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.
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.
•Offered the opening prayer at the National Day of Repudiation of Jesse Jackson, which was commemorated in front of the federal building in Westwood on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday with signs reading "David Duke in Black Skin," "Wake Up, Black America" and "J.J. is no MLK."
•Persuaded the convention president to write a letter commending radio personality Dr. Laura Schlessinger for her "courageous stand" against homosexuality.
•Backed moves within the convention to do what was once unheard of: make the Southern Baptist Church more inclusive to African-Americans.
•Told 200 protesters outside Gray Davis' Riverside office—where a cardboard cutout of the governor was tarred and feathered—that "the demise of the human race has just begun" with Davis' signing of three "pro-homosexual" bills.
•Called on the Ventura County Board of Supervisors to rescind benefits for same-sex partners of county employees.
•Delivered a sermon titled "When Should God's People Pick Up Weapons to Defend Themselves and God's Work?" after his desire to carry a concealed weapon became public.
•Lobbied the convention to support the "male-only authority" of churches and families and decree that the Bible is without error.
•Joined clergy and militia groups in defending an Indianapolis Baptist church from being seized by the Internal Revenue Service over a tax dispute.
Drake concedes he enjoys all the attention his exploits draw, confessing in his Southern drawl, "When I see a Channel 7 van, I run after it." But, he slyly adds, "there is a method to my madness." He is among those media-savvy types who believe any press is good press so long as your name gets out there. He points to a recent company party at which there were 400 hot dogs left over. Instead of throwing them out, Drake says party organizers "remembered seeing my ugly mug in the media and brought the food over here."
First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park's parking lot. A dark, bitterly cold weeknight. Their bellies full, several homeless people are laughing and carrying on as they lay out bedrolls on the cold shelter floor. It actually seems like a fun place to hang out. Meanwhile, the area across the lot, around the church buildings, is downright spooky. As you walk past trees with leaves rustling in the wind, strange-looking men pop out from the shadows. One goes over to the communal showers, which is the next door down from the youth ministry, sees that it's occupied and shouts, "Shit!"
Good thing Pastor Drake isn't around to hear him cussing.
Inside a small office next to the youth-ministry room, Wiley Drake Jr. sits in a metal folding chair. He talks about growing up with three older sisters, a doting mother and a father who gave up drugs and drinking about the time he was born. He was 3 when his family moved from a posh New Jersey neighborhood to a depressed small town in Arkansas. He remembers having "loads of fun" in the South despite the family of six being crammed into a two-bedroom shack.
When he was about 6, the Drakes moved to Texas, where they stayed for three and a half years before returning to California. Wiley Jr. attended a private Christian school for part of third grade and all of fourth before his parents removed him for home schooling, where he remained through high school. His father says he home-schooled his son because he was upset with the school system and its lack of moral values. And this was a Christian school he was talking about. Looking back, Wiley Jr. figures there were things he missed while being home-schooled, but, he thinks the friends he made at church balanced out his social life.
Like any teen, he went through a rebellious period but credits his staunch Southern Baptist upbringing for making it less dramatic than in many households. There were no problems with drugs or alcohol. But he does admit to times of feeling disenfranchised at church. "I almost wanted to have nothing to do with it," he says.
Drake Sr., who confesses to having been "somewhat of an absentee father because of my ministry," credits his wife with keeping their children on course. His oldest daughter is an author, an early childhood-development educator at Cal Baptist University in Riverside and a minister (although not a head minister, thanks to the recent Southern Baptist ban on female pastors her father helped enact). Drake's second daughter is married to a minister in Bakersfield. His third daughter is a housewife who is not involved in the ministry.
As a teen growing into manhood around the homeless, Wiley Jr. says, he learned a lot about people. He still looks back fondly at the nice man who used to sleep on the church sidewalk. He believes homeless people are just like anyone else; they're just at the worst point in their lives. He reckons we'd all react as they do if we were in their battered shoes.
Earlier, his father walked past a row of lockers that were removed from airports and bus stations because of bomb threats and relocated to his homeless shelter. "Part of Wiley Jr.'s responsibilities is he's the vice president in charge of lockers," he joked. Residents can rent a locker for $2, which is applied to maintenance and—more important—gives them a sense of responsibility. The head pastor commented that his son has done a lot of work with the homeless over the years and is very patient with them.
Around the time the city sued his father over the shelter "was about the time that I got my calling," Wiley Jr. explains; he was then a junior in high school. Dad says he did not prod his son to go into the family business. Wiley Jr. concurs, "There have been times when other people have said you really have to follow your dad's footsteps, and I've said, 'No way.'" He had been more interested in scuba diving or "being some big, important person, like all kids do."
He was away at camp as a counselor when he prayed to God and the Big Guy let him know he would be working in the church with people on a daily basis. He had experience with the homeless and disaster victims, having run a Southern Baptist shelter for victims of the Northridge earthquake of 1994—at the ripe old age of 15. But he ultimately decided he'd best fulfill his calling by working with kids. He officially became the youth minister at his father's church in August 1998.
Wiley Sr. recognizes how lucky his congregation is. His son could easily have gone away to college instead. Wiley Jr. only gets a small church stipend, not a full salary. "We get a lot for our money," says the elder Drake. "He's had a lot more on-the-job training than theological training."
Like the homeless, the church youths teach Wiley Jr. about life. He appreciates their "brutal honesty" and the brutal honesty they expect from their elders in return. In fact, they are so honest that they can't help but ask about the controversy swirling around his father. He doesn't encourage such talk, but he doesn't shy away from it, either. It surprises him how conservative the kids are without having been actively pushed in that direction. When it comes to issues that teens are confused about, such as alternative lifestyles, Wiley Jr. makes it a point not to flat out say they're right or wrong. Instead, he'll point them to the Bible to discover the answer on their own.
"In our time of talking, we don't say marriage between homosexuals is wrong," he says. And even though he clearly believes gay marriage is wrong, he will not tell a kid who looks at those scriptures and comes up with a different opinion that he or she is wrong.
"We see it very much as Jesus did," he says. "If someone's doing something that is wrong and is a sin, you should not in any way condone the sin. But you don't condemn the person. We all sin. It's God's job to work on their hearts and make them see what is right and what is wrong."
If you're thinking he doesn't sound like dear old dad, he and Dad would be the first to agree. Both say they hold pretty much the same conservative values, but Wiley Jr. denies they were programmed into him. "Where I have the same opinion as my father, I almost hate to say I agree with him because I have come to those conclusions on my own," he says.
What largely distinguishes the two is ministerial style. Carefully picking his words, Wiley Jr. explains he is often at odds with the divisive way his father and the church's conservative wing spread their messages. That disagreement came to a head when his father led the Disney boycott.
Wiley Sr. is blunter. "Our compassion is the same," he said, "but we're very different in that I'm sort of a media hound and he's not."
First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park. Friday night at "Ground Zero," a semiregular evening of games, movies and concerts in the youth-ministry room. A teen with spiked, bleached hair is challenging all comers at the foosball table. A girl is in the bathroom for what seems like an eternity, doing her hair. A copy of a flier that's been distributed around town is taped to the front door. "Are you 13-18?" it begins before mentioning the music, the food, the drinks. Across the bottom, it reads, "Free with this flier." Ground Zero has obviously stolen a page from concert promoters.
Indeed, some Ground Zeroes feature live music—from Christian ska and punk bands. Those nights have drawn up to 200 kids. Tonight, the 20 or so who are scattered about will have to make do with loudspeakers blaring out what sounds like Reel Big Fish, complete with herky-jerky ska horn breaks, but the singer is singing, "Hallelujah to the King of Kings." A few prerecorded songs later, a Brian Setzer-sounding guy repeatedly shouts, "You are the devil, and the devil is bad."
Despite such faith-affirming lyrics, it's odd to hear rock music here. History and movies like Footloose portray a different Southern Baptist church, the church in which pastors did not allow dancing. This is the church in which rock & roll records were smashed. Indeed, even today, Wiley Jr. encounters "some people who see what we do as extreme." They can't fathom churchgoing kids in baggy jeans and spiked hair jumping around like maniacs to loud music one moment and then quietly worshiping God the next. "They say [rock and faith] should be separate from each other, but we don't agree," Wiley Jr. says. "We think it's all part of what makes it a church."
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?
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."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"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.