Coffee With George: Joel Hunter on his journey of faith, helping homeless, relationship with Barack Obama
ORLANDO SENTINEL - by George Diaz Tuesday, October 9, 2018
Joel Hunter walks the walk of spirituality and faith with scars that have tested his devotion to a higher power in this universe.
He lost his five-year-old granddaughter Ava to a rare form of brain cancer in 2010.
He lost his son Isaac Hunter, 36, who died of a self-inflicted shotgun wound just weeks before Christmas in 2013.
Tragedies can either break a man and his faith, or make it stronger. Joel Hunter has chosen the latter path.
A longtime pastor at Northland Church in Seminole County, Hunter left the church in August of 2017 not because his faith had been questioned.
It was simply a case of a higher calling: To help the homeless and the marginalized without the institutional constraints.
Alongside his wife Becky, Hunter started the Community Resource Network, a nonprofit organization, to help those in need of a hand up with more of a personal touch.
And it simply adds to an impressive resume that includes serving as a spiritual advisor to former President Barack Obama, and Chairman of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness.
“There is a sweetness and a gentleness in Joel Hunter that makes him more Christ-like than some of the phony baloneys [preachers] that I see on TV,” local attorney John Morgan said after donating $1 million to the start-up nonprofit. “I just believe that there’s people that talk the talk and there’s people who walk the walk, and Joel Hunter is the latter to me. Obviously, we believe in the mission. But it’s as important to believe in the missionary.”
A year later, Hunter looks back with no regrets. He told me why when we caught up for breakfast at First Watch in Maitland last Friday.
Coffee with George was superseded by breakfast with one of the best persons I know in the Central Florida community.
Talk about the journey and what the last year has been like for you?
It has been a pure learning experience. I’ve spent almost 50 years as a church pastor and that institution has a culture all its own. With all those pluses and minuses you know what your role is; you know what you’re doing. I decided to do this because I had a heart for the marginalized. I came into the church because of the Civil Rights movement. It’s been a huge part of my ministry for the last 50 years. And I got to the place where I thought to myself, ‘Great, I don’t need a paycheck any more. I can do what I want to do. This is what I want to do.’
And then right toward the end when we’re about to launch into this, even though I have the formal roles in the community where it makes sense, even though I had been doing this in some way in the community, when you stare at it, I’ve got a start-up organization that deals mostly with including the faith community in aspects of supporting the marginalized, especially the homeless. Two hours before my last sermon, President Obama calls me and says ‘What are you doing?’ and I said ‘I am going to be a unpaid community organizer. You were a community organizer. What am I doing? I have absolutely no idea’ And so we had a good laugh and talked it through.
It was one of those things where I knew it was the right thing to do. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I’ve always loved to learn. I’ve always loved to start something and adjust it as needed as I go along. So it’s been a fantastic ride. I have a small staff that’s really good. And we’ll always be that way. We’re not a provider organization. I just want to network those people who can be involved with different aspects of providing services for the homeless. So far so good.
Have the expectations met the reality given a year of perspective?
We have done much more and gone much farther and faster than I anticipated. Partially because of my role as chairman of the commission, partly because of kindness of Orlando Magazine ranking me among the 50 most powerful people in Orlando, partly of because of the relationships I’ve developed for years, this start-up organization has been recognized by the commission and a national consultant Barbara Poppe, as the lead agency when it comes to family homelessness. Those are families that are precariously housed, which are 80 percent of the homeless in our region. I say this with ambivalence: We are in the enviable position of immediately being recognized for the kind of leadership we’re not prepared for.
There’s some pressure to put things together. We are working with a data platform that will inventory and coordinate all of the resources and relationships that the faith community is willing to provide with those agencies that are already doing a great job. It’s taken a year to build the first phase of it. Nothing is like that in the nation.
Our partner is Spirit, which is a huge database provider for Osceola and Orange County. It will coordinate with all those systems already used in the governmental world and provide a firewall for the faith communities that deal with populations that need to keep their privacy while they seek help. It will allow us to give comprehensive assistance to people who are due services, legitimate services, and just don’t know who to do that. We will provide help that is personal, that is tailored, and you won’t have to wait for months and then get turned down.
All you’re doing is connecting people then?
Exactly. And that can involve something like Social Security benefits to finding somebody who can fix your car, because that’s the only problem you’ve got. And there are Christians who said, ‘Hey, I’m willing to donate three hours a week and I live here,’ and we can tailor it precisely to people’s needs. We’re pretty enthusiastic about the potential.
Did you feel trapped if you will, within the institution that you’ve mentioned several times?
Very much. Very much so. Any institution starts out with a great mission but as time goes on the demands of the organization supersede the efforts toward the mission. And the church is notorious for that. They start out wanting to help people, and then you start worrying about whether you will have enough money.
So instead of counting how many people you are helping, you start counting the nickels and the noses of the people who are attending. The church gives only a fraction of what it takes in to truly needy people. And that’s a frustration because it spends much of its attention and resources for the insider. It became about breaking free from the bonds of the institution. And this is true not only for the church. This is true for all institutions. It’s about a sense of freedom; a sense of re-focus on what’s really important. And the fact that I don’t need a paycheck any more is wonderful.
Can you take us back with your spiritual journey? Was there a defining moment somewhere along the line?
I grew up in an all-white town, Shelby, Ohio. No black people. No brown people. No Jewish people to speak of. There was one Jewish person, she was my Latin teacher. So it was WASPs and some Catholics. When I went to college, I immediately became involved in the Civil Rights movement. When MLK’s assignation happened, I came to a crisis of faith. I decided I was going to give my whole life not only to the Lord, but fighting for the inclusion of marginalized people, fighting against prejudice as much as I could. Growing up I knew there was a lot of unnoticed prejudice in my life that people face. The Pulse incident taught me that.
The best place to influence people was through the church because that’s what MLK did, that was his vehicle. So I decided to give it a shot to see if it worked, and it did. Over the years I did some things that got me in trouble. There was always tension. I was always trying to get the church to do things that weren’t conventional and weren’t conservative. But we had a good run and had a good life and loved our congregation. The only problem we had was the religious authorities who were very concerned about the nickels and noses.
You’ve been labeled a liberal by some. Does that make you laugh, cry, cringe?
It’s great because when you’re labeled a liberal by conservatives and you’re labeled as a conservative by liberals, then you’re probably in the right place. I’m a theologically conservative evangelical. That takes me on the side of compassion and inclusion much more than it takes me on the side of let’s keep our own and exclude those who aren’t like us. I try not to get too complicated with theology or labeled-oriented with political stances. I let the chips fall where they may. I’m not overly concerned with being labeled a Commie-pinko or whatever the old terms was. We need to include the gay community because we have been hurtful and judgmental. We need to especially do what we can for communities that face barriers that us old white guys don’t face.
It used to bother me because I knew it would worry my wife, but it is what it is. That’s what leadership is. Leadership isn’t popularity. It’s telling people what they don’t want to hear.
What’s it like being a spiritual advisor to the president of the United States? What exactly did that entail?
It was an absolute delight. We spoke on the phone when he was just beginning to run for president. And his question was, ‘how can the faith-based community and government work together?’ We spoke for about 30 minutes. I told him that I was glad he was asking the questions because faith-based community is probably the most under-utilized source in this country for meeting social needs. And it’s because we have not made ways for them to partner in with government on significant issues.
I ended up getting invited to ask some questions during the presidential debate. I had just finished asking Hillary Clinton a question and I feel this person sneaking up beside me, and he asked, ‘’Will you come and pray with Senator Obama before he goes on?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ So we go down through the catacombs of this university and I am thinking there’s going to be 20 of us. And it was just me and him. I can’t remember what the issue was, but I told him, “Senator I know you’ve had a tough week in the press.’ He stopped: “No, I am fine. The single mom who is trying to put food on the table, she had a rough week. I am fine.’
Fast-forward to several other things. He invited me to say the benedictory prayer at the Democratic National Convention. That worried the bejeebers out of me because was a card-carrying Republican at that time. I got all these warnings from leaders in the Christian community. They knew what I was doing. This one, I won’t mention the name because you would know it, said, ‘I want you to talk to Billy Graham before you do that.’ So I did. By this time Billy is old and feeble. I asked him ‘Should I do this?’ And he said, ‘You’re a pastor aren’t you?’ I said ‘Yes.’ “Well, when somebody asks a pastor to pray, you pray. It’s that simple.’
When we met in the Oval Office, we didn’t talk politics. We talked about his family. We talked about his faith. And when I asked him to pray, he never asked for a prayer for himself. He would ask for prayers for the people who were really struggling, people who had written letters to him.
When I went through the tragedies in my family, when my 5-year-old granddaughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor that killed her 10 weeks later, he was the first person to call me. And he said, ‘Joel, what can we do?” I just burst into tears and told him there was nothing he could do. He then said, ‘Well, I want you to know that Michelle and I are praying for you.’ As I finally was able to talk after losing it, he turned the tables on me, and he became my pastor. He told me, ‘I want you to remember you’re not going through this without God. God is right there with you.’ It was a neat moment of mutual encouragement.
You can take a hard pass on this, but when you talk about the tragedies in your life, are you OK to talk about your son Isaac?
Isaac was more like me than my other sons, so I always knew what he was thinking. So we have this long history of alcoholism in our family. And our guys always knew about it. I knew I couldn’t drink because there is something in me mentally and probably physiologically that is prone to addiction, especially alcohol. We never had alcohol in our house.
I was a big cheerleader for Isaac’s ministry. It was a remarkable ministry, even when he was making some bad decisions in the later years. But unbeknownst to his mom and me, he had become an alcoholic. A very high-functioning alcoholic. And because of that not only did he make bad decisions, but he became more and more despondent and depressed. It was too late by the time we got there. He had moments when he went to AA; he had moments when he went to a rehab center, but he just relapsed and got to the place where he took his own life.
His mom and I could look back and say, ‘He wasn’t himself. He never would have done that. He wouldn’t have left his kids. He was a good dad. But his mom and I have gotten through it because we have this incredible gift of faith and we can see things that happen.
Had he been driving and drinking and killed someone else, it would have been the most horrifying thing. So maybe God could see some possibilities that were even worse. We have no doubt about it. We have no doubt about his salvation. It’s how we believe. We have this incredible trust in God that God really did work his best plan for Isaac for and for all of us.