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Photo by Jack GouldFirst Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park. Wednesday night youth Bible study. Eleven kids, just like those you'd see loitering at your finest Orange County shopping malls, sit on sofas and chairs formed into a semicircle in the corner of a large room with dingy white walls. An open door lets in fresh air and noise from the light traffic on Western Avenue. Scattered about the room are a television, a pool table, a foosball table and a "One Way" sign with the arrow pointing up to You-Know-Who.
The teens are poring over a worksheet titled "What's So Bad About My Old Life?" Edgy drawings are dropped into exercises meant to apply lessons from the Book of Ecclesiastes (2:1-14) to modern woes. "Pursuing stuff and status slams us into a wall of despair," the sheet observes. "The only path that leads to meaning is the path to God."
The task at hand is to draw cartoons showing someone enjoying life and work. "That's hard to draw, dude," says a spiky-haired teenager in a white T-shirt with the Intel Inside logo on it. For the next several minutes, everyone has his or her nose to the grindstone tablets, everyone except a sandy-haired, goateed fellow in blue jeans and an OC Supertones T-shirt. As the others toil, 21-year-old Wiley Drake Jr., the church's youth minister, stares straight ahead with one of those glazed looks you see on someone who is meditating or daydreaming or nuts.
You've no doubt heard of Wiley's father, Wiley Drake Sr., First Southern Baptist's headline-grabbing head pastor. The old man is constantly in the news: for battling city officials over the building and operation of a homeless shelter on the church grounds, for trying to persuade his denomination's national convention to chastise Bill Clinton, and for leading boycotts against the Walt Disney Co. over perceived pro-gay policies.
The son is, as Al Gore has said in a different context, his own man. Junior says he holds pretty much the same conservative beliefs as Senior but says he came to his beliefs on his own. He is decidedly different in his approach, his priorities and his calling. Where the father seems at ease using provocative pronouncements to hold captive a convention, a congregation or a press conference, the son prefers saving one soul at a time. Quietly.
At the Wednesday-night Bible study, Wiley Jr. snaps out of his faraway gaze when a boy in a green Shorty's Skateboard windbreaker describes his cartoon. "It's showing a guy standing there and—poof!—he gets whatever he wanted." The Intel Inside kid shows off his rendering of a man enjoying his work "at Mickey D's." When the exercise is over, Wiley Jr. walks over to a stereo, flips a switch and blasts a Christian rock song with the lyrics, "The only thing that heals is the hand of God."
They close the evening with prayer requests. A girl in a long-sleeved red sweater, black slacks and a cross necklace wants to pray for a sick classmate. Another girl wants to pray for good grades. Intel Inside asks everyone to pray for his sore knee, while another kid seeks prayer for his upcoming basketball practice. A pretty blonde's request for prayer for the then-undecided national election prompts another girl to chant, "Bush, Bush, Bush." No one objects.
Wiley Drake Jr. says most of these kids first come to youth-ministry functions of their own accord, but it's clear they keep coming back because of him. It's easy to see why: frankly, he seems mellower, more tolerant —more Christian—than Wiley Drake Sr.
First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park. Sunny autumn weekday afternoon. As you walk through the corridor leading to the parking lot, you are overcome by the pungent odor of homelessness. It's a smell anyone who has been to the Some One careS Soup Kitchen in Costa Mesa or the Catholic Worker in Santa Ana immediately recognizes.
There are much larger congregations in Orange County that aren't nearly as busy. In the kitchen, a man gathers ingredients for an evening meal that will serve 100. The owner of a nearby 24-hour doughnut shop/Chinese restaurant drops off two large bins of fried rice. "Dinner's gonna be good tonight," says the chef. A woman helps a young job seeker in a room that holds every temporary resident's mail. Two women in the church office fight over who has to stay to mind the phone while the other runs an errand. Across the dusty parking lot, several people are shooting the shit in front of four connected manufactured homes that serve as the homeless shelter. A woman inside sweeps the floor while her 2-year-old daughter naps. All the workers are unpaid homeless residents. The head pastor and his youth-pastor son are the only paid church employees.
Taking in the scene like a proud papa is Wiley Drake Sr. in his trademark suspenders, this time worn over a navy-blue T-shirt with "United States of America" encircling a bald-eagle insignia. He believes more Orange County churches should look like his. If each church and temple "adopted" five homeless families and provided them with the same services as First Southern Baptist—food, clothing, transportation, job assistance and a roof over their heads—he maintains, there would be no homelessness here or, if expanded, anywhere.