The Rev. John J. Hunter leads his congregation in prayer at First African… (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)
The pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest black pulpit in Los Angeles, has been reassigned after a controversial eight years that included a sexual harassment lawsuit, a federal tax investigation and questionable use of church credit cards.
Pastor John J. Hunter was moved to Bethel AME San Francisco by Bishop T. Larry Kirkland. Neither Kirkland nor Hunter could be reached for comment Friday.
Kirkland appointed the San Francisco church's pastor, the Rev. J. Edgar Boyd, to take the helm in Los Angeles. Boyd is scheduled to make his debut in church Sunday.
Critics of Hunter were elated by the change, complaining that he was inaccessible, overspent on personal security guards and chose to live in tony Encino instead of his South Los Angeles community. They said attendance, tithings and the church's activist profile had dropped under his tenure.
But supporters of Hunter praised him as a dynamic preacher who launched successful initiatives to provide school supplies to local children and promote health with a neighborhood farmers market.
In a 2009 interview, Hunter said he had brought more than 3,000 souls to Jesus, obtained $4 million in grants to the church's nonprofit affiliates and offered such aid as shelter to Hurricane Katrina victims and a summer academic enrichment program for children.
"I'm upset," congregant Mary Hardiman, 60, said of Hunter's departure. "I'm just devastated. He's the main reason I come to church."
She said Hunter comforted her after she experienced 10 deaths in six weeks, gave inspiring sermons and made the Bible relevant to modern-day problems by breaking out in song, including oldies from the Temptations.
Hunter was appointed in 2004 to the storied church, which became the city's epicenter of African American political and social activism under his legendary predecessor, the Rev. Cecil L."Chip" Murray. Under Murray, the church grew to 19,000 members with a $25-million budget encompassing more than a dozen corporations. It became a de rigueur stop for Democratic political candidates over the years, including Bill Clinton, Al Gore and President Obama.
But the church's activist profile dropped significantly under Hunter, some members complained.
Jessica Crenshaw, a congregant for four decades, said she resigned as chair of the social concerns commission because Hunter did not support her efforts to reduce youth violence and take on other social issues. Under Murray, she said, the church was out front on South African apartheid, the Gulf War, hunger, homelessness and other problems.
Hunter was reassigned Sunday at the conclusion of an annual gathering of AME churches in Southern California and Nevada. Three days earlier, as Hunter was delivering his annual report to Kirkland, witnesses said that choir director Michael Curls spoke out against him in what they described as a "very heated exchange" with the pastor.
The Rev. Leonard B. Jackson, an AME itinerant elder who formerly worked for the church and for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, said there was a widespread sentiment for change after years of scandals and dwindling attendance.
A sexual harassment lawsuit against Hunter by a former church assistant, Brenda Lamothe, was dismissed in December after he agreed to settle for an undisclosed amount. He also apologized to the congregation in 2008 after The Times reported that he had used church credit cards to pay for at least $122,000 in vacations, jewelry, suits and other personal items. The Internal Revenue Service launched a tax investigation against him. Hunter said he had set up a payment plan to repay his back taxes.
The pastor also had fans. Three congregants who showed up for Bible study this week at the church's sprawling campus on Harvard Avenue lauded the pastor and his wife, Denise, for such programs as an annual backpack drive. The drive collected 7,000 book bags and school supplies for needy children, said Lessie Spears, 48.
"I didn't want to see him go," said Spears, who has attended the church since 1986 but only recently decided to become a full member.
New member Jeannine Beavers, 30, was unaware of Hunter's past problems and said she stood by him.
"Despite the allegations, you can't deny his talent, his words and the things he has done in the community," she said. "That's nothing but the love of God."
Jackson said the city needed the church to become a "staple" of civic life once again.
"Prayerfully, the new pastor can rekindle the fire that was in the church," he said.