Pastor J. Edgar Boyd preaches to the congregation as he makes his debut at… (Katie Falkenberg, Los Angeles…)
The Rev. J. Edgar Boyd delivered his inaugural sermon Sunday as the new pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church in L.A., seeking to unite and heal a congregation that had become fractured over the troubles of its former leader.
Addressing worshipers, a seemingly nervous Boyd used parables to talk about forgiveness. But to the thousands in the packed room, the message was clear: A new leader was at the helm to restore the image of the oldest black pulpit in Los Angeles.
"Holding grudges cripples the soul," Boyd said. "It makes you weak... The time has come to cleanse us and welcome us in the favors of God."
A week ago, Bishop T. Larry Kirkland unexpectedly reassigned the former pastor, John J. Hunter, after a controversial eight years that included a sexual harassment lawsuit, a federal tax investigation and questionable use of church credit cards.
Hunter was moved to Bethel AME San Francisco, and Kirkland appointed that church's pastor, Boyd, to take the helm in Los Angeles.
Kirkland, who has remained quiet on the reassignment, told worshipers at the 10 a.m. service on Sunday that despite receiving a threat to "destroy my family" for removing Hunter, he had to find someone who would move the church forward.
"This is our flagship church," he said to a thunderous crowd. "And we cannot afford to let it go down. We have worked too hard for too long to bring the First church to where it is."
First AME became the epicenter of African American political and social activism under its legendary predecessor the Rev. Cecil L. "Chip" Murray. Under Murray, the church grew to 19,000 members and a $25-million budget encompassing more than a dozen corporations. The church became a regular stop over the years for Democratic political candidates, including Bill Clinton, Al Gore and President Obama. Gov. Jerry Brown attended Sunday's services.
But critics had complained that the church's attendance, tithings and social activism had declined under Hunter's tenure. Others expressed concern with Hunter's use of personal security guards, his inaccessibility and his refusal to live in the church's South Los Angeles community.
Kirkland reassured congregants that Boyd was different. While serving at the largest AME church in San Francisco for two decades, Boyd increased its assets from $12 million to more than $80 million, Kirkland said.
"He's a man of experience and a man of training," Kirkland said, pausing occasionally to drive home his points. "He had an inspired heart and an informed head. And this is what we need in a preacher. . .This man has character."
Boyd is no stranger to Los Angeles. He led Bethel AME Los Angeles in the six years before the 1992 riots. He followed Murray's doctrine that pushed for African Americans' economic independence and advocated for social change.
Now, he said, he plans to work with civic and academic organizations to foster relationships that will build up the church while helping others. Boyd said he will focus the church's resources on addressing injustices in the community.
But his first task was to heal the wounds that occurred before he arrived. He urged his flock to "get over it. And move on."
For Shirlene Santiago, 63, Boyd's presence was enough for her return to the church where she worshiped for the more than three decades. She began attending service less frequently after Hunter fired the choir director, and earlier this year she stopped going altogether.
But she was there front and center at the 8 a.m. service Sunday to get a glimpse of the new preacher.
"I think he did wonderful," she said. "He was a breath of fresh air."