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Obama's Spiritual Adviser Speaks in Shelby, Ohio

SHELBY -- Last week he was sitting comfortably in the Oval Office, but the Rev. Joel Hunter said returning to Shelby this weekend will be an exciting honor, too. Shelby, his hometown, will keep him busy.

Friday night, the spiritual adviser to President Barack Obama spoke at Shelby High School's graduation. Hunter is a 1966 Shelby graduate. At 9:15 a.m. Sunday, he will preach at the First United Methodist Church, where he grew up.

"I went there every Sunday with my grandmother," Hunter said. "I've been in ministry over 40 years, but always think of myself as a kid from Shelby who has a really good foundation."

When he attended Ohio University in the 1960s, Hunter said he never imagined he'd end up in ministry.

"But I was part of the civil rights movement and when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, I felt crisis," Hunter said.

He recalled the words of a former pastor of his Shelby church: "Nothing will be right in the world until you take care of the sin in your own heart."

Hunter began attending the chapel at OU and said he felt a calling from God. He eventually changed his college path, went into ministry and became one of the most prestigious pastors in the country. Hunter is senior pastor at Northland Church, in Longwood, Fla., a church where he grew membership from 200 to more than 15,000.

"I don't really know what to attribute it to," he said. "Every day you go in and try to do the right thing, and God arranges the rest."

Hunter has gained national attention through his relationship with the president.

"About four years ago, I was featured in an article in the New York Times," he said. "Following that article, then-Senator Obama called me and said, 'I want to catch up with you.' He wanted to know what I thought was the right relationship between faith communities and government."

The pair met again at a spiritual event. Afterward, Hunter said, an Obama staff member asked if he would pray for the future president.

"I walked out to a hallway and figured there would be 50 pastors there, but it was just he and I," Hunter said. "Since then, he's asked me to pray for him at major events in his life. The night he was elected president, I was on the phone praying for him."

Since his election, Hunter said, Obama has asked him to write devotions for him every week.

"Our relationship isn't political, it's pastoral. I've simply become a pastoral voice in his life," Hunter said. "I'm very aware of his position and where God has put him in life, but a pastor's life is very simple. Our job is to help anyone who needs to get closer to the Lord. That's my job, no matter who you are.

"Here's the most powerful person in America, but the pastor part of me says, 'Here's just another person who wants to get help.'"

Hunter's Sunday speech is open to the public.

The Rev. Tom Snyder said many local people have fond memories of Hunter.

"This is a great way for the older folks to reconnect and for others to hear from a wonderful man of God," he said.

Hunter will attend the service at 22 S. Gamble St. with his wife, Becky.

"I'm going to talk about lifelong lessons learned from Shelby, Ohio," he said. "I'd like to give people a broader perspective of how God uses us in broader ways than we can think."

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