James Branham, 33, founded group for inner city youths

March 19, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

James Wesley Branham, a former dance instructor who was founder and first director of Kingdom Ministries, an organization that works with needy inner city youths, died March 12 of undetermined causes at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. The Gardenville resident was 33.

Mr. Branham, who worked for years as a ballroom instructor for Arthur Murray Inc. and was later a professional Latin dance competitor, had also been a free-lance dance instructor before becoming the executive director of Kingdom Ministries.

Several years ago, he became acquainted with the Rev. Lou Martin, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua and Most Precious Blood Roman Catholic churches in Northeast Baltimore, where he volunteered and later worked in maintenance.

He interested Father Martin in Metro Ministries in New York, an organization that went into high-crime neighborhoods to work with children.

Last year, Mr. Branham traveled to New York City to meet with Bill Wilson, founder of Metro Ministries, and observe firsthand the program he hoped to re-create in Baltimore.

With the assistance and support of Father Martin, church leaders and other financial supporters, Mr. Branham was able to fashion his Kingdom Ministries after Metro Ministries.

Mr. Branham, who introduced his program in Parkside, near Herring Run Park, in September, began with 20 youths. The program had grown to more than 120 at the time of his death.

"It was taking the Gospel to the streets," said Father Martin, who described Mr. Branham as "streetwise and very spiritual."

"The goal was to change to the climate of the city and make a difference. It's easier to build children than repair men and women," Father Martin said.

Driving in a Ford van painted a colorful yellow with a picture of Yogi Bear on the side, Mr. Branham would find a convenient parking space and set up his one-man carnival. He dispensed fun, games, prizes, Christian rap music and ended his "show" with a Gospel message. He made personal visits to the children and their families each week.

"He was like a magnet," Father Martin said. "He drew kids, and they were very fond of him."

"He brought hope to the children. And by his actions, they saw that it was possible to apply themselves in school and stay away from drugs and crime," said Mike Zellhofer, former assistant director who took over as director after Mr. Branham's death.

"He evoked confidence in the most insecure, found grace in the most awkward, offered friendship to the most downtrodden and brought something beautiful to the lives of all," said the former Ruth Tomaschko, his wife of eight years.

Mr. Branham was born and raised in Glen Burnie and attended Glen Burnie High School. He was a communicant of St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church.

A Mass of Christian burial was offered yesterday. In addition to his wife, Mr. Branham is survived by two sons, Joshua Branham and Christian Branham, both of Gardenville; two daughters, Faith Branham of Gardenville and Tiffany LaMartina of Glen Burnie; his parents, Melvin Branham Sr. of Annapolis and Nancy Herpel of Pasadena; a brother, Melvin Branham Jr. of Annapolis; paternal grandparents, Percy and Etta Branham of Glen Burnie; a stepfather, Michael Herpel Sr. of Pasadena; a step-brother, Michael Herpel Jr. of Glen Burnie; and several nephews and nieces.

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