First AME Church in dire financial state

Written By kolimtiga on Kamis, 22 November 2012 | 12.56

First African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the oldest black congregations in Los Angeles, faces a financial crisis, owing roughly $300,000 to a long list of creditors, church officials said.

Revelations of the money problems come amid declining membership and tithing under the leadership of a controversial former pastor, the Rev. John J. Hunter, who was reassigned following a tax investigation, a sexual harassment lawsuit and questionable use of church credit cards.

The new pastor, the Rev. J. Edgar Boyd, spoke to reporters Wednesday morning outside the storied church that became the pulse of the black community after the 1992 Los Angeles riots. He vowed to restore the image and glory of the church and investigate financial mismanagement that may have occurred under Hunter.

He said he is willing to take legal action if necessary.

"This local congregation will undergo a thorough and comprehensive reorganization to protect the precious resources which have been and will be entrusted to its care," he said. "We are preparing and re-tooling."

About 50 worshipers stood by his side. Many said later they were shocked by news of the church's dire financial state.

Boyd said he has not been paid since the reassignment earlier this month and had to pay for his own moving expenses.

"I didn't know it was this bad," said longtime member Julie Jackson, 65. "This is devastating."

Boyd did not detail the extent of the financial problems at Wednesday's news conference, but was more candid in a recent private meeting with church officials. He named the various creditors the church owes, a list that includes gas and electricity companies, as well as other necessities essential to keeping the church operating, according to several board members who attended the meeting.

Boyd took the helm of First AME after spending 20 years preaching at Bethel AME San Francisco. During his time there he grew the church's assets from $12 million to more than $80 million, according to Bishop T. Larry Kirkland.

Hunter was reassigned to Bethel AME in San Francisco, a move welcomed by many in his Los Angeles congregation. His critics said he was inaccessible, overspent on personal security guards and lived in Encino, rather than in South L.A., where the church is located. Attendance, tithings and the church's activist profile all declined under his tenure, they said.

After transferring to the Bay Area, Hunter was poorly received by the congregation of Bethel AME and the church's officials made it clear they did not want him in the pulpit.

In a phone interview with The Times, Hunter denied that First AME's financial problems are the result of any wrongdoing on his part. He said that when he took control of First AME in 2004, the church was in a similar, if not a worse, financial state.

The church owed about $325,000 and the sanctuary was in poor condition. Hunter said he had to replace the leaky roof and install new pews.

"I chose to build on a 100-year-plus ministry that preceded me," Hunter said. "I will not join my successor in the gutter of character assassination."

Hunter said that the economic recession dealt a crushing blow, resulting in dwindling tithes during his eight-year tenure. But he said this is a problem many churches are facing nationwide.

"Debt is a part of ministry; bills are a reality," Hunter said. "This may be overwhelming for a pastor who comes from a congregation of several hundred."

His supporters said that Hunter could never escape the shadows of the larger-than-life persona of the Rev. Cecil "Chip" L. Murray. Under Murray, who led the congregation for 27 years, the church swelled to 19,000 members and became a social, political and civil powerhouse that tackled the needs of the black community.

Though church members expressed worry, many said they remain hopeful that Boyd will help turn things around.

"We are going to get back on track to those glory days," said member Beverly King. "All we needed was leadership."

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