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Drake hates what he calls "government handouts." He provides a "hand up," he says, with strings attached: no smoking. No cussing. Rigid church dress code. Want a hand up? You have to go to church; if that church is not First Southern Baptist, you have to go somewhere else. And no ditching: Wiley Drake Sr. will call the head God guy at your church or temple of choice and make sure you're showing up.
His high standards are intended to be difficult for what he calls the "stereotypical homeless." Those would be the people who choose to live on the streets because they are alcoholics, drug abusers or just plain crazy. The stereotypical homeless don't stay long at First Southern Baptist, which is fine by Drake. The stereotypical homeless cause more problems. His shelter is better-suited to adults or families who get derailed from their paycheck-to-paycheck existences when they lose their jobs, their cars, their homes or, more often, all of the above. It's a state of being Drake knows well.
When his blunt nature and confrontational ministering got him nowhere as a Southern Baptist preacher in Huntington Beach in the 1970s, he abandoned the pulpit for an international marketing position with industrial-equipment manufacturer Ingersoll Rand. That brought him a lot of money and a lot of stress, which he relieved: first with too much booze and then with too much cocaine. After hitting rock bottom in 1980, he returned to serving God in his native Arkansas, where he, his wife and his four children survived on government handouts.
When Drake came to head up the Buena Park church in October 1987, there were close to 200 people in the congregation. It has since plummeted to about 75. Drake blames aerospace plant closings for driving several families away. Some neighbors blame Drake and point to the homeless people living on the church grounds.
Back in the old days, the church's only poverty program involved a half-dozen or so food baskets distributed every Thanksgiving. The Laguna Beach fire of 1993 changed that. Orange County's council of churches collected more food and clothing for disaster victims than they needed. Because it seemed to have plenty of space, the Buena Park church was chosen to store the surplus and then to dole it out weekly. Soon, First Southern Baptist was overflowing with people again. But they were not there to pray: they were there to eat, and then they were there hanging around waiting to eat. Soon, 20 people were pitching pup tents in the parking lot.
It was fairly low-key until 1997, when city officials, spurred by pissed-off neighbors, sued Drake for allowing the homeless to camp at his church. The media attention attracted more homeless residents. Soon there were 70; now there are more than 100.
After Drake countered that the city was violating his First Amendment right to practice his religion, the two sides settled out of court. Despite an occasional code citation here or complaint of city harassment there, the church is proceeding with plans to build a permanent homeless shelter at the back of its lot.
Wiley Drake's stand on behalf of the poorest of Orange County's poor turned him into a national hero. But there's another side to him that draws equal attention. He's a prominent national figure for the conservative wing of the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Protestant denomination with 15.8 million members. Drake proudly stands in the eye of an ideological storm that has split the convention. The conservative wing actively tries to force the rest of the convention to accept its damnations; people who are more liberal or moderate have left the church in droves, with some publicly saying that Drake and his ilk are not true Baptists. Former President Jimmy Carter, who, like Bill Clinton, was raised a Southern Baptist, may walk because of the hard-right turn.
As he stood in his church's parking lot, Drake shrugged and said there's room in the convention for those with views more liberal and moderate than his—so long as everyone agrees that homosexuality is against God and nature.
That is indeed his hot-button issue. But a close look at his activities over the past five years show he's all over the map.
Wiley Drake's partial hit parade:
•Boycotted Disney for providing domestic-partner benefits, doing nothing to stop "Gay Days" at its theme parks, and continuing to air Ellen on ABC after the sitcom's star came out.
•Denounced the Buena Park City Council for preventing a Korean church from opening in a white neighborhood.
•Smited Clinton for appointing a gay ambassador and imposing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on the military.
•Called on the president's church to discipline him for the Monica Lewinsky affair.
•Pushed, through his group Americans United for Unity of Church and State, to get the Ten Commandments posted in classrooms.
•Sought an audience with the pope after efforts failed to get the national and Orange County Roman Catholic dioceses to stop the closure of a small, mostly Latino, Catholic church just a few blocks from a larger, mostly white, Catholic church in Los Alamitos.
•Fought to keep a Veterans of Foreign Wars post from opening near his church because alcohol would be served there; Drake, a Navy veteran, wanted no problems with public drunkenness, urination, noise and trash —the same things his neighbors say his homeless shelter generates.