GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Sunday before Renaissance Church of God in Christ hosted Patrick Lyoya’s funeral, Bishop Dennis McMurray stood before the congregation and made clear its mission.

“He said, ‘The world is coming in to see what’s going on, but our responsibility is to minister to the Lyoya family. That’s what we’re here to do,'” recalled Parris McMurray, quoting his father’s words. “‘So, if you’re an usher, make sure that you’re serving the Lyoya family, not the cameras and the lights. If you’re singing, make sure you sing in support of the Lyoya family.'”

Bishop Dennis McMurray’s guidance on that day mirrored his own core values.

The senior pastor, who died Wednesday from cancer, was devoted to people, not promotion.

“Yes, the lights had to be on, Reverend Al Sharpton had to come in, absolutely. But the focus was the Lyoya family,” explained Parris McMurray.  

Indeed, early in the service, Dennis McMurray asked the crowd to demonstrate its support.  

“The clapping of hands expresses your love for someone,” Dennis McMurray declared. “‘Can we give our mother and our father love? We love you,” he said, his eyes focused meaningfully on Patrick Lyoya’s parents.  

“Can you all shout with me, ‘Mom, Dad, we love you!'” he said.

‘HEY, WHAT’S UP MAN? MY NAME’S DENNIS’

Parris McMurray said his dad made it a point to forge a personal connection with everyone he met, no matter the circumstance nor their station in life.

“When he would introduce himself to people at (the store) right around the corner, he would never say, ‘Hello, my name is pastor, or Bishop McMurray,’ he’d say, ‘Hey, what’s up, man? My name is Dennis. What’s your name?'” explained Parris McMurray. “My father had a tremendous amount of care, empathy and concern for others.”

Parris and his brother, Auston McMurray, sat down with News 8 one day after their dad’s death to talk about his life and legacy.

Parris and Auston McMurray, the sons of Bishop Dennis McMurray.

Dennis McMurray founded the Renaissance Church of God in Christ in 1992. 

Dennis McMurray was a “dynamic preacher and teacher of the gospel,” his biography on the church website says.

The Muskegon Heights native served as an administrative assistant to the bishop of the Western Michigan Jurisdiction of the Church of God in Christ, ran seminars and was a motivational speaker.

In October, Dennis McMurray was honored for his social activism and leadership for social change in the area with the GIANT among Giants award. He served on the Michigan Community Corrections Board, the National Board of Bethany Christian Services, Kent County Community Mental Health and Spectrum Health Executive Patient & Advisory Board. He was previously honored with the Religious Life GIANT Award and the Who’s Who Award in Black Grand Rapids by the Black Chamber of Commerce of Detroit.

He and his wife, first lady E. Jean McMurray, recently celebrated their 36th anniversary.

They met as students at Grand Valley State University and were later blessed with three children, two boys: Parris and Auston, and a girl, ChaVon.

Bishop Dennis McMurray with wife , E. Jean McMurray, and children, Parris, Auston and ChaVon. (Courtesy Parris McMurray)

Renaissance Church of God in Christ just marked its 30th year. 

“He lived his life out loud, but not from a self-gaining standpoint. It was from a self-giving standpoint. He gave of himself to literally every single person that he met,” said Parris McMurray.

It was about a month after the Lyoya funeral, said Dennis McMurray’s sons, that they began to notice a deficit in their father’s physical strength.

Dennis McMurray, 63, was soon diagnosed with a rare cancer.

He died Wednesday, five months after the cancer was discovered.

His sons told News 8 funeral arrangements will be announced soon.

As committed as Dennis McMurray was to serving people inside church and out, his sons say he was just as dedicated to his role as husband, father and grandfather.

‘GOD, FAMILY, COMMUNITY’

“He was a family man,” said his son, Auston McMurray. “It was God, family, community. He was completely present inside our house, and completely present when outside our house. He had this duality of care that was second to none.”

His sons say their father was able to give 110% in all areas of his life because of his level of organization and attention to detail.

“So organized. So well thought out and strategic in everything he did,” said Parris McMurray.

Bishop Dennis McMurray with his grandchildren. (Courtesy Parris McMurray)

Dennis McMurray’s commitment to family was illustrated the day of the Lyoya funeral, which happened to coincide with a long-scheduled special event at his grandson’s school.

“My oldest son had grandparents’ day at school that morning and (Bishop McMurray) told everyone, ‘Give me 45 minutes.’ So, he and his assistant drove to my son’s school, spent 30 minutes, drunk punch, had a cookie, and said ‘OK. have a good day. Paw Paw loves you,'” Parris McMurray said.

In addition to his focus on family, church and community, Dennis McMurray was a leader among Grand Rapids’ urban pastors, particularly in the last three years as the community faced COVID-19 quarantine, a riot in the summer of 2020 and the April police killing of Patrick Lyoya.

“He was the driving force in keeping urban clergy connected. Late nights Zooms. Early morning Zooms,” said Rev. Jerry Bishop of Life Quest, an urban church that describes itself as a purpose and performance driven ministry.

‘CONSUMMATE ENCOURAGER’

Bishop called Dennis McMurray the “consummate encourager.”

After learning of his death, Bishop said he spent 90 minutes reviewing the pair’s text exchanges.

“More than 90% of the text messages he sent to me were just encouraging me. … Encouragement not to reduce my passion. Encouragement to stay connected. It really was what many of my pastoral colleagues needed during the last three years of arguably some of our community’s darkest hours. The uncertainly of COVID, the crisis and calamities during the riots, the potential unrest in the days and weeks after Patrick Lyoya’s death,” he said.

Bishop worked closely with him in the past several years, getting to know his mentor and friend on a deeper level.  

“(Dennis McMurray) said something to me that still resonates,” recalled Bishop. “He said, ‘I’m going to get to know what makes you tick the way you tick.'”

Bishop said McMurray’s death should remind people that “tomorrow is not promised.”

“I really do believe in this season of Dennis’ transition; it should awaken many of us community servants to love better (and) live better,” he said.

‘TELL THEM RIGHT NOW’

Parris and Auston McMurray told News 8 their dad encouraged people to fully embrace their emotions.

“What we learned from him is to experience emotion and not be afraid, not get into this idea that men don’t cry,” explained Parris McMurray. “Cry. Experience emotion. Cry tears of joy, tears of sadness. Whatever it is, make sure you are fully feeling your emotions.”  

The brothers relayed their mother’s response to a neighbor who, upon learning of the pastor’s death, asked how he could help.

“My mom simply said, ‘Pay it forward. Pay it forward, everywhere you go, everywhere you step, every single place you occupy, just pay it forward: that same care and concern. … If there’s someone that you need to tell that you love them, tell them right now. If there’s someone that you need to apologize to, apologize to them right now, be fully present and leave no stone unturned,'” Parris McMurray said.

— News 8’s Anna Skog contributed to this report.