January 31, 2013
By Cora Jackson-Fossett
LAWT Religion Editor
Moving to assert his legal rights, the Rev. Dr. John J. Hunter filed a civil lawsuit on January 24 against individual members and the congregation-at-large of Bethel A.M.E. Church in San Francisco.
His charges against them allege assault, battery and libel he endured on November 4 when he arrived at the historic edifice to preach his first sermon as the new pastor following eight years as spiritual leader of First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles.
“I have taken the affirmative steps to address the wrongs that have been committed against me in the city of San Francisco by the officers and members of Bethel A.M.E. Church,” said Dr. Hunter.
“We do not give up our legal rights as citizens when we’re ministers. We still have rights not to be assaulted, not to be battered, not to be defamed. God has called us to serve, not to be doormats.”
Describing Bethel’s actions as “unprecedented,” Hunter said he was shocked by “the rudeness, the crudeness, the hostility and disrespect that they have shown consistently.
“To see God’s people behaving as they did, I was devastated and hurt that people would act as they act and reject me as their pastor based on anything they might have heard and/or read.”
Dr. Hunter and his wife, Denise, have garnered steady public attention since his appointment last October. Media across the country reported when Bethel members blocked his entry into the sanctuary and in December, the FAME congregation filed suit against the Hunters contending mismanagement of church funds and property. Earlier this month, Mrs. Hunter captured news headlines by denouncing all allegations and declaring the family’s innocence of all charges.
While the community response is far from decided, one entity, the A.M.E. Church Judicial Council, addressed Bethel’s actions. In a recent decree, the body admonished the congregation and confirmed Dr. Hunter’s assignment to the church.
“The Judicial Council ruled that the activities of the members were wrong and ordered them to cease and desist of the kind of activity they had engaged in that started on November 4, physically assaulting me, blocking me from entering the sanctuary, the publication of a resolution which had erroneous material in it that they handed to me and distributed to numerous sources including media, and then, of course, their persistent walking in and out of the service, particularly out of the service when the word of God has been proclaimed,” Dr. Hunter said.
Despite the tenuous relationship with the members, Dr. Hunter said he has preached five Sunday services since his appointment. Advised by his doctor not to travel in December, he returned to the pulpit this month and intends to perform his pastoral duties.
“I remain prayerful and will continue to serve the church I have been appointed and assigned to serve as best I can and continue to pursue my legal remedies as I have laid them out as causes of action in the lawsuit,” he said.
In addition, he vowed to wait patiently for the Judicial Council’s decision on the validity of his reassignment from FAME to Bethel.
“The whole issue of the ecclesiastic legality of my move has yet to be determined, so given that, I will reserve comment until that has been dealt with internally.
“I respect the AME Church and its processes and we do have a number of processes and procedures to deal with issues as they arise in the church. I will submit to that process until it’s completed,” said Dr. Hunter.
As for allegations contained in FAME’s lawsuit, Dr. Hunter declared, “First AME’s corporations have been audited every year. We continued to use the CPA firm that was being used prior to us. It’s necessary to do that to run the various entities.
“We could not continue to serve in the various capacities which we have served in if we were not doing it with accountability and credibility.”
Although facing several challenges on multiple levels, Dr. Hunter utilizes any spare time to contemplate his future.
“I’ve not thought about giving up on God or not participating in ministry. It’s been a time to certainly reflect.
“One of my favorite scriptures, and one I found to be true, is Romans 8:28, ‘And we know that all things work together for good to those who love the Lord and are called according to His purpose.’
“So I know in my own life, even the disappointments of life, have worked for good. God knows what God is doing and He knows what we face.
“I believe that ultimately, even this horrific chapter in my life and the life of my wife and family, will ultimately work for good and we will see the hand of the Lord in this and through this before it is all said and done.”