New Pastor Named at First AME
The Rev. John J. Hunter, who led protests against alleged police brutality and racism as head of a socially active congregation in Seattle, was named Monday to succeed the Rev. Cecil L. “Chip” Murray as senior pastor of First AME Church in Los Angeles.
The appointment to succeed the legendary Murray, 75, who is retiring after 27 years at the helm of the city’s oldest black church, was announced in St. Louis by the Right Rev. John R. Bryant, bishop in charge of all African Methodist Episcopal churches west of the Mississippi.
Bryant described Hunter as a highly creative “people person” who combines strong theological training and pastoral skills with a background in law, business management and community activism.
As a result, Bryant said he was confident that Hunter could move from an 1,800-member Seattle congregation with a $4-million annual budget to the Los Angeles church, with 18,000 members, 15 affiliated nonprofit entities and a total budget of $15 million.
In Seattle, Hunter has managed the church’s low-income housing and child development center, spoken out on several civil rights controversies and steered his congregation through a touchy debate over vacating its historic building for a new site outside central Seattle, Bryant said.
“I know in the First [AME] Church of Los Angeles, they have done a wonderful job ministering to the community at large, and I wanted someone with that kind of background,” Bryant said in explaining his selection. “I saw him as a wonderful fit.”
Under Murray, the church on Harvard Boulevard in the West Adams district grew from a small congregation to a religious and civic force with influence well beyond the black community. The church has built low-income housing, expanded feeding and jobs programs and helped steer its community through the Los Angeles riots, tense police relations and the AIDS crisis. And it has become a must-visit spot for Democratic politicians.
Hunter, who is the son of an AME bishop, was not available for an interview. But his associates in Seattle praised him as a strategic thinker, forceful civil rights advocate and good-humored conciliator.
Carl Mack, president of the NAACP in Seattle, praised Hunter for helping lead community protests in 2002 against the shootings of African Americans by Seattle-area law officers. Among other things, Hunter helped lead a march that closed down Seattle’s main freeway.
“We’ve been in some very controversial fights, and he’s stood very tall,” Mack said.
The Rev. Leslie Braxton, pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Seattle, said Hunter’s personable and conciliatory nature helped the two men forge partnerships that overcame a traditional rivalry between the city’s two largest black churches. The congregations have worked together to increase affordable housing, help families improve their financial management skills and expand early childhood educational centers.
Bryant and Braxton also praised Hunter for recognizing Seattle’s demographic shifts and proposing a controversial plan to sell the church’s historic building and relocate to an area of high black population growth. Under community protests, Hunter eventually backed down and instead opened up a satellite worship site for the suburban population.
“It was bold. It was progressive,” Braxton said of Hunter’s leadership on the issue. “To take First AME Los Angeles to the next level will require that kind of strategic thinker.”
Hunter, an Indiana native, attended Morehouse College in Atlanta. He earned his law degree at Boston University in 1983 and served as a prosecutor in Michigan, investigating white-collar and organized crime.
His biography states that he was called to preach while attending law school. He earned his divinity degree at Princeton Theological Seminary, and pastored at AME churches in Detroit, New Jersey, Kansas City, Mo., and Wichita, Kan., before taking the helm in Seattle in 1998.
Hunter also studied business administration at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and worked as a professional management consultant for a decade.
He and his wife, M. Denise Brown-Hunter, have three daughters. Bryant said Brown-Hunter worked as an executive of the Urban League in Seattle and would bring civil rights leadership and economic development skills to Los Angeles.
Asked how Hunter reacted to his selection, Bryant said: “He leapt at the chance. He was excited about the challenge.”