Blurred Vision

Jim Kennedy: He says the church is trying to claim this computer that he donated to the program.
Deron Neblett

Jim Kennedy seems like the kind of man who would be welcomed by any community. A longtime resident who made his money from hotel and property management, this grandfather has always taken an interest in improving his hometown. Back in the early 1980s Kennedy made headlines when he founded and ran the Inner Southwest Sports Association, busing in needy Third and Fourth Ward kids to play baseball in the Montrose area. He still runs into adults he remembers as "scrubby kids" who are now doctors and lawyers.

"That's the reward," he explains.

So it was only natural for Kennedy to step forward when he learned that his church, First Baptist Church Heights, was planning to create a youth program for underprivileged kids. Kennedy, who served as a deacon for the church, volunteered to serve as president of the organization's board of directors.

In July 1999 the church hired Trevor Ming, a fresh-faced youth minister in his early thirties, to serve as director of Youth Vision, which he quickly nicknamed "The Zone." Kennedy and the father of two started with a handful of youngsters and soon had droves showing up. By all indications, the program was headed toward the kind of success that spells happy endings.

Two years later Kennedy has been branded a criminal by his own church. Ming has been fired, and he and his family were just ousted from his church-owned residence.

What on God's earth went wrong?

Youth Vision headquarters, located on the second floor of a church building near Ninth Street and Harvard, hardly began as a haven for disadvantaged youths. Cockroaches scurried about, and there was no working bathroom. A chalkboard hanging in the room apparently had eluded erasers for decades -- the last date scribbled on it was 1967. The place was in desperate need of cleaning. Ming, Kennedy and other volunteers began prepping the place for the kids they hoped would soon show up. Kennedy himself donated televisions, radios and a pool table.

He recruited other board members, from First Baptist and elsewhere, and drew up articles of incorporation for the group in July 1999. That began the process of registering Youth Vision as a tax-exempt charitable organization with the IRS. Board member Susan Emberg got involved after serving as mentor for two teenage girls attracted to Youth Vision.

"They liked going because they didn't have to worry about kids hitting on them with drugs," says Emberg. "It was a good place to hang out, play pool. On Fridays they'd have pizza."

Ming tells of Youth Vision sponsoring hiking trips on the Appalachian Trail, campouts in Colorado and Bible studies.

"We just tried to create stuff they enjoyed," says Ming, a Canadian native. "Ultimately we wanted to give them the Christian perspective on a healthy choice of living."

Over two years Youth Vision grew from three to 30 teenagers. The once dusty, dirty room had been transformed into an attractive alternative to street life. As the program became more popular, participation grew. So did budgets -- and contributions. Youth Vision leaders felt it was time to become more autonomous, although church officials would be in no mood for the looming civil war.

Initially, says Kennedy, First Baptist handled Youth Vision funds through a church-controlled checking account at Sterling Bank. That made sense to everyone involved. After all, the church paid Ming's salary and funded Youth Vision activities and equipment for the center.

However, program sponsors would get donations specifically for the center -- and yet could never be certain they were actually going for that purpose.

"We would get donations and not be able to even send a thank-you note because the church administrator would take the checks and put it in the bank," says Kennedy. "And we didn't even know where the check was coming from or where it was going."

He believes the church may have been using the contributions earmarked for Youth Vision for other church expenditures. Kennedy says he confirmed with the IRS that the tax-exempt status was nearing approval (that authorization has not yet been granted). Then he and Ming asked Pastor Larry Young and church administrator Gary Atkins to relinquish control of the Youth Vision checking account at Sterling Bank.

They refused.

In June the program's board had received more than $7,000 in contributions from supporters, including the local Rotary Club. Emberg auctioned her old motor home on eBay for $4,500, which was donated to the group.

Kennedy and other board directors decided they were tired of battling the church hierarchy in their quest for financial independence. Kennedy says he had the Youth Vision bylaws to back him up, because they state that the treasurer should have the responsibility and custody of all program funds.

In mid-June he walked into the Heights-area Central Bank and deposited the $7,000 in donations in the name of Youth Vision Inc. Kennedy also wrote out a separate personal check for $2,000 to Youth Vision and placed it in the church's collection basket on July 1. But Kennedy claims that Atkins intercepted that check and deposited it in the church-controlled account at Sterling Bank.

Kennedy headed off to a vacation to Atlanta to celebrate his grandson's first birthday. He returned on July 10 to a First Baptist bloodbath. Other church members told him that Young was so angry at Kennedy's actions he had been unable to preach the previous Sunday. He also says Young told some of the congregation that Kennedy and Ming had stolen church funds.

Kennedy, feeling he had no choice but to step down, resigned as Youth Vision president that same day. On July 11 the church fired Ming. First Baptist ordered him and his family to pack up their belongings and get out of their church-owned home by August 1.

The letter of eviction was ripe with overwrought compassion:

"The Church wishes to express to you that they have turned the other cheek, have forgiven you for what they perceive to be unlawful conduct, wish no ill will towards you and will keep you and your family in their prayers."

The next day Kennedy also resigned as deacon.

"In passive neglect I sat and watched as all of this developed instead of having the courage to fulfill my fiduciary responsibility to Youth Vision Inc. and force the issue months ago," Kennedy told the church. "May God bless you in your efforts to resolve this mess."

Young will not comment. Church administrator Atkins, after asking that the Houston Press fax any questions, also declined to talk. He e-mailed a statement: "Since we have been informed that there is the possibility of litigation in this matter, our attorney has advised us not to make any comments at this time."

As frustrating as the funding battle was for Kennedy and Ming, they remained totally mystified at the church's accusations of criminal conduct. Before church administrators withdrew the Central Bank funds, the independent program's bank account reflected almost all of the $7,000 deposited, with only a few hundred dollars withdrawn for purchases of center equipment, Kennedy says.

Ming's eviction letter stated that property belonging to Youth Vision, "including all properties which you may claim were given to you by Jim Kennedy or others," was to remain in the hands of First Baptist.

"I can't read their hearts and minds," says Kennedy. "It could just be they wanted control. They felt they could keep the checks and call all the shots." Kennedy pumped considerable personal funding into the program, he notes.

"One of the most frustrating things… when you've done all this and then they paint me as the bad guy, stealing funds from the church, that hurts," says Kennedy.

As the church statement notes, litigation is anticipated -- but not from First Baptist. Attorney Lance Olinde Jr. plans to file a defamation suit in an attempt to get back an estimated $15,000 in property that Kennedy donated to the program -- and to get back Kennedy's good name.

"They've accused Mr. Ming and Mr. Kennedy of engaging in illegal activity for their own use and benefit," says Olinde. "None of that was even close to being true."

Ming claims he is trying to remember that "if the struggle never comes, your faith is never tested." Both of them say their faith in religious institutions -- First Baptist notwithstanding -- remains strong.

The Baptist Temple in the Heights heard about the ouster and has provided temporary housing to Ming, his wife and two young daughters. Kennedy and Ming vow to rebuild Youth Vision; Heights Christian Church has opened their hearts and their basement to the program.

"They've put out the welcome mat, they've been very congenial," says Kennedy. He says that what hurts him most has been the disruption to the youth program, rather than any monetary loss or smeared reputation.

"I could have spent my time otherwise," says Kennedy. "To put it all in and set up a foundation for a good youth program, and have it cut out from under you is very frustrating."

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