The Pastor of a Longwood Church Speaks for a New Style of Evangelicals
By Jay Hamburg Sentinel Staff Writer April 12, 2009
He doesn't thunder from the pulpit in righteous rage. He'd rather relay stories that make a moral point.
He has no catchphrases, fussy handlers or televised religious talk shows.
What the soft-spoken Rev. Joel Hunter of Longwood does have is an evangelical church of 12,000, a talent for building diverse coalitions and a prominent spiritual advisory role in the administration of President Barack Obama, a Democrat.
Not bad for a registered Republican who came to Central Florida in 1985 to take charge of a small flock that grew into one of the region's largest megachurches.
As Hunter delivers his three Easter sermons today at Northland, a Church Distributed, he holds a place in the national spotlight unmatched by any other faith leader in Central Florida.
But it wasn't something that seemed destined from the start.
The man who prayed with Obama on Inauguration Day lost his first preaching job when a United Methodist church in Indiana faced a crucial decision nearly 40 years ago: Should they buy new carpet or keep their youth minister, the motorcycle-riding evangelical called Pastor Joel?
New carpet won by a landslide.
"I wasn't that great a shakes," Hunter said.
But in the decades that followed, the hard-working pastor proved to be a formidable leader.
He has become a much-sought-after spokesman for a new brand of evangelicals who hope to tone down the rhetoric of culture wars while engaging in good works. Along the way, the 60-year-old pastor has sought alliances with Catholics, Jews and Muslims and irritated some traditional evangelicals, who worry that too much emphasis on social issues would nudge the Gospels to the sidelines.
While studying government and history at Ohio University, Hunter felt inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose sermons and civil-rights marches were changing the nation.
"He was my idol," Hunter said.
When King was killed in 1968, it left the 19-year-old reeling. Desperate for answers, he went into a campus chapel, knelt in prayer and gave his life to Christ. Upon rising, he had found his calling as a minister.
Four decades later, when the nation's first black president asked Hunter to join the White House's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Hunter felt a particular pride.
The invitation to the Oval Office was thrilling, yet Hunter said he doesn't have time to be distracted by the honor. He has a big flock to tend and a vow to keep his $42 million state-of-the-art church the kind of place where his mother would have felt comfortable.
An alcoholic, she had great pride in her son, the captain of the high-school football team and president of the senior class. He in turn tried to save her by pouring out her liquor and lecturing her about her drinking. His father, a factory worker, had died of cancer when Hunter was 4.
It made for a complicated life.
His grandparents, coaches and neighbors in the small northern Ohio town of Shelby made sure that Hunter had a stable place to turn when times got rough. But in the 1950s, treatment options for alcoholism were few, and nobody knew how to help his mom. She died in 1971, while Hunter was in seminary training.
"My mother had a beautiful singing voice," Hunter recalled. "Soft and resonant like Nat King Cole's. She could have been a gift to a church. The church didn't reach out to her. But Northland would. My mother would have loved Northland."
Those memories still shape his ministry.
"It's almost like redeeming that [past]," Hunter said. "I'm sensitive to those people who aren't the 'religious type,' but who have incredible God-given gifts and could be a gift to a church."
Tried to broaden agendas
In 2006, the Christian Coalition - the conservative lobby founded by Pat Robertson - invited Hunter to take the reins.
Hunter hoped to expand the group's agenda beyond fighting abortion and gay marriage. His idea was to embrace environmentalism as an act of caring for God's creation and to redefine "pro-life" to include poverty and hunger.
But it turned out to be a bad fit, and Hunter withdrew before actually taking office.
Two years later, the pastor was giving the closing benediction at the Democratic convention in Denver. He concluded his prayer in an innovative way, asking spectators to speak the blessing they would use in their own faith traditions.
D. Michael Lindsay, author of a study of evangelicals called "Faith in the Halls of Power," said the benediction was a case where a sincere effort to include many views led to "intentional ambiguity."
The sociologist at Rice University credits Hunter with "great pastoral gifts" and a style that resonates with many who want to look past endless brawls over religious hot-button issues.
"It seems he has been scratching an itch that others hadn't noticed," Lindsay said.
But some evangelicals did notice his unorthodox, all-inclusive prayer.
Bob Parker, pastor of First Baptist Church Markham Woods in Lake Mary, said Hunter missed a chance to tell the Democratic convention that "Christ is the only savior."
Parker, who headed the Moral Majority in Kentucky before coming to Central Florida, said he worries about attempts to broaden the agenda of evangelicals.
"Jesus said the way is narrow," Parker said.
At boundary of politics
Although Hunter is far from invisible in Central Florida, he has kept his distance from local elections.
"I don't think he aspires to [political prominence]," said Aubrey Jewett, associate professor of political science at University of Central Florida.
Still, Jewett notes the pastor is currently walking along the edges of political territory. "You don't accept the position of a national office unless you have an idea of influencing policy on a broader basis," he said.
Hunter said he has no plans to pursue politics but looks forward to working with Catholic, Jewish and Muslim leaders on a national level to address social ills, as he has done locally.
Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, speaks glowingly of Hunter and his wife. The imam sees little difference between the relatively unknown pastor who reached out to him about 15 years ago and the man who recently made the front page of The New York Times.
"I've seen him increase in humbleness and generosity," Musri said. "Even after September 11, when it wasn't very popular to talk to Muslims, he stood by us and spoke kindly about us from the pulpit."
Dealing with critics
Hunter rarely seems vexed by critics, but he did vent some frustration at both liberal and conservative commentators "who profit on polarization."
Speaking at an interfaith forum on torture a few months ago in Orlando, Hunter was troubled about the long-term effects of people listening to the "cottage industry of hostility" and "people who are literally paid to make people angry. People who are literally paid to create enemies, so we can feel good about ourselves."
He added: "I don't know how much the rest of the religious leaders up here have to face this, but I tell you, I get nasty, nasty, letters every time I stand up for the poor, the immigrant, the torture victims - all these compassion issues - from my own people."
Generally, though, the criticisms sting his family more.
Becky Hunter gets irked by blogs that question the Christian character of the man she knew she would marry the first time she saw him in church in 1970. One theme that troubles her: Obama uses her husband to score points with conservatives.
Both Hunters warmly praise Obama for his intellect and personality. But to those who fear the liberal and charismatic president will transform the church leader from Longwood, the pastor's wife notes firmly: "What makes you think that if Joel Hunter and Barack Obama were in a room that Joel Hunter would be the one to change his mind?"
Copyright © 2009, Orlando Sentinel
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