Northland church Pastor Joel Hunter trades pulpit for nonprofit to aid homeless

Joel Hunter has been one of Central Florida’s foremost religious leaders, synonymous for more than three decades with Longwood’s evangelical megachurch Northland, A Church Distributed.

But within the next couple of months, Hunter, 69, plans to step down from the calling he once thought he would devote the rest of his life to and start a new ministry for the poor and homeless.

Hunter, who gained national fame when he delivered a prayer at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver and joined a religious advisory council to President Barack Obama, said Thursday it’s time to move from interpreting what Jesus preached to emulating the life he lived.

“I’ve always had a heart for equality and making sure everyone is respected and has their due,” he said. “At this point, it needs to happen beyond what the institutional church can do.”

Already chairman of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, Hunter will add the position of board chairman of the new Community Resource Network to his resume.

He and his wife, Becky, will work with Central Florida churches and other religious organizations to help homeless families and those on the brink.

Orlando attorney John Morgan, best known for his firm’s commercials and for bankrolling the successful push to legalize medical marijuana in Florida, and his wife, Ultima, are donating $1 million to the Community Resource Network.

“There is a sweetness and a gentleness in Joel Hunter that makes him more Christlike than some of the phony baloneys [preachers] that I see on TV,” Morgan said. “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.”

Over the years, Hunter’s gentle, earnest style helped Northland grow from a few hundred members to an audience of 20,000 people, including some who watch services online in senior centers, jails and homes across the U.S. and the globe. Northland also has satellite churches in Oviedo and Eustis.

“I’m very glad and fulfilled by having built bridges between groups that wouldn’t usually have anything to do with each other,” he said.

In 2006, he was named president of the Christian Coalition of America, the successor to religious broadcaster Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. But he resigned before assuming the post when he realized he wouldn’t be able to broaden the organization’s agenda to issues he said “Jesus would want us to care about,” such as poverty, the environment and health care.

Critics called him a liberal, although his views on hot-button topics, including same-sex marriage and abortion, remained conservative. But as early as his college years at Ohio University, the Rev. Martin Luther King inspired Hunter. He decided to devote his life to the ministry when King was assassinated in 1968.

He spent 15 years as a pastor at a United Methodist Church in Indiana before coming to Northland in 1985, when the congregation worshiped at a converted skating rink.

In the past few years, Hunter has launched an interfaith initiative on climate change, united with black ministers to address race relations, joined a coalition on environmental stewardship and opened his church to discussions about homeless schoolchildren, gun violence, sex trafficking and capital punishment. The church in 2012 also hosted a talk by former first lady Michelle Obama promoting the importance of exercise and healthy eating.

The approach cost Northland some members, Hunter said in an interview with in 2013 with Religion News Service, but it did not dampen his resolve.

“Joel had to contend with people not liking his liberalism,” said the Rev. Bryan Fulwider of the nonprofit Building US, which operates the Interfaith Council of Central Florida, and a longtime friend of Hunter. “[But] he’s not giving up his faith. He’s leaning into it more deeply.”

Hunter was especially shaken by the June 2016 shooting at the Orlando gay nightclub Pulse and regretted not reaching out to the LGBT community before the mass killing. In May, Northland held a forum that did just that, inviting a diverse group of clergy and community members to hear a talk by a group that advocates for LGBT inclusion in churches.

“He’s an amazing pastor — a very kind and understanding person,” said Gerald Betts, 67, of Winter Springs, who has attended services with his wife, Wendy, for about eight years. “He’s the type of person that if he says something, you can believe it.“

Messages from the senior pastor’s flock wishing him well and saying how much they’ll miss them rolled in after his impending departure was announced on Northland’s website and Facebook page Wednesday and a letter from him posted Thursday.

He told the Orlando Sentinel he’ll help the church devise a transition plan but plans to leave within a couple of months.

sjacobson@orlandosentinel.com