Even as a young man, George Dallas McKinney was keen on following the lead of the Holy Spirit. He came by it honestly. Descendant of slaves on both sides of his family, McKinney clung to the spiritual heritage of his maternal great-grandfather, Billy Thompsonwho upon emancipation in Georgiaheaded straight to Arkansas to start a church.
“We’ve been in the church planting business a long time,” Thompson’s great-grandson said.
After pursuing his education in Ohio and Michigan, McKinney yielded once again to the Holy Spirit.
“I believe the Lord led me to come to San Diego,” he said. “I had a clear vision that my life’s work would be in California, so I followed that vision.”
His indelible fingerprints are all over Southeast San Diego and well beyond, since taking a post with the probation department and starting his own congregation, St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church of God in Christ, in the Valencia Park neighborhood.
On Aug. 11, the congregation will celebrate his 80th birthday, which falls two days earlier. In September they will celebrate the church’s 50th anniversary.
“I think we have attempted to trust God for guidance and for direction, to live a surrendered life, which means that when I fail, when I miss the mark, when I fall, I know what to do to: repent, to get forgiveness and be restored,” the bishop said of the hallmark philosophy he’s used to guide his flock.
“I know I can’t wallow in my failures and shortcomings, but I know that if we say we have no sins we lie, but if we confess our sins God is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.”
When he arrived in San Diego in 1959, the sleepy seaside city was just coming into its own, McKinney recalled. Calling it a “village city,” he noted San Diego’s large naval presence and the development of education and research facilities with the launching of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the University of California, San Diego.
There was also a dark side to the city, McKinney said.
“It was also noticeable where this was a town of a great deal of racism, and injustice that was systematic,” he said. “It was not unique to San Diego.”
Most local employment opportunities for blacks, he said, were limited to elevator operators, shoeshine boys and newspaper carriers. Less than a dozen black lawyers or doctors practiced in the city, the longtime pastor said.
“It was a very limited opportunity for employment for black people here because it was basically a southern city with limited opportunities,” he said.
In 1964, when white evangelist Billy Graham brought his crusade to the city for the second time, McKinney was tapped to help increase the involvement of black churches. Since the mid-’50s Graham had made a concerted effort to desegregate his revivals by hiring African-American evangelist Howard O. Jones to bridge the racial barriers.
McKinney, a personal friend of Graham, said although the noted evangelist had supported the civil rights movementeven bailing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. out of jail for his protest workmany blacks were still weary of the white preacher.
“At that time none of the black churches were willing to openly participate,” he said. “He became very aggressive in his pursuit of justice and peace and brotherhood. He became an ambassador of the Kingdom. But the people of the ’60s didn’t know that. We called meetings at St. Stephen’s, but nobody would show up.”
The threads of racism also spilled over into San Diego’s local neighborhoods.
“It was a time when the housing was segregated,” he said. “There were restricted covenants.”
In 1969, with his church firmly established and his bi-vocational days of working with the probation department behind him, McKinneyseeking move-up housing for his growing familywent into escrow for a home in Spring Valley.
“The neighbors went to the bank and told them, ‘We don’t want any negroes in this area,’ and so the bank canceled my escrow,” the bishop said.
For the next four months, the McKinneys lived in “motels and makeshift places.”
“It was very racist, but that’s different now,” he said. “I thank God that I’ve been a part of helping to make some changes.”
For the most part, the changes have been dramatic, though McKinney says there is room for improvement, especially in the arena of crime sentencing, which he believes still targets blacks. Sentencing guidelines for example, are generally lighter for cocainewhich McKinney said is primarily used by whitesthan for crack cocaine a drug of economic choice for blacks.
Although pockets of racism still remain, as they do across the country, McKinney said San Diego has primarily evolved from its once dark days of oppression. The evidence of that belief was clearly seen in 2003, when the Graham team returned to San Diego for another communitywide evangelistic mission.
“There was not enough room at St. Stephen’s for the people,” McKinney said of those wishing to participate in planning meetings. “The church was filled. The mission and the crusade was a beautiful thing. There’s been tremendous change for the better: understanding the meaning of fellowship in Christ and the brotherhood. The walls that we built that separate us are being torn downnot as fast as we like, but they are being torn down and we give God praise.”
Pastors are accustomed to the phone ringing in the middle of the night. It’s an essential part of the job description, even if it rarely shows up on resumes. Relationship building is often a messy business, and pastors are generally the first to be called when one of their members is dealing with a crisis. Over his five decades of ministry, the bishop had had a few of his own.
In the fall of 1984, McKinney had just finished a particularly eventful 48 hours that included leading a revival in Denver, facilitating a marriage and family seminar in Riverside and delivering the eulogy at a funeral service in Los Angeles. The next day his congregation would celebrate its 22nd anniversary with a churchwide potluck and its regular slate of four services. The sermon, based on Psalm 127:1, “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it,” was firmly embedded in his mind.
As the clock ticked to 3:15 a.m. the familiar ring came. The news was anything but.
“Pastor, the church is on fire,” the caller said.
Minutes later, the bishop and his wife, Dr. Jeantogether the center of all ministry at St. Stephen’sfound themselves on the sidelines as more than a dozen fire units tried to extinguish the fire. It gutted the sanctuary, rendering it a total loss, but spared their new school, which was three years in the making and had been dedicated just a week earlier. The school, where Jean served as principal, offered scholarships for at-risk children who were abused or had parents involved with drugs or gangs.
The reality of the fire was not the only bad news he received during those darkened hours of Sept. 9, 1984. The fire, they were told, was deliberately set by a drug addict who was being ministered to by the congregation.
“It was very painful,” McKinney said, adding that after the school dedication, “I hoped we would move forward with the educational ministry … To have that happen at that time, it was just a painful, disappointing, gut-wrenching experience. It was very difficult.”
By the next morning’s services, McKinney had instructed leadership to set up chairs in the schoolyard. The potluck and anniversary celebration went on as planned.
It would be several more days before the church discovered it was under-insured by as much as $200,000. This time, McKinney found himself on the receiving end. Without so much as a simple appeal, offers came in from several area churches volunteering to house the homeless congregation during its 18-month rebuilding phase. The church opted instead to meet under a green and white tent on the church grounds.
“People from all over the areablack people, white people, brown people, Catholic, Protestant and Jews,” the pastor said. “It was absolutely amazing how people came, assisted in cleaning up the debris and gave money to rebuild the sanctuary.”
It was light-years away from the day his escrow was revoked because of the color of his skin.
“That speaks volumes to me regarding what people can do, and it wasn’t because I was black,” he said. “It was because I was a brother who was attempting to what was right in this community.”
A decade later, the community rallied once again around the church, this time at the direction of San Diego north county megachurch, Maranatha Chapel, and its senior pastor Ray Bentley. Bentley and his team worked with Impact Urban America to host a two-day “Extreme Make-over: Church Edition” at the African-American church.
Bentley came up with the project in 2004 after visiting St. Stephen’s in the weeks after McKinney lost Jean, his wife of 47 years and the church’s co-founder, to colon cancer. McKinney called her death at age 69 a life-shattering experience.
“I had real struggles with that loss,” he said. “They saw my distress, my grief. They said, ‘Let’s do something to lift his spirits.’”
In all, the community work party contributed more than $250,000 in resources and at least 50 skilled workers. They fixed water damage, rotted walls and electrical problems. Appliances were replaced and new carpet installed. The choir got new padded seats.
“I cried like a baby,” McKinney said of the effort. “That helped a lot with the healing. That experience was powerful.”
In reaching out to St. Stephen’s, the sweaty-browed volunteers were acknowledging all the magnificent ministry that the congregation had accomplished for the community through the persistent leadership of its pastor.
Over the years, St. Stephen’s had become a trailblazing catalyst in creating community programs and projects and then passing them on to better equipped nonprofits. They founded the St. Stephen’s Retirement Center and the Jean C. McKinney Manor, which provide low-income housing to seniors and the poor. A licensed family therapist since 1970, the senior pastor operates a community-counseling center that also serves as a training ground by offering graduate-level internships under McKinney’s supervision.
The church also had a hand in developing the Neighborhood Youth Corps, Head Start, the Model Cities program and Meals on Wheels. Earlier this year, the San Ysidro Health Center opened the Valencia Park Community Resource Center at St. Stephen’s to provide the neighborhood with free health and wellness information and referrals, social support services, and insurance eligibility and enrollment information.
Its elementary school, which closed nine years ago because of escalating costs, provided quality education to hundreds of students over the years. Others were assisted through vocational training and by the American Urban University, which McKinney established in 1990.
By the spring of next year, the church and its partners are hoping to break ground on a long-delayed but significant 4.5-acre, mixed-use economic development plan across the street from the church. Named Valencia Business Park, the $30 million project will provide the neighborhood with research development and light manufacturing that will provide an estimated 150 to 200 jobs. McKinney said they are also hoping to secure a lease for a much-needed grocery store.
“As God has provided people to come to the ministry who have skills and who want to work, then the church ought to be able to organize and mobilize and send people forth to do it,” the soon-to-be octogenarian said.
Long respected for his work on the national stageoffering advice to President George W. Bush in the days after 9/11 and earning a rare nomination to serve as chaplain in the U.S. Senateperhaps McKinney’s greatest legacy is that of his five sons, George A., Grant, Gregory, Gordon and Glenn, all of whom are serving in the ministry. Two have graduated seminary; a third will shortly. George A. is executive pastor at St. Stephen’s, while Glenn leads in administration and Gregory serves as minister of music. Each has been married to one woman and is raising their family in the church, an accomplishment that elicits an uncharacteristic sense of pride to their father.
“I think it is very unusual,” he said. “I give all the glory and praise to God because we didn’t know how to do it. We had to depend upon the Lord for direction, for forgiveness and for wisdom to love and discipline and to care for five sons. It was a great challenge.”
Their pastor father, now remarried to attorney Barbara “BJ” McKinney, said he believes his children and the congregation as a whole have benefited from the church’s 40-year commitment to an ongoing refresher on forgiveness and reconciliation as they have clung to Mark 11:22-26. It is one of the factors that helped them to heal from the arson.
“I understood it was a spiritual war,” he said, adding that Christians are not immune from the fear and anger that ravages relationships which God designed for beauty.
“We’ve seen families that have been broken, brothers and sisters angry and for years not speaking to each other, but when they really see what Jesus said about (how) unforgiveness forecloses on God’s forgiveness ... We all need God’s forgiveness,” he said. “It’s been a marvelous thing to discover how God’s Word is true and His power is unlimited.”
In conjunction with the congregation’s 50th anniversary and the 80th birthday of its founder, Bishop George D. McKinney, St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church of God in Christ is holding a series of events.
• They will mark McKinney’s birthday during a special tribute on Aug. 11.
• On Sept. 3 they will present their annual Founder’s Month Picnic
• A Golden Jubilee Dinner & Gala for St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church of God in Christ will be held at 4 p.m. Sept. 29 at Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina. Doors open at 3 p.m. The guest speaker will be Bishop Charles E. Blake, presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ Inc.
For more information on the events, call (619) 262-2671.