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A New Voice Speaks in an Old Pulpit

Blending the sacred and the secular, the man who succeeded the Rev. 'Chip' Murray at First AME Church has not shied away from bold moves.

September 17, 2005|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

The Rev. John J. Hunter ascended the pulpit of First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles last Sunday and threw open a sanctuary transformed. The church, housing the city's oldest black congregation, is gleaming with new pews and paint, fresh carpet and a gold-edged inscription of its motto, "First to Serve."

Behind the sparkling new look, however, lies an intense drama of transition, personal challenge and small triumphs since Hunter stepped in last November to replace the congregation's legendary and longtime pastor, the Rev. Cecil L. "Chip" Murray.

In the last 10 months, Hunter has had to fend off furious criticism for some of his early decisions and balance a high-wire act of forward steps with reverence for his predecessor's larger-than-life legacy even as he grapples with learning the ropes of a mega-church that dwarfs his last post, in Seattle.

"I knew it would be some difficult waters," said Hunter, 48. "But the Lord's strength has carried me weekend by weekend. It's the busiest and most exhilarating time of my life."

So far, many congregants who grieved the loss of Murray seem pleased with their new pastor.

"I wouldn't want to be him," said Kerman Maddox, a Los Angeles public relations consultant and church board member. "Replacing a legend like Chip Murray is impossible. But this new pastor in a fairly short period of time has done yeoman's work. I think this man will be a huge leader."

During 27 years at the helm, Murray led his flock to become the AME denomination's largest congregation west of the Mississippi, with 17,000 registered members. He transformed what had been a staid and insular congregation into one of the region's most prominent churches, a $75-million civic powerhouse with 14 corporations that house the poor, aid the jobless and nurture entrepreneurial businesses in concert with Southern California's corporate and political chieftains.

But a denomination rule requiring pastors to retire at age 75 forced Murray to step down last year. Congregational leaders, reluctant to imagine First AME without Murray, sought a waiver of the rules, to no avail.

That brought them Hunter and a controversy that exploded onto the front pages of many of the newspapers serving the region's black communities.

After Hunter removed two of Murray's top lieutenants and presided over the closure of the school founded by the former pastor, a small group of opponents launched a bitter campaign to discredit him with allegations of financial mismanagement, tax problems and excessive spending in Los Angeles and at his previous post in Seattle.

Critics in both cities circulated his personal tax documents and details about his credit card spending and compensation package. They blasted e-mails around the nation to AME bishops, congregants and the media, publicizing the address and purchase price -- $2 million -- of the new Encino parsonage that church officials bought for its new minister's use.

One of the dismissed employees, former chief operating officer Diane Young, is threatening to file a complaint against Hunter alleging age and gender discrimination. She said the pastor replaced her with younger men.

She also said Hunter did not offer her another job, as he did another top Murray aide. That aide, Steve Johnson, later left the church after being replaced by Hunter's wife, Denise, as head of the church's economic development arm, known as FAME Renaissance. The pastor called Young's allegations "ludicrous."

Hunter has retaliated with a $2-million libel and defamation lawsuit against Errol Briggs, a Young ally and Los Angeles publicist, and others who teamed up with Seattle critics to lead the attacks. Briggs ultimately apologized for and retracted some of his allegations, but he continues to accuse Hunter of financial mismanagement and of "trying to destroy the legacy of Pastor Murray."

Murray has avoided commenting on the controversy, reflecting a determined effort to stay out of the spotlight since retirement. ("I'm dead," he said.) Superior Court Judge Irma Brown Dillon, a church board member, said many congregants have taken Murray's decision to continue worshiping at First AME as a signal of support for Hunter.

Others have backed Hunter more overtly, including Bishop John R. Bryant, who appointed Hunter, and most congregational leaders in both Seattle and Los Angeles.

"He has exceeded my expectations," Bryant said of Hunter, citing more than 600 members who have joined the church since he arrived. "Pastor Chip did a good job of passing the baton, and Pastor John has taken it and run."

Bryant, who oversees 250 churches in 14 central and western states, dismissed the allegations of financial impropriety as untrue "foolishness."

"The church is a human organization," he said. "When it's moved by egos rather than spirituality, these things surface."

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