By Lee Hubbard
and Post Staff
Parishioners at Bethel AME church in San Francisco were surprised when they arrived in church this past Sunday morning for the 8 a.m. service.
Sitting next to Presiding Elder Dr. William Bartalette Finney was the Rev. Dr. John J. Hunter, the new minister who is slated to lead Bethel. The members were surprised because they had rejected his attempts to enter Bethel’s front doors the previous week.
The pews were moderately filled with close to 100 people.
As the service proceeded, Rev. Cynthia Joseph announced that Presiding Elder Dr. Bartalette Finney would preach the Sunday Sermon.
Finney, however, announced slowly, “Your Rev. John J. Hunter, the newly assigned pastor of Bethel AME Church will be giving this Sunday’s sermon.”
As Hunter took the microphone to give his sermon, he began singing, “God has been good to me,” while most of the members of the church congregation walked out of church in protest and went to the adjacent Browning Fellowship Hall.
“I was appalled that Rev. Hunter was sitting in the pulpit,” said a church member who didn’t want to be identified. “He snuck up in the church.”
Hunter had been ushered in through the church’s back door so the members could not see his entrance.
Meanwhile, Hunter preached from the 44th Psalm in the Bible, a sermon entitled, “Your Testimony Didn’t Begin with You.”
He said God helps to give people a “deeper understanding of where you need to be.” One unidentified member said Hunter didn’t need to be at Bethel.
Hunter was the pastor at First AME Church in Los Angeles from 2004 to last month, when AME Fifth District Bishop T. Larry Kirkland reassigned him on Oct. 28 from FAME to Bethel AME in San Francisco.
In the shuffle, Bethel AME’s pastor over the past 20 years, Rev. J Edgar Boyd, was reassigned to FAME.
This re-assignment stirred controversy however.
The Bethel AME Board of Stewards crafted a resolution to Bishop Kirkland, requesting the formation of a conciliation committee to consider Bethel’s concerns regarding Rev. Hunter.
The Board of Stewards rejected the assignment of Hunter based on reports of his involvement in a sexual harassment lawsuit, a federal tax investigation and questionable use of church credit cards at FAME LA over the past eight years.
Attitudes further hardened after Hunter failed to meet with a group of Bethel AME church leaders who were attending a district conference in Los Angeles.
Hunter arrived in San Francisco the following week where he was presented with the rejection letter at his hotel. He said he would “go back to LA” since he was not wanted by Bethel AME.
However, the next day, during the Sunday 8 a.m. service, he tried to walk into the church. He was met by church members who demanded he show them his assignment papers.
Hunter did not have his papers, and he left the church, which created a firestorm of action.
An emergency church meeting took place later in the week between Bishop Kirkland and members of Bethel when Kirkland flew to San Francisco to listen to their concerns.
At the time, Bishop Kirkland said Hunter “was a preacher in good standing” and that there should be an open dialogue between Bethel’s Board of Stewards and Hunter.
This dialogue had not taken place when Hunter took the pulpit, the first time most people in the church congregation had seen or heard from him.
Between the 8 a.m. and the 11 a.m. Sunday church services, an impromptu meeting took place in the Browning Fellowship Hall. Members of the Bethel Board of Stewards talked about the church “walk out” and the presence of Hunter at the church.
During this time Hunter walked through the hall and tried to talk to skeptical congregants. He said he was shocked he had been reassigned to Bethel after 8 years at FAME, without talking to Bishop Kirkland.
He said he held no “ill will to some of the congregants of the church.”
“Perhaps this is a not a good marriage, but we find ourselves here today,” he said. “But put yourself in my shoes.”
Hunter began to try to explain what he had been going through and said that the ordeal of the transfer and the church’s reaction to the transfer had affected his health. He was then asked to go upstairs and talk to the Board of Stewards in private.
“This entire ordeal is a mess,” said another Church congregant. “We went from Pastor Boyd, a man with great respect and character, to Hunter who has had some troubles as a pastor in his past.”
To further exacerbate the situation, some members were disturbed to hear that Hunter had filed a challenge to the Bishop’s authority to reassign him to Bethel.
He said he wants to be re-instated to the pulpit at FAME.
Bethel was served with a copy of Hunter’s filing, which appealed to the AME Judicial Council to reverse Bishop Kirkland’s decision to remove him from FAME. He charged Kirkland with maladministration.
Several members have said they will continue to walk out or stop attending Bethel until Hunter is removed. One member said, “If you can’t come to the pulpit through the front door with dignity, why should we accept a pastor who slips and slides in through the back door to lead us from the back alley.
“It seems as if Hunter’s playing us in his legal challenges, so he can set up a possible financial settlement for himself,” the member said. “We seem to be just pawns, not parishioners. He’s seeking FAME, not Bethel.”