Bethel AME Church in S.F. Reject New Pastor John J. Hunter Due to His Reputation

Bethel AME Church in S.F. Reject New Pastor John J. Hunter Due to His Reputation

Many of  the 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.

Though Hunter was slated to make his pastoral debut at Bethel AME this month, church officials want an emergency resolution which would bar him from taking control. They said the assignment could “impair the legacy, reputation, relationships and goodwill” of the church in the community.

When Hunter showed up at the church on Nov. 4  and 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.’

Since 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.