(Photo: Northland Church)
Thousands gathered at a memorial service in Florida on Saturday to pay tribute to Pastor Isaac Hunter, who was remembered by his daughter as a "hero" despite "some pretty awful choices" he made last year. The founder and former pastor of Summit Church in Orlando died of an apparent suicide Tuesday.
The service was held "to celebrate the life" of Hunter on Saturday morning at Northland, A Church Distributed in Longwood, Fla., whose senior pastor is his father, Joel C. Hunter, a former member of President Barack Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Isaac Hunter's daughter, Jada, shared her thoughts before the congregation, saying her father was a "hero," although he "made some pretty awful choices this past year," according to Orlando Sentinel.
Hunter is survived by his wife, Rhonda, and three children, one of whom is Jada.
Jada recalled how her father taught her fishing and would take her out for pizza, which she loved. Attending the service were members of both Northland and Summit churches.
Hunter was also remembered for his life and ministry.
He lived his life "full throttle," Hunter's longtime friend, Chad Turnbull, was quoted as telling the congregation.
Hunter believed in God's ability to change people's lives and use them for His ministry. "God can use the imperfect, young, wet-behind-the-ears seminary students," Turnbull recalled Hunter as saying once. "He could see the butterfly in the caterpillar," he said. "He could see the saint in the sinner."
"Isaac never wanted people to be impressed by him," Hunter's uncle, Mark Beeson, added. "He always wanted them to be impressed by God."
After news broke of 36-year-old Hunter's death, Kay Warren, co-founder of Saddleback Church in Southern California with her husband, Rick Warren, tweeted, saying: "My heart is broken for the Joel Hunter family in the loss of their beloved Isaac. No words, just tears."
Many who could not attend the service on Saturday paid their tributes on the Northland church's Facebook page.
"We went to Northland in the 90's, and our kids were the same ages as Joel and Becky. What a tragedy to have this happen! We pray this doesn't discourage Joel from continuing the mission he has for the Northland congregation," wrote someone named Michele Anne Bess.
"Isaac was the best pastor I've connected with," wrote a Ryan Coombs.
"Isaac loved us all and ministered to me at Summit from day one," said another comment named Pamela Devaul.
"I always remember him saying, 'God is crazy nuts in love with you!'" said yet another commenter, Kelsie Etheridge. "That small quote changed my life. I always knew God loved me just not to that extent! Praying for the Hunter family."
During Hunter's tenure at Summit Church, which began in 2002, the church became one of the fastest-growing churches in Central Florida. However, he resigned as pastor last December after admitting to an affair.
"As a son of Northland's pastor and a founder of Summit Church, Isaac was known and loved by countless people," wrote Dr. Dan Lacich, a Northland pastor, on the church's website. "Being followers of Christ does not eliminate the grieving we do in times like this, but as Paul says, we do not grieve like those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). We grieve in the light of the resurrection promised in Christ."
A question that inevitably comes up is about the state of a person's soul, Lacich said. "It is understandable that people wonder, 'Can you still go to heaven if you take your own life?' Let me say clearly and without equivocation that the answer is yes. The Bible is clear that there is only one sin that is unforgivable," he added, referring to Mark 3:28-29, where Jesus says: "Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin."
Northland's Children's Ministries Team also wrote a note on the church's website for parents.
"No mention of suicide is necessary," it reads. "However, if specific questions arise, know that at Northland, we believe that the Bible teaches that God's mercy, grace and great love fully extend to all who believe in His Son Jesus, regardless of the circumstances (Romans 8:38-39). Remember that your child will take his or her emotional cues from you and will be comforted and feel more secure when you show your trust and confidence in God's presence, love and leading in the midst of this situation."
The Northland church has created an Isaac Hunter Memorial Trust to accept gifts for the general financial and educational needs of Rhonda Hunter and her children.