Punk Rock Pastor Joe Furey's Life of Addiction, Loss and Recovery Makes Him the Perfect Man to Preach to the Imperfect

Punk Rock Pastor Joe Furey's Life of Addiction, Loss and Recovery Makes Him the Perfect Man to Preach to the Imperfect
Illustration: Tim Foley | Design: Dustin Ames

Even though it's 10 a.m. on a Sunday, the rear courtyard of His Place could easily be the parking lot of a local bar right after a punk-rock show. The fiery popping sounds of motorcycle tailpipes bounce off asphalt, as choppers idle in makeshift parking spaces. January's morning chill is accented with gruff chatter, perfume and cigarette smoke. A co-ed pack of tattooed hard-asses mill around; some are glassy-eyed and ravaged from the night before.

But as the back doors to the building swing open and the motley crew files inside, it's clear they are all anxious to hear Pastor Joe Furey's weekly sermon. The beginning of every service at Chestnut Street in Westminster, just off the 405 freeway, starts with dozens kneeling and at the foot of the church's main stage, also known as the altar, to pray and confess their sins to God. Outfitted in a black collared shirt and jeans, Furey's fit, 5-foot-8 frame moves nimbly through the scrunched-up congregants. Jets of gray stream from the temples of his closely cropped brown hair. As he passes, he puts his hands on the shoulders of each parishioner, praying quickly and silently with them. Some have fallen off the wagon or are fresh out of the drunk tank; others have been abandoned once again by loved ones.

The crowd at His Place are the kind of people the Bible tells us Jesus might have actually hung out with—the people society doesn't want, the un-savable. And his ability to focus the punk passion of his followers toward Christianity makes him a rare find in OC's alternative-church culture. In the 18 years since Furey took over His Place, its population continues to burst at the seams, despite the church having no particular cachet with the hipster Christian set, no TV network, no reality show, no glass megachurch.

Joe Furey
John Gilhooley
Joe Furey
Joe and Therese Furey
John Gilhooley
Joe and Therese Furey

It's a simple place run by a humble, charismatic pastor who can look into the eyes of a coke addict, a thief, a workaholic, and not only see a lost soul, but a bit of himself as well. Furey's history of drug abuse, addiction, loss and recovery is harrowing, and though he doesn't oversell it in every sermon, it plays a huge role in his journey through pastorhood, whether he's talking about his days as a dope dealer or losing his son to a heroin overdose.

Once the doors close and Furey is alone with his flock, nothing matters except that they are all there together and trying to find the same path. "We're all broken; we all have issues," Furey says. "You don't get cleaned up to go to church. You go to church to get cleaned up."

*     *     *

Furey remembers the first line of coke he snorted.

It was April of 1977. A 22-year-old basketball coach at La Purisima Catholic School in El Modena at the time, young Furey traded a coke dealer (his future brother-in-law) a sizable amount of primo bud for a small baggy of white powder, which he stashed in his wallet until the fateful day he decided to do a bump before practice. The sensation is still vivid—the spark of neurons in his brain illuminating like neon signs on the Vegas strip, the fool's sense of clarity, of utter godliness.

"From the first moment, I was like, 'Wow! This is for me!'" Furey recalls.

An OC-raised Catholic, his childhood had all the hallmarks of a typical religious upbringing—the schooling, the sacraments, the alcoholism. He also had a hidden cross to bear: being molested by his local priest—Father Michael D. Buckley—from the time he was in seventh grade until around the time he started high school.

As a kid, Furey sat his siblings in a circle around him while he played priest, passing out fake paper Eucharist. He was a sharp boy who sometimes had trouble fitting in, especially at Mater Dei High School, where he attempted to be a jock on the basketball team but mostly ended up riding the bench. His drug use started with puffing joints in the school parking lot after class.

Furey was quiet, so most people didn't know he was a natural-born leader, the eldest of eight kids. When Furey was just 17, his father—a hardworking product of the Great Depression—passed away of pancreatic cancer at age 49. Though the two hardly spoke, the early death of his workaholic father convinced Furey that being a workaday slave wasn't the way to go. He started dealing coke and weed on a regular basis. Meanwhile, he helped to raise his siblings and mentor his brothers as their basketball coach at La Purisima until cops nabbed one of his young customers, who had a ledger with all the drugs he'd bought from Furey. Within days, Furey was busted and fired from his coaching job.

Still intent on his sketchy line of work, Furey became a mule in a short-lived, four-person, dope-smuggling ring in 1979; their mission was to fly to South America posing as two male-female couples on separate flights. They traveled from Ecuador to Peru and keistered a sizable amount of coke to bring back to the U.S. through LAX, but the DEA busted all four at the airport; three were charged, and two were convicted. Fortunately for Furey, the woman who accompanied him refused to rat him out. He managed to not incriminate himself during interrogation and miraculously avoided a body-cavity search.

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