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Bethel AME Church in San Francisco rejects new pastor from L.A.

The oldest black pulpit in San Francisco rejects the Rev. John J. Hunter, the L.A. pastor assigned to lead its flock, in a move unheard of in the AME denomination.

November 12, 2012|By Angel Jennings, Los Angeles Times
  • Rev. John J. Hunter, seen in 2005, was recently transferred to Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in San Francisco from First AME in L.A. after an eight-year tenure marred by a sexual harassment lawsuit, a federal tax investigation and the questionable use of church credit cards.
Rev. John J. Hunter, seen in 2005, was recently transferred to Bethel African… (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)

SAN FRANCISCO — In an unprecedented move, officials of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest black pulpit in the city, have rejected the troubled Los Angeles pastor assigned to lead its flock.

The Rev. John J. Hunter was recently transferred from First AME, one of the nation's most prominent black churches, after an eight-year tenure marred by a sexual harassment lawsuit, a federal tax investigation and the questionable use of church credit cards.

Hunter was slated to make his pastoral debut at Bethel AME this month, but church officials drafted an emergency resolution barring him from taking control. They said the assignment could "impair the legacy, reputation, relationships and goodwill" of the church in the community.

When Hunter, cloaked in his white pastor robe and carrying his Bible, showed up at the church Nov. 4 ready to preach, church officials said, they confronted him in the foyer and demanded that he produce the signed declaration from Bishop T. Larry Kirkland stating his new assignment.

Hunter did not have a copy of the declaration and church officials blocked him from taking the pulpit.

The rejection — unheard of in the AME denomination — pits the small, 650-member congregation against the executive orders of Kirkland and has many churchgoers questioning the ramifications of their protest.

Neither Hunter nor Kirkland could be reached Sunday for comment.

Church officials fear that Hunter's blemished reputation would upend a multimillion-dollar business deal in the works. Some say the deal, which officials declined to detail, would unravel if lenders learned of Hunter's questionable financial transactions.

"That's how much weight his reputation carries," said one senior church official who asked not to be identified for fear of punishment if Hunter were to be seated as pastor.

In 2008, Hunter acknowledged using First AME's credit cards for $122,000 in personal expenditures on items including suits, jewelry, vacations and auto supplies. A year later, the Internal Revenue Service said he owed more than $300,000 in back taxes. Hunter has said he repaid both debts.

Additionally, members worry that Bethel AME might lose the good reputation it earned under the leadership of its former pastor, the Rev. J. Edgar Boyd, who served the church for more than 20 years.

Boyd was promoted to take the helm of First AME, a church that boasts a membership of 19,000. There, he was welcomed with open arms.

For years, critics of Hunter complained that he was inaccessible, overspent on personal security and refused to live in the South L.A. community where he preached. They said the church's membership, tithing and its activist profile declined during Hunter's tenure.

Hunter was appointed in 2004 to lead First AME, which had been led by the Rev. Cecil L. "Chip" Murray, a legendary pastor who propelled the church into a civic, social and political powerhouse. It became a regular stop for Democratic political candidates over the years, including Bill Clinton, Al Gore and President Obama.

After Hunter's transfer to Bethel AME was announced Oct. 28, members worried about his past.

It took Hunter days to formally introduce himself to church officials, further exacerbating the congregation's concerns about the pastor.

By the time Hunter landed in San Francisco on Nov. 3, his fate with the church was sealed. A driver picked up Hunter and his young daughter, Jaden, at the airport. They were dropped off downtown, where more than a dozen church officials greeted them. Hunter was handed a copy of the resolution, stating that members had rejected his appointment and demanded that Kirkland create a conciliation committee to "review the charges, issues and concerns" raised, church officials said.

"You could've emailed or faxed this to me," a stunned Hunter responded, according to church officials. Hunter said he would not preach where he was not wanted. The next morning, church members said they stood on the steps of Bethel AME on Laguna Avenue an hour before the early morning service to block Hunter from entering. Hunter was not present when the service began at 8 a.m.

Thirty minutes later, Hunter and a bodyguard bypassed the lone guard who monitors the front entrance, church members said. Officials said that when they blocked Hunter from the pulpit, his demeanor shifted.

"He was loud and boisterous," said one member who declined to be identified because the issues surrounding Hunter's assignment had not been resolved. "Not the temperament of a pastor."

Congregants in the church held hands and prayed.

Hunter left and has had little contact since then with church members. When Kirkland learned about the confrontation, he flew to San Francisco to admonish the congregation for making judgments about Hunter.

"This could be looked at as an embarrassment," he told members.

But the congregation remains firm in its decision. On Sunday, members said they were ready to walk out if Hunter showed up. The presiding elder, the Rev. W. Bartalette Finney Sr., delivered the sermon for the roughly 100 people who turned out for two morning services. He urged members to focus on their spiritual relationship with God and not the problems of the church.

"Bethel, you have lost your first love," he said in a deep, throaty baritone. "You have lost your pastor. But you didn't lose Jesus."

angel.jennings@latimes.com

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