Detroit’s revival is mirrored through events, inauguration at Midtown’s Ecumenical Theological Seminary


Every Detroit institution has its rituals. You visit the Detroit Institute of Arts, you see the Riveras. You stroll the RiverWalk, you ride the carousel. You head downtown, and you take a selfie in front of the Spirit of Detroit (well, some rituals are newer than others).

MurrayAt the Ecumenical Theological Seminary (ETS) – housed in the First Presbyterian Church of Detroit AKA the red-brick church along Woodward in Midtown – it is celebrating a very special ritual this weekend. The Rev. Dr. Stephen Butler Murray will be inaugurated as the fourth president of the seminary with a concert Friday night, a ceremony Saturday morning and a luncheon Saturday afternoon.

First, a little about the concert. Then, a bit about Rev. Dr. Murray, his impressions of Detroit after his first months here and where he sees ETS going in the months to come.

What stands out about these three events is how symbolic they are – to ETS, to Murray and to Midtown itself. The revival going on in Detroit is nothing short of extraordinary, and Midtown has become an international symbol for it. What ETS is trying to do in part with its new leadership is be a vital, expressive and safe space for those who want to partake in the revival and participate in the discussions about the city – both positive and negative.

The concert: What makes this concert well worth attending is that an historic Detroit pipe organ will be played for the first time in many decades. The concert presentation, entitled “The Sacred Musical Legacy of Gordon Young,” is a musical collaboration between ETS and the Michigan State University Community Music School-Detroit — two Midtown neighbors on Woodward Avenue in Brush Park.

ETS BuildingThe performance will feature Dr. David Wagner, renowned classical musician and radio host for WRCJ-FM, who will perform on the ETS 3,700 pipe Casavant organ, as well as the MSU New Horizons Concert Band led by director Edward Quick.

The concert program will pay tribute to the legacy of celebrated Detroit organist, choirmaster, composer and music pedagogue Gordon Young, who led activities at the First Presbyterian Church from 1964 to 1979. A widely recognized composer of sacred music, Wagner said Gordon was a prolific composer for organ. (In fact, while researching his music, Wagner stumbled upon a piece Gordon had dedicated to him.)

“The organ truly has been brought back to life,” Wagner said. “It wasn’t working at all. I don’t think it had been tuned in 20 or 25 years. It was pretty weird sounding at first, to tell you the truth. … It’s like its second coming.”

To some end, Wagner said he feels like the performance will channel Gordon’s spirit there. Every pipe organ is different – all of them are custom made, so no two sound alike. Gordon likely played much of his music for the first time on this organ, so they knew each other well.

Rev. Dr. Murray’s inauguration: This is a great celebration for those of us who have had a chance to sit and talk to this fine gentleman. He replaces Dr. Marsha Foster Boyd, who was president of ETS since July 2006. He knew of Detroit before arriving last year. Now, eight months later, he really has a sense of where Detroit is going and how ETS wants to be part of that.

For example, he’s been visiting the city’s many churches, doing everything from guest preaching to just sitting in the pews to see how the congregation gets involved. He’s been meeting the pastors, hanging out with the people. He wants to know what these institutions mean to Detroit, how they are bringing communities together and how they can be a base for neighborhood revival.

carving“There’s such cultural history to this place. I think any city that can boost both Aretha Franklin and Eminem is an interesting place,” Murray said. “I’m fascinated by this whole Woodward corridor that we’re on – there’s sports stadiums and an opera house on one end and then there’s the DIA and historical society and WSU. It’s a fascinating area. And I’m excited to see what the M-1 Rail does to connect all of those institutes to each other, and to have people start to perceive this part of Detroit as a walking city and not just a driving city. (M-1) will allow more people to meander between these institutions.”

Murray wants ETS to connect the churches within Detroit but also to the religious institutions outside of the city and well into the suburbs. For example, ETS has hosted two large public forums to bring people out to talk face to face. One was on the water-shutoff crisis last summer and another came about to discuss the Ferguson grand-jury verdict.

“These were fantastic opportuntiies for us to be an anchor for those churches. We came together – churches of all backgrounds and congregations of all kinds – to encounter one another in a good, safe, sacred space,” Murray said.

And there’s so much more to come.

Murray’s resume is epic; we can’t get into all of it here. But here’s the short version. He grew up around Delaware and Philadelphia. Rev. Dr. Murray received a Bachelor of Arts degree in philosophy and religion from Bucknell University, a Master of Business Administration degree from Endicott College, a Master of Divinity degree from Yale University Divinity School, and the M.Phil. and Ph.D. in systematic theology from Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

Previously, he served as the chaplain and on the faculty of Endicott College, Skidmore College, and Suffolk University, and as an administrator at Yale University’s Dwight Hall Center for Public Service and Social Justice.  In parish ministry, Rev. Dr. Murray has served as the pastor of American Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ congregations in urban, suburban, and rural settings of Massachusetts and New York.

Just before he came to Detroit, Rev. Dr. Murray was the founding Dean of the College and Associate Professor of Theology at Barrytown College, a new liberal arts college in upstate New York, which focuses on the study of world religion and philosophy. He also serves as Senior Pastor of The First Baptist Church of Boston, Massachusetts and as American Baptist Chaplain to Harvard University and Denominational Counselor and Lecturer in Ministry at Harvard Divinity School.

Some background: The Ecumenical Theological Seminary was established in 1980 to respond to the need for theological education in the Detroit metropolitan area. ETS has been recognized by its colleagues in theological education as uniquely equipped to prepare individuals to meet the challenges of ministry in urban centers. The First Presbyterian Church building was leased to Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit in 1992, and the distinct red church became the permanent home of the seminary in 2002.

So if you can, come out to the concert. Attend the inauguration. You’ll feel a lot lighter if you do.

Tickets for “The Sacred Music of Gordon Young” are priced at $30.Tickets for students of all ages are $15. Proceeds will benefit ETS and its many activities. Tickets are available online visit For more information call 313-831-5200 and speak to Ms. Pamela Johnson at extension 209.

Presidential Inauguration Weekend
The Rev. Dr. Stephen Butler Murray
4th President of Ecumenical Theological Seminary

Sacred Space Concert, Friday, March 13, 2015 at 7 p.m.
Inauguration Ceremony, Saturday, March 14, 2015 at 10:30 a.m.
Inauguration Luncheon, Saturday, March 14, 2015 at 1 p.m.

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