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Besieged pastor of L.A.'s First AME Church touts his successes

Critics seeking to oust the Rev. John J. Hunter cite financial issues and what they view as a shift in priorities from his predecessor's. Hunter's backers cite progress they say the church has made.

August 02, 2009|Teresa Watanabe

Nearly five years after replacing a legendary pastor in one of the nation's most prominent African American pulpits, the Rev. John J. Hunter counts his blessings.

Since taking the helm of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles in October 2004, Hunter says, he has been privileged to bring 3,000 new souls to Jesus. He and his staff have launched such new community services as a summer enrichment program for children deprived of summer school by budget cuts.

His church shines with handsome new pews and carpets, a repaved parking lot and spruced-up landscaping. The church's affiliated nonprofit corporations have brought in $4 million in new grants. And the church recently joined a $50-million deal that Hunter says could help revitalize the congregation's West Adams neighborhood and bring in income for decades to come.

"It's amazing what we've accomplished," said the 52-year-old pastor. "The overwhelming majority of people are pleased with our direction."

So why is Hunter so besieged?

Hard as he may try, Hunter has yet to escape the larger-than-life shadow of the man he replaced, the Rev. Cecil L. "Chip" Murray. Some congregants still grumble that he doesn't adequately visit the sick, throw open his office to visitors or spearhead the social and political activism on police abuse, homelessness, unemployment and other issues that, under Murray, helped rocket the church to national fame.

And Hunter has not entirely escaped the cloud of mistrust over his management of church and personal finances that has hovered over him ever since he arrived.

Accusations that he misused church credit cards for personal expenses, for instance, followed him to Los Angeles from his Seattle church. Those allegations were dismissed as untrue by the church treasurer there.

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A public apology

But similar allegations soon arose in Los Angeles, and last December, Hunter acknowledged using First AME's credit card for $122,000 in personal expenditures on items including suits, jewelry, vacations and auto supplies.

Hunter publicly apologized for embarrassing the church and says he is paying the money back.

Not everyone is mollified. More than a dozen current and former church officers, missionaries and volunteers who say they once supported Hunter have accused him of "gross financial maladministration" and asked the denomination's regional authority, Bishop T. Larry Kirkland, to remove the pastor; his wife, Denise; and six executive church officers.

In a document dated July 11, the group asked for an outside independent audit of the church's financial condition. It accused Hunter of misusing church credit cards, mismanaging his personal finances by failing to pay his federal taxes and showing nepotism by hiring his wife to run FAME Assistance Corp., the church's nonprofit economic development arm, and other affiliated social services corporations.

"We tried to give him the benefit of the doubt and work with him," said Carolyn Milligan-Hills, a 20-year church member, trustee and missionary who signed the appeal for Hunter's removal. "But it is time for us to get our church back."

Hunter dismissed the complaint as filled with "lies" and said it reflected the sentiments of just a handful of detractors in an otherwise satisfied congregation with 19,000 registered members.

The pastor and his officers said they have resolved all financial issues. Hunter said that he is paying the credit card debt in installments and that he was advised by his attorney that the payment plan did not run afoul of state law prohibiting tax-exempt organizations such as First AME from granting loans to its officers without approval of the state attorney general.

Hunter also said he had signed an agreement July 2 with the Internal Revenue Service to repay federal taxes, interest and penalties as of last December totaling more than $300,000. In a prepared statement, Kirkland said any grievances against Hunter must first go through the church's conciliation process. This would require that the bishop and other authorities meet with both sides to try to resolve the dispute.

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Bishop 'satisfied'

But Kirkland also endorsed Hunter. "Currently, I am satisfied with the direction in which the church is going, and Pastor Hunter has my support," he wrote.

Martha Downard, former chairwoman of the church's budget and audit committee, said she has agreed to the dissident group's request to testify to denominational authorities that the charges involving the credit cards and other financial issues are true.

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