In the Name of the Father

Growing up Wiley Drake Jr.

His father agrees—to a point. "I'll stick my head in the door once in a while to let the kids know I'm alive, but it's not my thing," Drake Sr. says of the concerts, which he says feature bands that are "good enough for kids to like them but not good enough where they'll charge us money."

When it comes to rocking youth ministries, First Southern Baptist "is on the real fringe" compared with other Southern Baptist churches across the nation, according to Wiley Sr. "This is very counter to the traditional Southern Baptist service," he said.

His son believes going non-traditional will draw more youths to the church. Ground Zero offers them a good time, proof that Christianity isn't just the Ten Commandments and a list of 603 other rules to live by. He looks around and mentions how much he loves this room and the fact that the church pretty much leaves them alone.

Most teens who come to Ground Zero are not from the regular church congregation or the homeless compound, which is filled mostly with adults and very young children. They're generally kids from the local junior high and high schools. After a couple of visits, they often invite their friends, something Wiley Jr. encourages but does not demand. "We don't want them trying to sell their friends on God because if you try to sell them, they will totally reject you," he says. "It's got to come from a real place in you."

Madeline Huard, a 14-year-old who has been part of the youth ministry for two years, relishes having a fun place to hang out and meet people her age. She was first brought here by a friend, and on this night, she brings a friend of her own, 14-year-old Jane, who does not want to give her last name.

"It's okay," Jane says of Ground Zero. "Actually, it's better than I expected."

Will she be back?

"We'll see."

Jeff Mabus, 17, admits that his friends don't know he comes to Ground Zero. They don't even know what it is. This seems to be a recurring theme. Erron Johnson, a 10-year-old who lives nearby, says bluntly, "None of my friends from school come here. They say they'll ask their moms if they can come, but they haven't yet."

Huard says she thinks Wiley Jr. is "really cool" and "quirky."

"He has a lot of responsibility for a 21-year-old," she says. "He does everything for everyone else before he does anything for himself."

Wiley Jr. says he wants these teens to apply their personal relationships with God to their everyday lives. He wants them to be "different in their world" but not secluded. He encourages them to stay in sports—even if it means missing church services for practice—because they will be able to show more people the importance of God in their lives.

He says he has no interest in following in his father's footsteps. He believes he can be a youth pastor even at age 50, so long as he continues to "be real with them."

It's certainly possible Wiley Drake Jr. is programming America's next generation of Bible-thumping intolerants. It's also possible it will take a Wiley Drake Jr. to change the divisive, ultraconservative course people like his father have charted for the Southern Baptist Church. If that's the case, here's hoping that Wiley Drake Jr. tunes out Dad and turns on his young flock, and that they all find whatever it is they're looking for.

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