When the church doors open at the First African American Episcopal church in Los Angeles–known simply as FAME–many in the congregation will delight in a desired change. Gone will be their former pastor for the past eight years, the Rev. John J. Hunter.
Some members of at the church, located at 2270 S. Harvard Blvd., will no doubt raise their hands skyward in praise because after the A.M.E.’s Fifth Episcopal District’s annual meeting ended on Sunday, Hunter, the source of much controversy at the church for the past eight years, has been reassigned. He is now at Bethel A.M.E. Church in San Francisco.
One church member put it this way: “Personally, I liked the guy, but as far as my spiritual leader, it was past time for him to go. I’m just glad it’s over with.”
Replacing Pastor Hunter will be the Rev. J. Edgar Boyd, formerly of San Francisco’s Bethel A.M.E., where Hunter has gone.
For some, there is a revolving-door similarity to the controversies involving a number of A.M.E. churches and the way some Catholic priests were shuffled from one parish to another after being accused of sexual misdeeds.
In January 2010, a judge ruled that a lawsuit against then-Pastor Frederick Murph of Brookins Community A.M.E. Church could go forward. The Rev. Murph had been accused of encumbering church properties for more than $6 million.
Also, few days after Hunter was dispatched, the Rev. C. Dennis Williams who, had presided at Brookins for just shy of two years, was reassigned to Christ Our Redeemer A.M.E. Church in St. Louis, Mo.
The new pastor at Brookins is Gregory McCloud from St. Louis.
Williams had taken over at Brookins after Murph. Before that, Williams had taken over at Ward A.M.E. Church from the Rev. Sylvester Laudermill Jr., who was accused of molesting boys, first at St. Peter’s A.M.E. Church in St. Louis, then at Ward.
Also, reassigned was Pastor Joseph Nixon at Ward A.M.E. Church. He was sent to Allen A.M.E. Church in St. Louis. He is being replaced by the Rev. Taurus Myhand from Grant A.M.E. Church in Long Beach.
A statement from the board of stewards and trustees of FAME “thanked Pastor John Hunter and first lady Denise Hunter for their eight years of dedicated service to the church and the larger Los Angeles community.”
It noted that “A.M.E. church pastoral appointments are made on an annual basis and are subject to change. The decision for a change has been made by the appointing power of the bishop. As leaders of the church it is our responsibility to make the transition to new leadership as smooth as possible.
“As part of the leadership of First A.M.E. Church our responsibility, first and foremost, is to the church. We are grateful for all the good Pastor John accomplished to further the mission of our church, and now we welcome the new leadership. Our motto is ‘First to serve’ and we will continue that tradition of community service and building the kingdom of God.”
The A.M.E. Fifth District presiding prelate, Bishop T. Larry Kirkland Sr., in explaining the reassignments, said the Methodist church is made up of an itinerant (traveling) ministry. “Once they take their vows, which we do each year, you go where you are sent. I was assigned [as bishop] to the Fifth District. I’ve served four years [as head of the district]. I have a lot of rebuilding of the walls to do,” he said, referencing the book of Nehemiah. “My whole program was to restructure the district. Some in the East needed to come West and some in the West needed to go East.”
Kirkland said that pastors are put where they are best needed, and he noted that each one takes a vow to go wherever the bishop and the presiding elders send them.
Asked whether Hunter’s reassignment had anything to do with the controversy surrounding him at FAME, Kirkland said no, reiterating that the A.M.E. is an itinerant, or traveling, ministry and pastors and such moves come with the territory. But others say such reassignments did not necessarily apply in large churches where there were no major problems.
Asked whether the congregation had any involvement in the decision, Kirkland said: “The congregation is always involved. They don’t determine [who stays or goes]. They will have some input, but the bishop and presiding elders take all that into consideration, based on what’s in the best interest of the church and the community.”
The Rev. Lewis Logan, co-founder of Ruach Christian Community Fellowship and a former A.M.E. pastor, expressed sorrow at some of the changes. “It was rough when it happened to me, and it’s rough seeing it happening to them for a number of reasons,” he said. “I hate seeing pastors moved under duress.”
From the start of Hunter’s assignment to FAME, it might have been inevitable that there would be tough adjustments for both Hunter and the congregation since he was replacing the Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray, one of the most beloved and respected pastors in the city, who retired in Nov. 2004. (Murray refused to comment on the latest developments at the church.) Murray had arrived at the historic church in 1977 with outstanding credentials:
After graduation from Florida A&M University, he joined the U.S. Air Force and served during the Korean War as a jet radar intercept officer in the Air Defense Command and as a navigator in the Air Transport Command. He retired as a reserve major in 1958 after 10 years and was decorated with a Soldier’s Medal of Valor for smothering the flames consuming the pilot after an explosion in their two-seater fighter. With 90 percent of his body burned, the pilot succumbed a few weeks later.
After the Air Force, Murray attended the School of Theology at Claremont College, earning a Ph.D. in religion. (He would receive a second doctorate in humane letters from Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles in May 2007.)
In 1977, when Murray arrived to take over at First A.M.E., it was a debt-ridden church with only 300 members, but a year before he left in 2004, the congregation had swelled to almost 18,000.
In contrast to Murray’s openness in dealing with church business matters, some members saw a paucity of information concerning major church projects under Hunter, and he initiated a requirement that employees and officers sign confidentiality agreements.
It is reported that there has been a constant stream of members leaving the church since such activities began. As one parishioner put it, “there was turmoil from the beginning. And much of it was very public. When he inherited the church, we were packed every Sunday. Now there are seats everywhere.”
Hunter had been pastor in Seattle, Wash., and charges that he had misused church funds trailed him to Los Angeles.
According to a Nov. 11, 2009 OurWeekly article, “in July of 2006, E.W. Briggs, founder of a group called AME Justice, posted a message on the website, FAMEGate.net., regarding attempts by some people in Hunter’s previous Seattle church (the Save our Church Committee) to have Hunter removed by the A.M.E. Ministerial Efficiency Committee. The letter accused the pastor of depleting the church’s housing reserve and firing people who disagreed with him.
“The then-presiding bishop declined to bring up the matter before the committee.
“Briggs, who is not a member of FAME but attended the church regularly when retired pastor Cecil L. Murray served in the pulpit, said that his organization received a box full of documents in a ‘heads-up’ move from the Seattle church.”
In late 2008, Hunter admitted that he had used First A.M.E.’s credit card to rack up $122,000 in personal debt on such items as jewelry, suits, vacations and auto supplies, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Hunter publicly apologized for embarrassing the church and says he is paying the money back,” said the Times article, published on Aug. 2, 2009.
“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.”
The article noted that a group at FAME had asked for an “outside independent audit of the church’s financial condition.”
Hunter dismissed some of the charges as lies and said that he was repaying the unauthorized charges in installments.
Kirkland at that point in 2009 supported Hunter. “Currently, I am satisfied with the direction in which the church is going, and Pastor Hunter has my support, he wrote,” according to the Times.
Another controversy arose over two business loans involving the FAME Assistance Corp., but Hunter said neither he nor his wife was involved in those decisions, although they happened under his leadership.
But what may have been most damaging for both the pastor and the church was a civil suit filed in late 2009 by the Rev. Brenda Lamothe, an executive assistant to Hunter, charging that he forced her to have sex with him over a four-year period. Lamothe alleged that Hunter told her it was “God’s will” for her to satisfy his desires. She said he used his power over her as an employer to coerce her into the acts, which occurred in the church office, local hotels and in various places out of the state. After four years, she said, she would no longer comply. At that point, Hunter fired her, she said.
Although the terms of Lamothe’s settlement was not made public, one parishioner believed the church had to pay out millions of dollars.