He founded St. Stephen’s in 1962, expanded it to include school, senior housing
Bishop George Dallas McKinney, a quiet but towering figure in San Diego’s Black religious community for 60 years, died Saturday at age 88.
The great-grandson of a slave and the son of a sharecropper, McKinney started St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church of God in Christ in the basement of a pizza restaurant in 1962 and shepherded it into a Valencia Park mainstay that included a K-12 school, two senior centers, and low-income housing.
As bishop, he oversaw about 40 Church of God in Christ congregations in Southern California and sat on the Pentecostal denomination’s national board. In 2003, he was a finalist to become U.S. Senate chaplain.
“He led the way for so many of us who now stand on his shoulders,” said the Rev. Terry Wayne Brooks, senior pastor at Bayview Baptist Church in San Diego. “He was a man of the community who knew that he had to do more than preach. Sometimes you have to provide and protect. He lived that life.”
Born on Aug. 9, 1932, in Jonesboro, Ark., McKinney was one of 12 children. He went to Arkansas State College and did graduate work in theology at Oberlin College and California School of Theology in Glendale before following his father — weekday sharecropper, Sunday preacher — into the ministry.
After working as a chaplain at a state mental hospital in Toledo, Ohio, McKinney came to San Diego and started St. Stephen’s with his late wife, Jean, in the pizza-basement space donated by a Pacific Beach parish. It sat about 150 people.
The McKinneys built the congregation while they raised five sons, all of whom went into church work. Eventually St. Stephen’s moved to its current location at 5825 Imperial Ave. and grew into a following of almost 2,000 families.
“He was a tremendously gifted pastor, both in his knowledge and his oration of the Biblical word,” said Reese Jarrett, a 10-year member of the church. “Beyond that, he was a great leader, a very compassionate man, and someone committed to justice and equality and things that are important to humanity.”
McKinney grew up believing, as he once told a reporter, that “religion and education were two ways to escape abject poverty,” and in 1978 he expanded the offerings at St. Stephen’s to include a K-12 Christian school. It operated for about 25 years until the costs became prohibitive.
The church also provided psychological counseling, crisis intervention, emergency shelter referrals, and food. McKinney liked to tell the story of a visitor who toured the campus one day and said, “George, you have too many people there who used to be drug addicts, prostitutes and felons.” To McKinney, that was a compliment.
“We’re known as a safe haven for many who have lost hope,” he said.
In 1985, one of those lost souls came to the church for counseling, and then came back and set it on fire. “He told police his God had told him to burn the church down,” McKinney said.
The church held services for months in a giant tent, big enough for 2,000 people. Donations poured in from community members and other congregations around town, and St. Stephen’s was rebuilt.
In 2016, when a Spring Valley church, Full Gospel, lost its sanctuary to fire one week before Easter, McKinney paid it forward. He loaned part of his campus to Full Gospel so it could hold services on the most cherished of days on the Christian calendar.
Outside the church, McKinney pushed for racial and economic equality in a variety of forums, longtime friends and colleagues said. He helped young people with job training. He fought the 10-cent surcharge on plastic grocery bags as a “heavenly deal for the big grocery chains,” arguing that it would generate hundreds of millions in profit at the expense of poor and working families.
And he challenged “the sin of racism,” which, he wrote in a Union-Tribune essay last year, “must be exposed and uprooted wherever it’s found — in the criminal justice system, in the church, in the government, and in all the social institutions that bind our community together.”
The Rev. Shane Harris, who considered McKinney a mentor for his own social-justice work, said, “He was from that school that believed we should fight as hard as we can, but we must also be able to have conversations. He understood the issues facing the community and he had a way of bringing people to the table, even those he disagreed with, for meaningful conversations.”
Miles McPherson, pastor of the Rock Church, said he’ll long remember how McKinney welcomed him when he was starting out in his own ministry some 30 years ago.
“I didn’t know anything and he always gave me his respect and his time,” McPherson said. “He was quiet, soft-spoken, looked you in the eye. He never felt he was a big shot — just a humble servant who walked slow, talked softly, yet was forceful. When he talked, people listened.”
The cause of death was heart and kidney ailments, according to the family.
Survivors include his wife, Barbara; sons George (and wife Wendy), Grant (Barbara), Gregory (Daphine), Gordon (Veronina) and Glenn (Carolyn); 15 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
Services are pending.
“Bishop George Dallas McKinney was a truly great San Diegan,” Mayor Todd Gloria said in a written statement. “He was called home this morning and our city now mourns his loss. We are a far better city because of him and his lifetime of service.”