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Amid angry voices, minister works for reason

With Uhurus on one side and the sheriff on the other, the Rev. Louis Murphy answers another calling.

Published May 14, 2005

Rev. Louis Murphy

ST. PETERSBURG - A flier distributed by the Uhurus shows the head of the Rev. Louis Murphy morphed on to the body of a police officer.

To reinforce the blunt message, the leaflet goes on to call him a sellout for serving on a small board reviewing the shooting of a 19-year-old African-American man by a sheriff's deputy.

Murphy sees himself neither as the sellout the Uhurus claim nor the all-powerful community leader some purport him to be. He says he simply knows what it's like to ache for a better life.

"My calling is, of course, to build the kingdom of God," he said.

His parents were farm workers. At 16, he hopped on a Greyhound bus with "a raggedy suitcase" and headed for Florida A&M University. He had not applied, but was intent on using a friend's unwanted $200 scholarship.

Today, youthful angst and a few scrapes behind him, the 46-year-old Murphy lives a middle class life in a waterfront community and leads one of the city's largest predominantly African-American congregations, Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church.

It's not just his congregation that turns to him for help. He sits on several boards, including the YMCA, Boy Scouts of America West Central Florida Council and the Pinellas County Urban League. A few days ago, Sheriff Jim Coats asked Murphy to be part of a panel that monitors the work of a board investigating the shooting of Jarrell Walker.

"I think he is a community leader. I think he is highly respected. I respect him," said Coats, who added that he makes it a point to attend Murphy's church whenever he is in town.

"He's very sincere about keeping calm in the community and addressing the concerns the citizens have."

Murphy explained his motivation as a minister. "I am really burned by the plight of our people, the drug sales, the drug use, the families that are broken," he said in the cadence of the preacher that he is.

"I have to counsel people whose loved ones are on drugs. I have to bury the people whose loved ones have been killed in drug deals. I'm just burned by the number of kids that are not in school, that are on the streets, that are not graduating. I am burned by the poverty."

The International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement is heavily critical of Murphy. His response? "The fact of the matter is, I don't have time to waste energy on negativity.

"Do I agree with their tactics? No. But I understand to some degree their frustration and their anger, but I don't like the way they go about it. I'm not trying to be any great savior of the community, but I do have a divine calling.

"I would be a fool to say that I speak for the entire black community. I do believe that I am a voice of reason and rationality for many of the level-headed people, not only African-Americans, but people in general."

Murphy said his congregation, at 955 20th St. S, numbers around 3,500 and his ministry includes by extension family members who may never set foot in his church.

Darryl Rouson, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, is one of Murphy's staunchest supporters. Two years ago, he gave Murphy his organization's President's Award for leadership. Murphy also happens to be Rouson's pastor. Rouson, a lifelong Catholic until he joined Murphy's church, credits the minister for his spiritual reawakening.

"I ran into Mount Zion one Sunday looking for a new spiritual challenge and Murphy was preaching. I saw this young brother who just seemed to be on fire," he said.

That was five years ago.

Murphy speaks frankly about his difficulties as a young adult. He did not graduate from Florida A&M University, where he spent three years. He became a drum major in its world-famous Marching 100 Band, but was kicked out for refusing to divulge the names of members whom he had seen shoplifting. He wanted to belong, he said.

Suspended from the band, he went back home to De Land and looked for work. He found a job with the Department of Transportation. He found a second job, at Burger King. After his daytime job, he ran home to change into his fast food uniform. He had no car.

Eventually, he joined the Marines and was sent to Hawaii. He took college classes at night and earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from Chaminade University of Honolulu. It was also in Hawaii that he met his American-Samoan wife, Filomena. She is a teacher in the Urban League's Project Success program for at-risk children.

They have a grandson, Jair, 14 months, and two children, Chiriga, 20, a junior at the University of Central Florida, and Louis Jr., 18, who will graduate from Lakewood High School next week and attend the University of Florida on a football scholarship.

The family lives in Tropical Shores, a quiet waterfront neighborhood in the city's southeast. A runner, Murphy remarked that his path often takes him through some of St. Petersburg's most troubled communities. These are the places where many in his congregation live and a reminder of his roots.

"I grew up poor and I think one of the things that I am really proud of is to be the first in my family to go to college," he said.

After arriving in St. Petersburg in 1986, he worked as a purchasing agent for the St. Petersburg Housing Authority, the St. Petersburg Times and the former Florida Power. He sold janitorial supplies after he was laid off from Florida Power and before getting a job as an executive for the Boy Scouts of America West Central Florida Council. His son is an Eagle Scout.

In the meantime, he had begun attending Mount Zion and had become a deacon and later a lay minister under the late Rev. Wilkins Garrett. Garrett's 19-year tenure ended abruptly when he walked out in the middle of a Sunday morning service. The church selected Murphy to lead it out of turmoil and debt.

His position requires him to be concerned about the here and now as well as the hereafter. He said that's why he agreed to sit on the sheriff's committee.

"I don't have an agenda other than to do my Father's will. I don't make any apology for that. I could easily stay away from this."

[Last modified May 14, 2005, 01:16:31]

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