Former First AME pastor scores small victory in church fight

The Rev. John J. Hunter, who last fall was abruptly reassigned as pastor of the oldest black church in Los Angeles, scored a small but significant victory in his petition to reclaim the helm of First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

A nine-member church judicial panel partly sided with Hunter and found that his new church, Bethel San Francisco, was out of line when it physically blocked him from taking the pulpit.

The committee -- the African Methodist Episcopal denomination's equivalent of a Supreme Court -- has not yet issued a decision on the most contentious charge made by Hunter that Bishop T. Larry Kirkland violated the Minister's Bill of Rights by abruptly transferring him without the proper 90-day notice.

A ruling in Hunter's favor could give the 55-year-old pastor the support he needs to get reinstated as the head of First AME, a position he has held for the last eight years.

Patricia Mayberry, president of the judicial council, declined to comment because the case is ongoing and did not say when a final decision will be made.

Hunter has maintained that his reassignment was improper and that church law requires him to be moved to a church of equal or greater status. Bethel San Francisco's congregation is 650 members, compared with the 19,000-member church in Los Angeles.

When he showed up in San Francisco, church officials handed him an emergency resolution that barred him from taking control. On the morning he was slated to make his debut, congregants lined the steps of the church to keep him from entering.

Those unprecedented actions, the judicial council ruled, violated AME denomination guidelines. The committee also admonished Bethel's presiding elder for aiding the congregation's efforts against Hunter, according to church officials.

But they did not sanction Bethel, and San Francisco church officials said the ruling was little more than a slap on the wrist.