The high profile reassignment of Pastor John Hunter from First AME—L.A.’s oldest and most storied congregation—to Bethel AME San Francisco in late October ignited a firestorm of controversy in the AME church. Articles and allegations in the L.A. Times added fuel to the flames. As did harsh words, scandal, a lawsuit, and an official challenge, much of which had been directed just as much to First Lady Denise Hunter as her husband.
Ironically enough, just six months ago, Denise Hunter had been named one of the city’s most fascinating Angelenos in L.A. Weekly’s People 2012 issue and “a rising Democratic darling” relative to her grassroots campaign skills and connections.
It is easy to see why Hunter scored high marks for her tireless community advocacy given her roll in First Lady Michelle Obama’s local “Let’s Move” campaign, the produce market she established as a venue for fresh fruits and vegetables in the community, the key role she played in Kamala Harris’s successful bid to become the state’s first female attorney general, and efforts like First AME’s Annual Back to School Giveaway and Health Fair—which drew over 5,000 attendees yearly.
Not afraid of controversy, she partnered with Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas last year to spearhead an STD prevention program to address the alarming rates of Chlamydia in South Los Angeles affecting black and Hispanic youth. Concerned for the images of blacks and the church on television, she backed Cedric The Entertainer in his letter writing bid for a second season of the TV Land Network’s “Soul Man” TV series.
Today, the image that most concerns her is that of mother, Christian and respected political consultant, which she feels has been mischaracterized in the press.
For his part, Pastor John Hunter has filed a three-part challenge with the AME Judicial Council, which has already ruled in their favor on two of the three causes for action and is awaiting a ruling on the third.
In the meantime, L.A. Focus sat down with Denise Hunter. Her lawyers instructed her not to discuss the December 6 lawsuit First AME Church filed against both she and her husband, and have instead provided a statement. She was free, however, to set the record straight on many of the other allegations and mischaracterizations that had been dogging the couple.
When did you and your husband first learn you were being moved?
We learned we were being moved at the close of the Southern California annual conference—October 29—in a public forum at the same time as everyone else.
What was the reason given for the move?
There was never a reason given for the move, which was most disconcerting for us. The discipline of the AME church requires a pastor be given a 90-day notice he is going to be moved and receive in writing the reason why. This requirement in the discipline was never met. What happened in our case was that Bishop Kirkland basically sent out a form letter to all of the ministers in the Fifth District that said you’re subject to being moved without any specificity.
Did you accompany your husband to San Francisco?
No, I wasn’t feeling well and had planned to go the following week.
What do you think of the treatment of your husband by Bethel AME church members?
For people who call themselves Christians, it is unconceivable to me to treat someone the way they did, particularly in challenging someone’s assignment.
There were any number of ways they could have communicated their concern about his assignment that weren’t so harmful — a telephone call, email. But to know he was coming, pick him up at the airport and then arrange a public meeting in the lobby of a hotel in front of his 12-year old daughter… No one can tell me this was appropriate behavior.
In that sense, I believe it was meant to be a media spectacle to disparage my husband.
What was interesting was that he said they drove him around for what seemed an inordinate amount of time and he questioned what was taking so long only to find out later they were still gathering at the hotel and needed additional time for the others to get there.
Then on the following Sunday morning, to physically block him from entering the church. This is unprecedented for the AME church. We are not a church where members block pastors from entering. That’s not a part of our culture or how we behave.
Were there any conversations between your husband and Bishop Kirkland precipitating the move or in advance of the move?
Each of us had an independent conversation with Bishop Kirkland. My husband had to show up at Bishop Kirkland’s office because there were rumors of him being moved and he was concerned Bishop Kirkland was not returning his calls, so he went to his office to have a conversation. It was during that conversation that Bishop Kirkland said he was praying about the future and would sit down with he and his presiding elder about my husband’s future. At no point in his or my conversation with Bishop Kirkland did he ever say we were being moved.
I understand that you have a contract with FAME Corporation?
Yes, I do have an employment contract with FAME Corporation.
Your husband filed a challenge with the AME Judicial Council—what was he hoping to accomplish?
Since the move was in violation of the AME doctrine and discipline, the challenge was to have the move vacated.
The AME Judicial Council has partially ruled in your favor, what does it mean?
The AME Judicial Council ruled that the officers and members of Bethel AME Church violated the discipline in their behavior as it relates to blocking Pastor John from being able to exercise his ministerial duties, to have access…keys. The Judicial Council said there actions were out of order and not consistent with the regulations of the AME church.
They also ruled Presiding Elder William Finney was out of order. He had basically supported the church by saying Pastor John could enter the church, but not the pulpit and would have to sit in the sanctuary.
The third part is Pastor John’s challenge of Bishop Kirkland for violating the Minister’s Bill of Rights as it relates to the 90-day notice, the personhood and dignity of a pastor statute and his moving my husband to a church that was not comparable or equal to the one he was moving from as required. On that they have not ruled.
What does the ruling mean?
It affirms the fact that what they did was wrong and puts us in a position to be able to seek further remedies and other avenues of recourse.
What is the most difficult part of this transition period for you?
One, having my 12-year old child observe people who call themselves Christians behave badly and to be willing to do it in front of her. It’s most disappointing that we’ve gotten to a place where we don’t even realize how our actions affect children —no sense of modeling Christian behavior at all.
Secondly, with so many lies and misrepresentations, that people who know the truth have been silent. There have been a few who have had the courage to stand up and speak what is true, but for the most part, we’ve had people tell us in private that they know what’s being said is not true, but won’t say it publicly.
More than anything, it hurt that we never got a chance to say goodbye to people we worked and labored with for the last eight years—people who we’d become very close to us. That was just egregious to me.
What of the reports you were fighting to keep the church owned house?
Absolutely untrue. Normally, the pastoral family is given 30 days to move out of the residence. Because of the sudden way we found out we were being moved, we asked for —and were granted—an additional 30 days by the trustees of FAME voted on and we operated within that timeframe. Despite that, someone came out and posted a 30-day notice on the gate— taking pictures of it in a very dramatic nature. Even as we were moving out there were members sitting outside watching us move and monitoring our actions. It’s just a very hostile and unchristlike environment that has been created.
How much of what’s being said do you believe is tied to past allegations of sexual harassment, improper use of the church credit card and a federal tax investigation?
I think all of this is a rehash of false allegations and it’s unfortunate anyone would feel—as they take over the helm of a church—the need to disparage the character of the previous pastor instead of moving forward with an agenda of their own. Bashing the character of John and Denise Hunter is a short-lived ministry.
The L.A. Times has referred more than once to a federal tax investigation into your finances—which you have stated did not happen…
I have no knowledge of a federal investigation into our finances. This is a rehashing of back taxes that were due and things being blown completely out of proportion to further an agenda of those who keep making these allegations.
What of the apology the L.A. Times reported your husband made for charges put on the church’s credit card for personal items?
My husband never apologized as an admission of wrongdoing. What he was sorry for—and the apology related to—was all of the negative press that came about because of these allegations. How much he regretted the negative attention it brought to the church.
Was there a demand made of the L.A. Times for a retraction of past inaccuracies?
Yes, there was, and in fact one of the things that happened was the church took out a full page ad in the L.A. Times where they refuted what was being said and gave their support to my husband, saying that they were very satisfied with his leadership and that there had been no wrongdoing. To this day, the L.A. Times refuses to acknowledge that or at least include it in their stories. I have no idea why.
And of the claims that you insisted on living in a $2 million home in Encino rather than closer to the L.A. community, why did you choose to live in Encino?
When we came to L.A. there was no housing and no housing preparations had been made. A committee was assigned to find housing for us and we tried everywhere …Ladera Heights, Baldwin Hills, but for various reasons, they fell through. When we moved to Encino, we were at our wit’s end. We had been in temporary housing for close to ten months and just wanted to settle down. Not knowing anything about Los Angeles, we didn’t have a certain neighborhood in mind. The home we chose was voted on and approved by the church board in what was a transparent process.
Why do you believe people have mischaracterized you and your husband?
Most people only know what they’ve seen in the L.A. Times or heard from people rehashing what they read in the L.A. Times. People who don’t really know anything about Pastor John or me.
I also believe as I’ve said that there are those who have an agenda. When we came to Los Angeles, I felt like members felt they had to choose between John Hunter and Chip Murray. That there wasn’t the opportunity to be able to embrace both and that there were those who were fueling that fire. I think that started a lot of this and set the foundation for a lot of the negativity you’ve seen play out.
What of the reports of declining membership under your husband’s leadership?
I don’t know of any decline in numbers. I always felt like we had very good attendance at FAME. No one mentions the fact that over 3000 people joined the church during the tenure of Pastor John and that’s documented with names. Nor that politicians were vying to get there and speak to the congregation, which wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have numbers.
How was the church doing before the move?
The recession was affecting it, just as it was every church in America, but the church was holding its own and on an up tick.
How do you believe you moved the church forward—what were you and your husband’s biggest accomplishments during your eight-year tenure?
Our annual back-to-school initiative drew upwards of 5,000 every year and close to 40,000 kids have been given school supplies and shoes during the time we were there. We started a produce market and when the recession hit, we did our own stimulus program for church members and gave out more than $50,000 to FAME families in order to support them through their crises. Whether it was helping them to hang onto their homes or keeping their utilities on, it was about meeting the needs of our members.
How is all of negative press affecting you and your family?
Obviously, it takes an emotional toll on you when people are saying things that aren’t true and mischaracterizing who you are, particularly in this electronic age when whatever is being said about you is all of a sudden around the world and there is little opportunity for you to be able to tell your own story.
What would you like to see happen?
Truth, justice, fair treatment for my family, but also for people to remember the commitment we made to this community. That we invested our heart and soul into the work we did. Finally for people to judge us by our deeds, not L.A. Times articles.
What do you think is the biggest misperception people have of you and your husband?
That we are takers and not givers. We are givers and I am very proud of the fact we are givers.
How is your husband handling this?
He’s handling it as well as he can but I know the spiritual and emotional toll it’s taking on him. For the record, he is still the official pastor of Bethel AME, but presently has health restrictions that limit his travel. But he certainly misses ministering to people and leading worship on Sunday morning.
For someone who has been a member of the AME church for his entire life (his father was a bishop), it has been a mainstay in his life and to see this happen this way has impacted him negatively. We go to church every Sunday, but it’s with pain recognizing that he’s currently not able to do that which he has done for almost 30 years.
How would you like people to see you?
As someone who first and foremost loves God more than anything (she breaks down crying) and has served Him to the best of my ability.