The Rev. John J. Hunter is trying to regain his position at the First A.M.E.… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
The Rev. John J. Hunter, who was abruptly reassigned from the oldest black church in Los Angeles last fall, scored a small but significant victory in his petition to reclaim the helm of First African Methodist Episcopal Church.
A nine-member church judicial panel partly sided with Hunter and found that his new church, Bethel San Francisco, was out of line when congregants physically blocked him from taking the pulpit.
The committee — the African Methodist Episcopal denomination's equivalent of a Supreme Court — has not yet issued a decision on the most contentious charge made by Hunter: that Bishop T. Larry Kirkland violated the Minister's Bill of Rights by abruptly transferring him without the proper 90-day notice.
A positive ruling could give Hunter, 55, the support he needs to get reinstated as the pastor of First AME, a position he had held for the last eight years.
Patricia Mayberry, president of the judicial council, declined to comment because the case is ongoing and did not say when a final decision will be made.
Hunter did not return several calls requesting comment.
Hunter's wife, Denise, told L.A. Focus, a monthly newspaper that covers the African American church community, that the partial decision is a step in the right direction for their family.
"It affirms the fact that what they did was wrong and puts us in a position to be able to seek further remedies and other avenues of recourse," she said.
After the Rev. Hunter was reassigned, church officials examined the books and discovered $500,000 in debts and $200,000 in recorded judgments.
First AME filed a civil lawsuit against Hunter last month accusing the pastor, his wife and a small "cabal" of church leaders of "holding dictatorial control over [the church] ... for their own personal gain." It also accused Denise Hunter of orchestrating a "coup" to take control of the church's nonprofit organizations.
The Hunters, meanwhile, have fought the reassignment, which came after a tumultuous tenure in Los Angeles marred by allegations of sexual harassment, questionable use of church funds and a federal tax investigation.
Hunter has maintained that his reassignment was improper and that church law requires him to be moved to a church of equal or greater status. Bethel San Francisco has 650 members, compared with the 19,000 members of the Los Angeles church.
When he showed up in San Francisco, church officials handed him an emergency resolution that barred him from taking control. On the morning he was slated to make his debut, congregants lined the steps of the church to keep him from entering.
Those unprecedented actions, the judicial council ruled, violated AME denominational guidelines. The committee also admonished Bethel's presiding elder for aiding the congregation's efforts against Hunter, according to church officials.
But they did not sanction Bethel, and San Francisco church officials said the ruling was little more than a slap on the wrist.
Hunter technically remains Bethel's pastor, but members have made it clear he is not welcome.
"We are in the fight of our lives," said a Bethel church official who asked not to be named since the issue is ongoing. "We are in a sue-crazy age."
For now, the Hunters remain in Los Angeles and have moved out of the posh Encino home owned by First AME. Hunter told The Times last month that the turmoil has taken a toll on his health.
At the church, many former congregants have returned, happy for a fresh start and a new leader, the Rev. J. Edgar Boyd.
Thousands of worshipers filled the pews at Sunday's early service as Boyd offered his flock advice on ways to "make a clean getaway" and leave the drama of the last year, and last administration, behind.
"There is no gain made in looking back when you are trying to move forward," he said.