Goliath, Meet David

A St. Louis charity tries to kill a Cleveland program for children, but the little guys fight back

So the board set up a separate nonprofit entity. The new Greater Cleveland Christian Home for Children hired lawyers and a public-relations firm and set up a "war room," in Lundeen's words. At a Feb. 26 press conference, board members announced that NBA was trying to close the home's doors, so they would go it alone.

Tireless networking lined up powerful supporters, including county commissioners, state legislators and Cleveland Congressman Dennis Kucinich. It was an easy cause for politicians to get behind. "For all we talk about the fact that we have these kids with deeply complex issues, we have very few programs that actually serve them," says state Sen. Eric Fingerhut. "They're there to serve the least of us, and they're serving children no one else wants to touch. And the arrogance of the national organization to come into town and pull the rug out from under them -- it's David against Goliath."

Just one week before Dougherty's announcement, Lundeen had solicited local foundations for $900,000 to start a program for foster children with sexual aggression. After Dougherty's fait accompli, Lundeen returned to the foundations, canceled the plea for program money and instead asked for money to stay alive. The foundations were receptive.

Christian Home CEO David Lundeen
Walter Novak
Christian Home CEO David Lundeen

But the most important support came from the Disciples of Christ church. Unlike Catholics or Lutherans, the Disciples lack a strict hierarchy. The church depends on "covenant relationships," says the Rev. Don Baird, senior pastor at Community Christian Church in North Canton and chairman of the denomination's Ohio board.

When the regional board learned what NBA had ordered, it felt its covenant with NBA had been broken, Baird says: "The home is a ministry that our churches have supported for 99 years. It's a historic tie and an emotional tie. We have little old ladies who've baked cakes and knitted stuff for them. We've all given money."

The Ohio board invited Lundeen to Columbus the next week. Dougherty was also invited to tell her side of the story.

After hearing both leaders, the board approved an emergency resolution supporting the Cleveland home's quest to continue. The resolution urged NBA to release its entire endowment "as an act of good faith" and established an escrow fund to accept donations and a legal fund to help the home cover the costs of splitting.

"That was the turning point," Lundeen says. "I knew we'd taken a major step, and suddenly things got very quiet at NBA."

When Lundeen arrived at the home's March 8 staff meeting, he carried the stress of the previous three weeks. His smile was tired. In his hands were two tall Styrofoam cups of coffee. He wasn't sharing. With the home locked in a bitter battle to stay alive, two cups were hardly enough. "They say it's a bad sign when you wake up tired," he told workers. "I wake up tired now."

Yet during the weeks of uncertainty, not a single staffer jumped ship. Instead, lobbying and public pressure apparently convinced NBA to backpedal. By March, it was discussing the Greater Cleveland Christian Home's proposal to keep its property and full endowment, in addition to future donations earmarked for it.

The plan was not without a catch. The home offered to pay NBA $2.4 million, Lundeen says. The figure includes $300,000 for the Lorain Avenue building, $700,000 to pay off long-term debt and $1.4 million to pay off loans from NBA.

The home doesn't exactly have $2.4 million, Lundeen admits. But if that's the cost of freedom, he plans to raise it. He'll ask the county for an increase in its contracts. He'll hit up charities. He'll take out a mortgage on the property. James is already lobbying congregations to give all they can.

McCarty declined comment on any plans for asset division, but Cleveland leaders say NBA's board was scheduled to vote on the plan Tuesday, March 19, just as the Riverfront Times went to press. If NBA agrees, the home can look to June 1 as Independence Day. "The NBA has its own business problems, and they're serious," Lundeen says. "They need to be free of us by June 1, and they will be."

The divorce goes both ways. Though hard feelings remain, Cleveland board members want to resuscitate a sense of mission that goes beyond money.

"You'd think that service to kids in need is a mission, not a fiscal thing," McCafferty says. "You hear NBA talk, and it's like it's a Chevy plant. It's not. They're talking about children and the rest of their lives."

That's what Lundeen and his board hope to keep talking about, long after NBA and the price of freedom are paid in full.

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