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’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.
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.