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Has Bishop McKinney fleeced his flock?

St. Stephen's Church of God in Christ money woes

Bishop McKinney in the pulpit. Average offerings from the 2700 families amounted to $22,000 every week.
  • Bishop McKinney in the pulpit. Average offerings from the 2700 families amounted to $22,000 every week.
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

George McKinney likes to recall how he started his church with $75 borrowed from the Beneficial Finance Company. He used the money to rent the basement of an Encanto pizza parlor and within a short time managed to create a religious center on the site. Now, 33 years later, St. Stephen’s Church of God in Christ overwhelms that stretch of Imperial Avenue. There’s a two-story sanctuary, a day-care center, classrooms for kindergartners through 12th graders, a battered women’s shelter, elderly housing. But one thing hasn’t changed.

 McKinney: "That Lexus was not my idea. The church leased it for me as a birthday gift.”

McKinney: "That Lexus was not my idea. The church leased it for me as a birthday gift.”

McKinney’s church remains in debt. By one informed estimate, it now owes about a million and a half dollars more than it commands in assets. Creditors range from elderly pensioners who bought church bonds to the IRS to a large Texas lending institution that has threatened foreclosure. A number of insiders have begun to suggest that the church’s woes stem more from McKinney’s financial mismanagement and uncontrolled ambition than they do from the low-income setting.

James Del Rio’s skin is a light-colored brown, and his features hint of Africa, but his precise racial heritage is a mystery.

James Del Rio’s skin is a light-colored brown, and his features hint of Africa, but his precise racial heritage is a mystery.

Critics also point to what they call a disturbing pattern of deceit on McKinney’s part, and they worry that his largely poor and black congregation may suffer the consequences of his actions.

No hint of those suggestions surfaced when McKinney was named “Mr. San Diego” by the Rotary Club in August. Some 450 guests attended a gala luncheon to honor the preacher, among them Pete and Gayle Wilson, Susan Golding, Neil Morgan, and 9 former Mr. San Diegos from boxer Archie Moore to banker Thomas Sefton. The 63-year-old McKinney spoke, displaying his charisma: rich baritone voice, the artful oratory, the gaze that commands and penetrates.

His personal story, which he touched upon, is cause for satisfaction. McKinney was one of 14 children bom to a poor Arkansas farmer and his wife. “My father had a third-grade education, but he developed an insatiable desire for learning,” the minister says. “He would work in the fields then come home and study by kerosene lamp.” McKinney says his father and mother conveyed their reverence for education so well that their 12 children who survived to adulthood all went to college. George graduated magna cum laude from Arkansas State University with a degree in sociology, then went on to earn a master’s in theology from Oberlin College’s Graduate School of Theology. (Years later he got a Ph.D. from the California Graduate School of Theology in Glendale.) He worked for several years as a probation officer, in Toledo then in San Diego, where he founded St. Stephen’s in 1962. By 1985 he had earned the title of bishop, supervising Southern California’s 60 congregations of the Church of God in Christ, the predominantly African-American denomination that is now the fastest-growing branch of Christianity in the United States.

At the Rotary Club luncheon, McKinney referred to some of the social service projects that his own congregation has undertaken, and when he discusses these, the bishop’s round, bearded face takes on the aspect of a solemn cherub. There is much to discuss. Teams of church members have often taken to the streets, to try to influence prostitutes and drug dealers. They’ve ventured into prisons. Every week, between 300 and 500 homeless people receive free meals, thanks to the St. Stephen’s members and other volunteers from all over San Diego who prepare the food and help distribute it.

At St. Stephen’s School, the children, dressed in somber blue and white, look studious and disciplined, even though “92 percent of them come from broken and dysfunctional homes,” McKinney asserts. “We reach maybe the one who would have been involved in the drive-by shooting. We never know. The ones we reach are the ones who are at risk. We give full scholarships to kids whose mothers or fathers die from drug overdose or gang violence or AIDS — to break the cycle of violence,” he says.

McKinney has “demonstrated what can be done with limited financial resources in the inner city to build character, self-esteem, and hope,” writes Congressman Bob Filner in a letter of endorsement, one of several by prominent San Diegans distributed by the church in its official press kit. On any given Sunday the bishop’s followers pour into the simple, light-filled sanctuary at 8:00 a.m., where many remain for the full three-hour service. They stand alert, eyes fastened on their leader, voices often breaking in with shouts of affirmation.

Most of these people don’t have much money, McKinney says, yet many dress better for their devotional duties than their counterparts in affluent white neighborhoods; tiny boys can be spotted wearing immaculate formal suits. With their pocketbooks as well as their attire, the members attest to the importance of the church. In the first seven months of 1994, average tithes and offerings from the 2700 families amounted to $22,000 every week (according to a “financial and growth profile” distributed by the church). When the school was being built in the late 1970s, many church members skipped one meal every day at McKinney’s urging and gave him the money they would have spent on food.

“He has a very high EQ,” comments James Del Rio, a former investment banker and felony criminal court judge from Michigan who retired to La Jolla and first met McKinney in the late 1970s. “People with EQ have this emotional quota.... They understand about other people. It’s sometimes called a street Ph.D.”

Like many people, Del Rio responded to McKinney’s charm by putting himself at the bishop’s service. By this past summer, he had developed a comprehensive view of the church’s finances. But he says that what he saw in the documents and in McKinney’s behavior caused him to have doubts about McKinney’s character. “I lost respect for Bishop McKinney when I could not entice him to do his Christian duty in regard to church contracts and financial matters.” Del Rio says when he questioned the bishop about the church’s problems, “He lied to me over and over and over again — and he quoted Scriptures to cover the lies!”

Today Del Rio stresses that his disillusionment with McKinney was a protracted and painful process. “I wanted to believe in him. 1 saw him as being more than just a minister,” he says. "I saw him as a minister who was reaching out to be an entrepreneur—which is what I had been preaching about for years. Besides, I liked him.” Although McKinney has come to revile Del Rio, he acknowledges that his feelings toward the former judge once were warm. The two men share some physical characteristics: both are short but commanding, with stores of abundant energy. Del Rio’s skin is a light-colored brown, and his features hint of Africa, but his precise racial heritage is a mystery. He says that he was abandoned in a trash can when he was two hours old and subsequently raised by a German Jewish foster father and his Ethiopian Jewish wife.

By the late-1960s, Del Rio had embraced an African-American identity, and was marching side by side with Martin Luther King and advising Malcolm X. “He does have a lustrous history in the area of civil rights,” McKinney concedes.

That apparently impressed McKinney, as did Del Rio’s other credentials. Before becoming a judge, he had served in the Michigan House of Representatives for 8 years, and before that he’d enjoyed a successful career in business. Del Rio says when he and McKinney first met, 15 or 16 years ago, the minister tried to get Del Rio to take part in a credit union with which McKinney and his son were involved. But Del Rio says he sensed the enterprise “wasn’t quite kosher. So I went through the pleasantries and said good-bye. I didn’t see Bishop McKinney for another 10 or 12 years.”

Del Rio didn’t interact much with San Diego’s black community throughout the 1980s, he says. Instead he busied himself working as a financial and political consultant and serving as chairman of the board of a five-acre development atop Mount Soledad. By the early ’90s, however, he had become interested in news accounts of the financial struggles of Rev. Robert Ard’s Christ Church of San Diego and Rev. Timothy Winters’s Bayview Baptist Church, both significant institutions in San Diego’s black community. Working together. Winters, Ard and Del Rio convinced Union Bank to make $30 million in loan money available to black churches. About that time, Del Rio says, he got a call from McKinney, whose church had a couple of problems, including an urgent need for cash.

For one thing, the church for more than a decade had owed money to the Internal Revenue Service. Tax collectors had come to Sunday services to claim a share of the collection plate proceeds, Del Rio says he was told by church insiders. In addition, the bishop confided that he needed money to expand the church facilities. Del Rio says he went to work looking for funds, and by July of 1993 Union Bank had offered the Encanto church a loan of $1.25 million. “That solved his problem,” Del Rio avows. The ten-year loan could have been used to refinance the existing balance of a second trust deed note and would have provided up to $750,000 to enlarge the church’s facilities, according to the letter from the bank announcing the offer.

Today McKinney disagrees with the former judge about this point. “That was not enough money to do what we needed to do,” the preacher says. Besides purchasing the mortgage and funding the construction, the church had outstanding debts, he says. So instead of accepting Union Bank’s offer, McKinney pledged the church to a much more complex commitment. In October of 1993, he signed an agreement to borrow $1,833,015 from an Amarillo, Texas company named Church Loans and Investment Trust. Known as “bridge-financing,” this money was supposed to be paid off in one year, during the course of which McKinney’s church was to start selling $2.2 million worth of bonds. Whatever the church couldn’t sell would be marketed by a bond-underwriting firm called Great Nation. “Typically, we look to the churches to sell between 10 and 15 percent,” says John Kucey, the broker who set up the arrangement. “Then the rest of [the unsold bonds) are sold to our brokerage customers.”

McKinney says he expected that the church would be able to find buyers for around $200,000 worth of the bonds, an amount that seemed reasonable to Kucey. Before getting involved in the deal, Kucey’s firm had reviewed independently audited financial data from St. Stephen’s that indicated the church should be able to afford the interest and, later, principal payments to the bond buyers. The church’s property had been scrutinized by “the highest rank of commercial appraiser,” Kucey explains, and its future value — after the expansion — had been projected to be $3.1 million. Based on those documents, “It was not a difficult decision” to underwrite the church’s bonds, Kucey says. “It was automatic, a no-brainer.”

Sometime in the fall of 1993, McKinney used around $1.1 million of the bridge-financing money from Church Loans to pay off debts specified in the loan agreement. The balance of the loan — around $700,000 — was reserved for the facilities expansion, and in November of 1993 it went into a trust fund for that exclusive purpose. But as 1994 unfolded, no construction took place, though the bond sales at St. Stephen’s did commence.

Del Rio says he thought that getting involved with the bond sales showed poor judgment on McKinney’s part; the struggling, financially unsophisticated community was a poor target for bonds, Del Rio believed, and he also thought that St. Stephen’s lacked the expertise to sell the investment instruments properly. But by the spring of 1994, Del Rio had other concerns on his mind.

Del Rio says McKinney had asked him to direct his attention to St. Stephen’s Retirement Center (the 60-unit senior complex built with federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funds one block away from the church) where the center directors had wrested control of the facility from the bishop. Del Rio agreed to intervene, as well as to help “fight off and fend off” a number of other debtors and creditors who were surfacing.

For his assistance, Del Rio says, he was charging St. Stephen’s $1 for the first year. In August of 1994, he also got a title from McKinney, “Consultant Chief of Staff of Financial and Political Affairs” for the church. “I kept trying to get money for the church.... I went to every banker in town,” Del Rio says. “And I’m begging and pleading for this bishop, saying, ‘He started this church 30 years ago with a $75 loan from Beneficial Finance, and he’s one of the finest black men in America, and he’s an entrepreneur as well as a pastor. And you’ve got to do this thing for him.’ I really believed in him with all my heart.”

As the one-year deadline for repaying the $ 1.8 million from Church Loans approached, Del Rio and McKinney even journeyed to South Africa (in September of 1994) on a ten-day trip. Del Rio says the purpose was to try to arrange a loan from New York banking institutions to the South Africans. From the broker’s fee such a deal would generate, Del Rio says he planned to give S1 million to St. Stephen’s.

But the South African deal fell through, and the bond sales were lagging. So a few weeks later, Del Rio was back in the church office “trying to gather checks, papers, documents to prove to Church Loans that we were going to get a mortgage and pay them off, because now (Church Loans was] beginning to put the pressure on.” He says that on October 12, 1994, McKinney suddenly asked him if he would sit in on a meeting with the Amarillo lenders, which was about to take place in the church library. Del Rio says it was there he learned that McKinney had authorized around $372,000 to be taken from the construction fund, most of it apparently under false pretenses.

Details of what had happened emerged during the course of the meeting, the former judge says. Beginning on November 24, 1993 — the day Church Loans wired the construction money — McKinney began signing “fund control vouchers” that directed Dixieline Builders Fund Control (the company overseeing the construction funds) to pay out various sums to a number of individuals. These vouchers state in large, prominent letters that “Anyone submitting false information to obtain construction funds or diverting such funds is guilty of a felony.” And a few of the money requisitions do appear to be construction-related. An Ontario (California) architect named Bernard Haynes got $15,000, for example, that he says was partial reimbursement for design work he did and conditional-use permit application fees that he paid on behalf of St. Stephen’s. In a similar vein, an El Cajon builder named Kent Brodwolf received $55,000 that he says paid for design services and expenses.

But McKinney also authorized $88,000 to be given to the financial consultant who helped arrange the loan and bond deals. The consultant has acknowledged (in an interview) that the payment was for his financial services. The voucher, however, said the money was for “construction” and “advancement of fees and permits.” San Diego National Bank, to whom St. Stephen’s owed $25,000, got that amount for a “construction advance,” according to the voucher. Some transactions were even more mysterious. McKinney, for example, personally withdrew $50,000 from the fund for “advance construction costs” and another $25,000 went to St. Stephen’s Church for “blacktop of church parking lot area” although the parking lot still remains an expanse of dusty ground.

When he learned about these things, “I felt disgusted and ripped apart,” says Del Rio. “But [the bishop] told me that he had just made mistakes. He does this constantly. He tried to convince me that this was just another big mistake. And when somebody is a minister, you want to believe him. Plus, I also felt it would be horrible for the black community if this came out.”

Del Rio thus went into damage-control mode. On the spot, he had Church Loans prepare a document for McKinney to sign authorizing Church Loans to withdraw the full $311,503.53 balance of the construction money from the Dixieline fund. McKinney also offered profuse assurances to the Church Loans representatives that St. Stephen’s would return the diverted moneys, plus begin paying back the interest that it owed on the loan (then accruing at a rate of more than $400 a day).

In the early months of this year, Del Rio says, the bishop told him he was taking care of the Church Loans muddle. For his part, Del Rio was again distracted by other crises. In addition to working on the messy situation at the retirement center, he was also helping the church to divest itself of a low-income apartment building that McKinney and some partners had purchased in 1991, a venture that had since turned into a financial debacle. And Del Rio continued to negotiate with the IRS to pay the more than $150,000 owed by the church at that point. Del Rio says he did call Church Loans at one point to convey a message from McKinney that a repayment installment of $60,000 was on its way. But in fact the bishop never did send Church Loans that amount.

As a result. Church Loans filed a notice of default on May 15 of this year, announcing its intentions to sell the church in order to recoup the money owed to it. Even though he had been designated the church’s chief financial officer, Del Rio didn’t learn about the foreclosure notice immediately. “The bishop and the rest of them just let it lay around in a basket of letters in the church,” the former judge fumes. “One day, when I was going around and looking at different letters and different checkbooks, I discovered it. I went in to the bishop and I said, ‘Do you realize you’re being foreclosed on?’ He said, ‘Yeah, but we should be able to do something before that happens.’ I said, ‘Are you crazy? Do you really know what this means? It’s been here for 30 days or more.’ And he told me, ‘You never take into account the Jesus Factor.’ That was his explanation to me.”

Del Rio is not one to sit around and await divine intervention. So he immediately called Church Loans’ Texas attorney and received more sour news. The investment company was on the verge of suing McKinney and the church, along with all the other people who had received diverted construction funds, for fraud, breach of contract, and other causes of action. Del Rio responded by pleading for time. He offered to fly to Amarillo with the bishop to work out some kind of “forbearance agreement” that would spell out in detail how the church would pay the lender back, in return for Church Loans forbearing from pressing ahead with the sale of the church property. Del Rio also implored Church Loans to remove the name of McKinney, the church’s secretary/treasurer, and that of the church from the lawsuit, arguing that not to do so would cause harm to both the black community and to McKinney’s reputation.

Once again Church Loans agreed to let McKinney and Del Rio try to work things out, and on July 9 the pair flew to Amarillo. When they returned, McKinney agreed to turn over control of the church’s monetary aflairs to Del Rio. The agreements that the bishop and his officers signed within the next few weeks spelled out the details. To pay off the debt, the church had to promise to send Church Loans a certified check for $5000 every Monday morning before 10:00 a.m. for two years, at which point St. Stephen’s would have to get a loan from some other source and use it to pay off Church Loans’ balance. Del Rio would be required to sign every check issued by the church (along with one of three approved cosigners, none of them the bishop). Numerous other provisions ranged from an attempt to curtail McKinney’s extensive travel schedule (since St. Stephen’s members tend to give more when he’s there to preach to them) to a stipulation that no bond holders be paid back without Church Loans’ written consent. And Del Rio was to take charge of drawing up an austerity budget for the church.

As he dived into that task, Del Rio says he was jolted to realize just how much money McKinney himself had been drawing from the church up to that point. The hardships that George McKinney has endured in the past are a fixture of St. Stephen’s history. The church’s press kit includes one news clipping in which McKinney recounts how he once washed dishes at the Bahia Hotel (for $ 1.25 an hour), in addition to working as a county probation officer, to support his family and fledgling church. At a recent Sunday morning service a church member exhorted the congregation to help “stock the shelves” of McKinney and his wife by donating canned goods to them.

But as Del Rio pored over the church’s records, he says, he discovered that McKinney’s total compensation exceeded $140,000 a year. That included $72,000 a year in salary and administrative expenses,” a $25,849.44 annual housing allowance, almost $900 a month for the lease of a Lexus, an additional $750 monthly for McKinney's wife’s leased Lincoln, at least $60 a month in cellular phone charges, and close to $23,000 annually for various forms of insurance. McKinney’s wife of 38 years was earning $20,000 for serving as the school’s principal, and one church employee was being paid about $14,000 a year to serve, in essence, as the bishop’s personal driver.

Other documents revealed that beyond the $140,000, McKinney in the past year collected almost $20,000 from the Church of God in Christ’s Second Ecclesiastical District (for performing his duties as bishop), and he receives more money when he travels and speaks to other congregations.

The bishop’s compensation from St. Stephen’s was one budget item that Del Rio pared, reducing it to a flat $60,000 a year, plus $400 monthly for car expenses. Del Rio also continued with the staff cuts he had begun urging the previous winter. From an all-time high of more than 60, the church was employing fewer than 10 by the end of August.

The bishop “didn’t like any of this, but he had to go along with it,” Del Rio says. And within just a few weeks there was confirmation that St. Stephen’s had undergone a significant turnaround. Not a single check issued by the church in August and early September bounced — for the first time in memory, according to Richard Smith, a tax accountant and long-time church member who was helping Del Rio administer the forbearance agreement. Smith adds that when he first moved to San Diego in the 1970s and went to work for a bank here, he was advised never to accept any St. Stephen’s checks because of their unsoundness.

Within a month after the new financial controls went into effect, Church Loans did file its lawsuit that named recipients of the construction funds except for McKinney, the church’s secretary/treasurer, and the church. But Church Loans’ representatives were enthusiastic about the way things appeared to be going at the church. “Your representation of and management of St. Stephen’s financial affairs...has been exceptional,” one of the Amarillo attorneys wrote Del Rio on September 13. “You have diligently labored to get the required financial controls in place so that compliance with the Financial Control Agreement by St. Stephen’s could be achieved.”

Despite such praise, Del Rio says his feelings were growing more mixed. On the one hand, he says he knew that St Stephen’s ought to be able to continue weathering the Church Loans crisis. The $22,000 or so per week that the congregation members were giving was enough, Del Rio believed, to enable the church to pay $5000 to Church Loans every Monday and to cover all of St. Stephen’s Church’s other operating expenses (which by August began to include $4500 a month for Del Rio’s services as financial administrator and additional money for Richard Smith to assist him). All the church had to do was stick to the budget — and Del Rio’s job was to make sure that it did so.

On the other hand, by the end of September tensions between Del Rio and McKinney were escalating. One sore spot was the money that St Stephen’s had collected from would-be bond purchasers. Upon learning of the misdirected construction funds. Great Nation had discontinued all bond sales, according to broker John Kucey. “There was nonperformance on their side, which caused us to notify the State of California of our discontinuance (of the bond offering],” he explains. Before that point, however, the church had managed to sell about S105,000 worth of the securities. And Del Rio says by the middle of the summer, he was hearing from as many as six or eight bond buyers a week who were complaining they weren’t receiving their interest payments or couldn’t sell their bonds back to the church, as they had been led by McKinney to believe they could do.

Worse, as the retired judge struggled to account for all the assets and liabilities of the church, he says he and Smith discovered that approximately $20,000 in bond-purchase money seemed to have disappeared. The would-be bond buyers had never received their certificates, nor had the money been deposited to the bond proceeds fund, as far as Del Rio could determine. “The money stopped at (the church secretary] and the bishop, says Del Rio. “He claimed at one point that he gave it all back to people. But he never came up with any receipts for it”

Del Rio says that on several occasions the bishop tried to get him and Smith to circumvent the forbearance agreement — by not reporting unexpected income, for example. But Del Rio resisted, and he says that irritated the bishop. Another sore spot was what Del Rio discovered when he tried to straighten out the tangled bank accounts of the St. Stephen’s Retirement Center.

As part of his effort to simplify the audit procedures and tighten his control over the church’s financial affairs, Del Rio had sought to consolidate the numerous bank accounts belonging to the senior complex into one bank (instead of two). One of the accounts was a HUD-mandated “excess amenities reserve account” (for buying furniture and equipment for the complex), which, as of the end of last year, had contained about $24,000. Late in August, McKinney, at Del Rio’s request, signed a letter to Wells Fargo Bank directing it to release the money (so it could be transferred to San Diego National Bank). Wells Fargo responded that the money had already been withdrawn, and subsequent investigation revealed that the bishop had taken the funds in April and May of this year.

Del Rio says this revelation rocked him because he knew that misuse or diversion of HUD funds is a crime that can be punished with up to $250,000 in fines or five years in jail or both. He says he was so distressed by what he saw as the bishop’s duplicity that he alerted local HUD officials, who subsequently launched an investigation into the missing money. But once again, Del Rio was torn. “I didn’t want to see HUD seize the building and give it to some other [charitable organization]. The community had done a lot to get that building,” says Del Rio. So he intervened again, asking the government officials to accept some repayment plan.

“We had some bad advice about the use of those funds,” McKinney stated when asked in an interview about the missing HUD money. Asked who gave the bad advice, he said, “1 won’t divulge that. What we were able to work out with HUD was that those funds are being returned. So that’s being cleared up.”

HUD asset manager in San Diego Sebastian Adame confirms that Del Rio’s warning about the missing money prompted the agency to launch an investigation. Adame, however, refused to say whether any arrangement with McKinney has been worked out. And even if one has, the bishop’s retirement-center-related headaches have not all disappeared.

The married couple who manage the retirement center for McKinney claim that he currently owes them thousands of dollars, and as a result of his broken promises, they’re in danger of losing both their car and their home. “The thing is so sad, because we’ve talked to him, pled with him. We love him!” Yvonne McDaniel says in an anguished voice. “He introduced my husband and I. He married us. He took us out on a cruise together on a little church boat.... And all we wanted to do was help him carry out his vision.” McDaniel explains that she met McKinney shortly after moving to San Diego from Santa Barbara around 1990. Within a short time, she had become “very deeply involved with the church,” donating a lot of her time and contributing heavily. McKinney finally hired her to be his administrative assistant, a post she held until the summer of 1994, when he asked her and her husband to move into the retirement center and become the on-site managers.

“He had let the old managers go, and. ..a lot of people were antibishop,” explains McDaniel. “He just wanted things to kind of smooth out again." McDaniel says at first she and her husband resisted. “We said, ‘No, you should choose this other couple. They need a job.’ ” But McKinney persisted. “So we prayed about it. And we decided — you know how some people are sent to other areas of the country or other countries on a mission? We said, ‘Well, we can do this for our pastor, out of our hearts.’ And as a result, we found someone to rent our condo, not for what we normally pay for it, but for what we could get.”

Once at the retirement center, McDaniel began to receive the $860 monthly stipend allotted by HUD for the site manager’s job. But she says McKinney had assured her he would supplement this so that McDaniel would continue to earn her administrative assistant’s salary of $25,740. McDaniel says the church did pay her the supplement for a while, but it soon became sporadic, and by May of this year it had stopped altogether.

“As a result. I’m losing my home,” McDaniel says. “They’re threatening foreclosure. I can’t keep my car note up. My phone’s been shut off. And it’s all because my pastor — my pastor won’t do what’s right. What grieves my spirit, what hurts me so, is that this is my pastor. We should be able to go to him for counseling.” McDaniel says that at one point this summer she did try to leave St. Stephen’s. “But I couldn’t do it. That’s my church home. I missed it so much. I missed it so much I went back. But I go in pain. When I’m looking at him, in the pulpit. I’m hurting. Because 1 know what he’s preaching is one thing, but the pain that I’m experiencing as a direct result of his decision is opposite of the message. It’s opposite of the charisma.” McDaniel says she and her husband have not been able to bring themselves to turn their backs on the aged residents who have come to depend on them. “Trust me, I’ve had opportunities to leave and make more money. I have the ability. I know how to get out there and earn a living. But it’s funny, when you really love God.... When we got here, it was first a job. But then it became a ministry. Seniors come in hurting and in pain, and they pretty much perceive us as their anchor. And it’s not that easy to just say, ‘Look, you’re not paying us, we’re walking away.’ When you’re walking with the Lord, there’s a commitment.” One thing McDaniel did do was to go to the state Department of Industrial Relations’ labor commission with the intention of filing a claim for her money. “But the first time that I went there, I left the building. I couldn’t do it. Scripturally, we’re not supposed to sue; the Bible tells you to meet with the board of elders or whatever. But see, the dilemma in this situation — the true dilemma — is that there’s no one to go to. There’s nobody who tells the bishop what to do. Most people who stay with him are subservient to him. And I chose not to be subservient....” In fact McDaniel returned to the labor commission early in October and is pressing forward with a complaint.

Asked whether she believes the bishop is deliberately deceitful, his former assistant replies, “Oh, yeah,” in a soft, resigned voice. “You know, I don’t want to hurt him. But when I see a pattern such as this — and it is a pattern — I have to wonder, where is the heart? I know the charisma, but I thought there was a heart there too.”

McKinney declined to offer any comment on McDaniel’s allegations. “As a pastor, it would be mean-spirited,” he stated, adding, “I share the pain.” Although he previously had told a reporter that he welcomed the chance to “pour my heart out” about various other problems he and the church were confronting, McKinney declined to discuss many issues when asked about them. Questioned about why he had vouched that the construction money dispersed to him and others was being used for construction (when in most cases it was not), McKinney referred the reporter to his legal advisor. He did the same when asked what he did with the $50,000 that he personally received from the construction fund. Yet attorney Dave Carothers, who has represented McKinney and the church for several months, stated, “I’m totally ignorant about the construction-fund issue.” Carothers adds that the fund was closed long before he started working for the bishop, and to date he has not been asked to become involved in the matter.

On October 11, the bishop terminated Del Rio’s association with the church. Asked about this, McKinney conceded that Del Rio “was helpful at first. But then he saw where he could probably make some money because of our misfortune.... Things will go much better now that he’s out of the picture. I know they will. His motives were very wicked.”

McKinney alleged that Del Rio had taken money out of the church beyond his salary as administrator, but he declined to explain this accusation, again suggesting that Carothers would elaborate because “it will be a matter of legal proceedings.” To this question, however, Carothers stated that the bishop “may have misspoken. There is no legal action pending against Judge Del Rio, or anything like that There’s nothing at this point to indicate any wrongdoing.” “Once again, he was attempting to besmirch someone else’s reputation rather than to confess his own wrongdoing. He does this constantly,” Del Rio says, adding, “I saved St. Stephen’s Church and St. Stephen’s Retirement Home, but only God can save the bishop and his wife.”

Carothers, who has interacted with both Del Rio and McKinney, offers the opinion that the two men had “a clash of management styles, plain and simple. The bishop has been doing things his way for 33 years, and then Del Rio came onboard. You then had two individuals who were constantly clashing.” The attorney adds that McKinney “is a very sloppy manager.”

This is a theme echoed by others who continue to support McKinney despite the apparent pattern of fast-and-loose financial transactions. “I’ve seen people come up to him to ask for money,” says Elder Roy Dixon, a long-time member of St. Stephen’s Church, who eventually struck off to start his own Church of God in Christ congregation, Faith Chapel. “He’ll reach into his pocket and pull out a pad and write a check for $100. But there’s no receipt. No record that he ever wrote it. Now how’s he going to remember that?”

“He overextends himself," concurs Harry Miller, a retired clinical psychologist who first met McKinney about 45 years ago, when the two worked for the Toledo, Ohio, family courts. Their paths crossed again in San Diego, and Miller was one of the 17 people who attended that first service in the basement of the pizza parlor. Although he never became a congregation member, he says he donated the money that McKinney used to buy his church’s first song books. When McKinney came lo him in 1988 and asked to borrow about $50,000, Miller agreed. He says the church made some payments on the loan. But by March of 1989, Miller was writing McKinney that “as a supposed friend, you leave me sadly disappointed in the treatment that I have received. As it now stands, you appear to have obtained money from me under false pretenses.” Miller even threatened court action at one point, but today he says he never really planned to follow through with it. “1 was prepared to write it off as a loss, rather than to foreclose” (on the church’s administration and education building, on which he holds a second trust deed).

As of early this month. Miller was still owed more than $50,000 (because of the accrued interest). Yet he says, “I feel rather protective of George. Because.he is the best-intentioned, most honest man that I have met. He just dreams too big. He dreams bigger dreams for people than they’re able to pay.”

That’s the same theme McKinney sounds in his own defense. “We made a decision to be more than a Sunday-only worship center,” he states. “We decided that we would meet some human needs.” As a result, “There’s a lot of pain. I live with pain.” He says the price that he has paid “for being involved with suffering and poverty and racism is that you begin to walk in those same shoes.”

The bishop shies away from discussing the financial compensation that he has received in recent years for that suffering, other than to say he’s had to use some of his income to pay for administrative expenses. “When it’s all said and done, my income actually has amounted to around $60,000 to $65,000 a year” — plus the compensation for travel, housing, insurance, and automobiles. “But that Lexus was not my idea," he adds. “The church leased it for me as a birthday gift.”

Along with his own suffering, McKinney seems to acknowledge that some of the people whom he’s inspired to help him implement his visions have suffered. Checks have bounced, he concedes. Taxes have gone unpaid. People who’ve made him loans haven’t gotten their money back. Have the laudable ends that he has accomplished justified the means?

“That’s a good question,” he replies, looking grave and reflective. “It’s a very good question,” he repeats, not once but twice.

What’s his answer? When pressed, he says, “If I can reach one or two of these kids, through the child-care and its love program, through the school and its program, and direct a life toward productivity and usefulness — if I can reach one, I would remain here and do my best.”

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