we decided to take a risk, we took a risk to really go against the confines of the religious infrastructure because what I realize is most of this infrastructure loves to keep people weak,” he said.
“We cook fried chicken, we eat pound cake and die of heart attack and will serve the same stuff at the repast. Something is wrong with the black church that does not address the issues that are relevant, prevalent to our people and so what we wanted to do was to try to 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, it didn’t matter, it was empirically true.”
So why not simply just use a clean version of the song if he liked Jay-Z’s message so much?
“Because unlike the world or any other institution, I believe the church should be the one place where we are transparent and 100 percent true. I don’t know what has happened where we believe we have to domesticate God because God’s presence ain’t strong enough to handle our truth?
The Bible says, not my words, those that worship him must worship in spirit and in truth,” Murchinson said.
“In the black church, I’ve seen fights break out in the sanctuary. I’ve heard of scandals of individuals having sexual relations in the church, I’ve heard of individuals smoking on parking lots, I’ve heard of individuals drinking in the church,” he said, noting that none of these things have happened at his church under his watch.
“If our truth is, this is how I speak out of church, you shouldn’t be trying to hide and become a hypocrite and saying that you don’t speak like that in the presence of God. Because then what we become are hypocrites and we promulgate a hypocrisy,” he explained.
“If we just be real about this thing. Think about this thing with an open mind and objectively. Do you think that every individual in the Bible that countered troubles, trials or tempests, did not have some form of what we could call cursing or language that could be inflammatory? Jonah sitting in the belly of the whale … you can’t tell me in that one moment Jonah did not sink with inflammatory language.
“You can’t tell me that the three Hebrew boys tossed in the fiery furnace, the fire has been turned up seven times hotter, are singing with the sound track of ‘Amazing Grace.’ You can’t tell me that. I can’t be convinced of that because I know humanity and I know that our humanity sometimes have conflicts with our divinity and our spirituality and God has no problem with that,” he said.
Pastor Ronald Thompson, former senior pastor at Mount Sinai United Holy Church in North Carolina and father of Ben Thompson Murchinson’s former drummer who was fired for posting the video online, suggested that he was heading in the wrong direction with his ministry.
“To the Pastor who fired my son for posting the pre-sermonic performance at one of your services on Facebook – I just want you to know what you have done. You have fired a young man of integrity. You have disposed of an asset with potential far beyond that of a musician. My son, Benjamin Alexander Thompson is a child of destiny. I consecrated his life to God when he was born. I do not present him to you as perfect. But perfection is in his DNA,” he wrote in a post on Facebook.
“We all need a spiritual gadfly whom God will use to startle and provoke us into remaining true to the message we have been taught! Rather than embracing the gadfly you have chosen to swat it! I implore you to consider the mercy of God who placed such a one in your presence. Ben was the unidentified angel in your midst. He was placed in your ministry to clear his throat at an offering that perhaps required more forethought. Prophets are often persecuted. Some of them have been killed for calling necessary attention to our spiritual missteps. This is not unusual. But we all must be expectant of the woe that will follow!” he warned.
When asked if his drummer was fired because he disagreed with the Jay-Z song being played in church and if that was the reason he shared the clip on social media, Murchinson said he did not want to speculate on whether or not the musician had an issue with his decision to use the Jay-Z song in his sermon.
“What I will say is that he did violate the internet policy of the church for its staff members in worship and so because of that, that was the ramification for that particular behavior. I don’t know, all I can do is, I read the same comment that you read that said he had no ill-will and I trust that,” he said.
As for how his parishioners are doing in light of the furor over the performance, the pastor said: “My parishioners knew about this three weeks before. We were all prepared. We all knew. There was a point in the service where I remind them that this is going to be an unconventional presentation and that we were praying about this, let’s pray one more time for this so that we do not get offended but that we become empowered or at least walk away with an open mind.
“And so my parishioners have no problem. My church has supported me through this. They have been the ones to encourage me, they have been the ones that want to defend me and I’ve asked them not to do so because we’ll be vindicated by being different.”
As for his critics, Murchinson called them hypocrites and “n*ggas” for judging him and his church before getting the appropriate context of the controversial presentation.
“They (critics) make judgments based off their feelings, emotions and they’re never coming to Watts. They are never coming to Tree of Life and so it’s dangerous. It’s so immature, and it is what Jay-Z calls n*gga. Still n*gga. This is what n*ggas do. That ‘n*gga’ word really refers to unintelligent, ignorant.
So it’s ignorant for them to make an assumption based on 90 seconds and they don’t know the three years of work that I have labored here,” he said.