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Atlanta’s ‘The Happy Preacher’ Elder Cail [Cal] Merrell Dies

“The Happy Preacher”
Religious Icon Cail [Cal] Lester Murrell Transitions on Birthdate of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Cail [Cal] Lester Murrell
“The Happy Preacher”

Shock and disbelief were the reactions of many Atlantans and others across the state and nation over the sudden death of charismatic gospel preaching icon Elder Cail “Cal” Lester Murrell, more popularly known as “The Happy Preacher.”

A spokesperson for the Atlanta Police quizzed by The Inquirer on the circumstances surrounding Murrell’s death said in an email Sunday night the 16th, “We have no information or details on his cause of death at this time.”

Reverend Timothy McDonald, senior pastor of southeast Atlanta’s First Iconium Baptist Church and a close friend of Murrell’s for over 40 years, told The Inquirer that on the morning of January 15, he and Farris Watkins, daughter of Willie Watkins, owner of Willie Watkins mortuary and a representative from the Fulton County medical examiner’s office went to Murrell’s high-rise apartment on Richardson Street in Atlanta’s Mechanicsville Community to do what he called a “wellness visit.” “He had undergone surgery for a broken hip,” he told the newspaper in a phone interview on Monday, January 17th. McDonald said they arrived to find the door unlocked and Murrell sitting motionless in a chair. He said Fulton County was examining Murrell’s body to determine a cause of death which was incomplete as of January 15th.

Willie Watkins Funeral Home is handling homegoing arrangements which were incomplete as of January 17th.

The third Monday of each January, mandated by Congress as the national observance of the birthday of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is scheduled to feature a plethora of speakers and special guests to include First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, philanthropist Robert Smith and keynoted by presiding Episcopal Church Bishop Reverend Michael Bruce Curry. The services for 2022 will be devoid of Murrell who died just two days before. “The service just won’t be the same this year,” noted Reverend Tim Farmer who joined eight other clergy members and lay at a forum assembled Saturday night the 15th by C.M.E. pastor and renowned Black History researcher Herman “Skip” Mason and shown live through the YouTube cable channel.

The 73-year-old Murrell came to Atlanta around 1973 and joined what was then was the Jones Avenue Church of God in Christ (now known as Cathedral of Faith). But the ministers and pastors at Mason’s forum agreed collectively that their friend, “The Happy Preacher,” was ecumenical. “Cal was not just COGIC,” said Reverend Kevin Murriel, pastor of southwest Atlanta’s Cascade United Methodist Church. “He was Baptist, Episcopalian, non-denominational, A.M.E., C.M.E., all of them. He showed up and showed out. He was never shy about openly expressing his love for the Creator.”

“When he visited our churches, he expressed himself,” said Reverend William Flippin, pastor of DeKalb County’s Greater Piney Grove Baptist. “What you heard was what you got. It was genuine.”

Jared Sawyer Jr. of Greater Piney Grove said he received a very encouraging word from Murrell following a sermon he preached, “He told me I was growing in the ministry.” “I was flattered and humbled. The Happy Preacher is just himself. Nothing phony.”

Murrell carried a satchel of books, pictures, church programs and other memorabilia and somehow managed entry into just about every event religious, political or social. Some of the ministers at the forum were mystified. “How does he get into all these places?” noted James McWhorter, a member of Cathedral of Faith. “He gained entrance it seems to whatever he wanted to attend. “One pastor told Mason and the YouTube audience that he was once denied entry to the homegoing of Mrs. Coretta Scott King. “He couldn’t get through the front door but found a back door open, slipped through it and then sat quietly. I asked him about that once and he responded “nothing but Jesus.”

His effort was not without reward. In 2002, Atlanta City Councilmember Michael Bond presented Murrell with a proclamation declaring October 1, 2002 as “Cal Murrell Day.” Former state court judge Penny Brown Reynolds, who also pastors Midway Baptist Church with her husband Eddie, produced a tribute video honoring Murrell through her foundation in 2016.

Murrell traveled practically all over the country and would only ask ministers or hosts of special events to provide him with “something to eat and fare for public transportation”, forum participants remembered. Murrell was reportedly once a chef and baker.

The Happy Preacher’s near-patented “’Hallelujah’ shouts of ‘Amen’” (you could hear him over any other attempts), playing his tambourine to music that was provided and generating standing ovations to whatever pleased him was his calling card. “He was not ashamed of what he did,“ said Quincy Carswell II, pastor of Decatur, Georgia’s Covenant Church. “Some people questioned his authenticity. I didn’t. Doors at Covenant were always open to him. He told me he would say nothing if he couldn’t back it up with proof. He was someone many of us in the ministry could connect with. Once you do, you couldn’t forget him.”

PARTING NOTE: According to Pastor McDonald, The Happy Preacher’s first name was spelled “Cail”, not “Cal” though the two were pronounced similarly. “He told me that he wanted his name spelled like that on everything done for him at his homegoing.”

Last updated on January 23, 2022

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