Bible Thumpin' Baptist Takes on Disney

It's the kind of scene that makes some of us cringe: at the Southern Baptist convention in Dallas two weeks ago, a group of pasty-faced men in cheap suits filed into a press conference--camera strobes splashing light across their somber faces, the images beamed out over CNN, ABC, CBS and NBC--to announce that America's Southern Baptists, all 16 million or so of them, are going to stomp the Walt Disney Co. with their JC Penny loafers, going to wither the nonproductive fig tree, going to trample out the vintage where the grapes of Disney's pro-gay agenda are stored.That's not the embarrassing part. That came moments later when the group's most distinguished-looking member (53-years-old, graying, big muscles giving way to gravity) stepped up to the mic--and you recognized him as a minister from Orange County, California, a guy called Wiley Drake. He was ready for Round 2 in his (so far) unsuccessful fight to get Disney to abandon what he thinks are anti-Christian films (like Priest and Powder), gay-themed publishing, and most of all, to rescind its year-old policy of extending employee benefits to the domestic partners of the company's gay employees.It's the kind of moment you fear, an intellectual semaphore to the rest of America that we seem to live in a place not too far beyond the days when a Negro entering one of our cafes was sized up, stripped, beaten and left for dead in the orange groves. And this wasn't Drake's first time in front of the press on the issue. Last summer, while his convention colleagues merely condemned Disney's employment practices, Drake--a recovering alcoholic with a Southern drawl and a get-out-of-my-way-because-my-God's-bigger-than-yours political style--took the convention floor and proclaimed condemnation wasn't good enough, only an out-and-out boycott would do. Attendees paused, gasped--and then erupted in applause, swept up by Drake's muscular rhetoric, biblical justifications and fighting words.A self-proclaimed "Bible-thumpin' Baptist," Drake's take on homosexuality is hardly nuanced. "The Bible says [homosexual sex] is wrong, and I wouldn't be much of a pastor or a Christian if I said it was right," Drake asserted. "The homosexual speaks the same language and shares the same compulsive behavior as drug and alcohol abusers."Now--12 months later--Drake is back, imploring his followers to stay away from Walt Disney Co. movies, music, newspapers, magazines, books, plays, theme parks, retail outlets, television networks, cable channels, sports teams and vacation destinations. It's all aimed, as Drake recently put it, to "get us back to the Disneyland of the 1950s."But Drake's miniboycott last summer against Disney fizzled. Refusing to negotiate with Disney, Drake's winner-take-all negotiating style left him broke. After trading no-compromise verbal assaults on the subject, Disney simply ignored Drake. The media wandered away. And the boycott dissipated anonymously. (Interestingly, Disney seems to be taking this year's Southern Baptist rebuke more seriously, yanking Insane Clown Posse's The Great Malenko off the shelves less than a week after the Dallas convention. Though they had previously endorsed pressing 100,000 copies of the Hollywood Records CD, top Disney executives suddenly concluded--on the day of release--that it was an obscene album.) If the only Drake you know is the tractor-pulling, bronco-busting, gay-bashing guy who turns up at meetings of snake handlers to rile up the lumpen, you don't know Wiley Drake. The Buena Park minister is also Orange County's most aggressive defender of the county's poor.Flash back to a temperate summer day in 1996--cerulean skies, a cooling breeze, slowly baking mass-produced homes. But inside the offices of the First Southern Baptist Church, the rhetoric was bubbling, scalding, volcanic. Drake was hunkered down in his church's one-story, cream-colored offices. It was a place that looks more like a Sputnik-era elementary school than a house of Christ--and Drake wasn't sounding like your conventional Orange County Man of God. He was responding to reporters' questions about municipal-code violations cited by Buena Park prosecutors--vagrancy, expired permits and illegal camping. The infractions stemmed from Drake's peculiar ambition: in a nation of convenient Christians, this guy actually wants to live out the Gospel. In his head, that means allowing homeless men and women to camp--in mildewy tents, pickup campers, and rusting station wagons amid more cigarette butts than a Folger's can outside an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting--on the grounds of his Western Avenue church. City officials said he was violating at least nine municipal codes. "I'll go to jail before I give up on the homeless!" Drake declared. And he might have had to: each violation carried a $1,000 fine or a six-month lockup in the city can. "Bullying tactics!" Drake declared. "The Bible says we must provide sanctuary for the needy. No government is going to prohibit us from doing that!" During the next few days, things between Drake and the city got nasty. And then--like God's light piercing the gloom--Buena Park officials reached out. They gave Drake a two-week extension on the zoning-permit charges--provided he start plans for a city-approved housing shelter.That was a year ago. Since then, Drake and the city have gone back to war. Their fight sometimes edges toward peaceful resolution, but it invariably returns to a hot war of name calling, legal threats and biblical imprecations. In early May, they were on the verge of a mediated agreement when the city suddenly hit Drake with a very stiff letter threatening--not for the first time--to "commence civil proceedings" if the reverend didn't turn the homeless away "immediately." Drake was incredulous. "Here we were makin' all this progress, and then this," he said of the letter. In fact, behind-the-scenes, city officials said, Drake had once again derailed the negotiations. They said Drake gives little, asks for more, fudges, sidesteps and fails to meet deadlines when negotiating.And the city fails to back up threats. Its deadline--May 6--came and went. The homeless remain. And the battle continues--a battle that is like a movie shot out of Drake's psyche and projected onto the screen of the Buena Park City Hall. It's a movie in which Drake is the hero--a leader of the outcast, exorcising personal demons by taking on his city, his neighbors, his own congregation. Drake doesn't know what the final scene will be; that'll come in the next few weeks. But we do, and it's likely to be Suburban Apocalyptic--homeless men and women scattered throughout the county, residents whining that nothing's being done. And Drake? It's likely Orange County's (and maybe America's) most ardent defender of the poor will never serve lunch in this town again.What Drake wants to do at his church is build a spiritual experience in a box, with an entrance for homeless people on one side and an exit for the healthy, sober, prosperous Christians they become on the other--not a shelter, Drake said carefully, but "a Conversion Transition Center." "Typical shelters are crash pads, not adequate rehabilitative centers," said Christina Bush, Drake's administrative aide and paralegal, herself once a resident at an Orange County shelter. "The services are geared toward food and clothing--which is great, but where is a person supposed to get the psychological and spiritual sustenance so vital to staying alive? The reverend believes in treating the whole person, to make sure they go back out there functioning in a higher capacity."The city said call it what you want: it's still a shelter, it still has to meet municipal building codes, and what's going on right now--the camping, the clothing distribution, the food handouts--is illegal. Hence the fight. Drake's message is part "Power to the People," part "Don't Tread on Me." "The municipality is asking us to deny refuge, deny sanctuary for these people," he said. "I will abide by any city laws, but this is a violation of the Constitution and the Bible!!! If I have to, I will take this to higher courts and call for civil-rights legislation for the poor!!!!" Civil-rights legislation for the poor? Such atomic-powered enthusiasm--Drake always talks in multiples of exclamation points, sweeping generalizations, clarion calls to let the justice roll down like water--account for Drake's rising profile. It has transformed him from an obscure minister into a quotable activist and advocate. But he's paid a price for his newfound prominence: membership in his church has fallen (he blames the economy), he's an object of scorn among Buena Park residents (who he claims lack empathy) and the target of battle-weary city officials (who he decries as secular bureaucrats). And he's ready to join the likes of Pat Buchanan as a bona-fide populist and working-class hero.On their side, city officials have municipal codes, lawyers and many of the residents living in the neighborhood around First Southern. On his side, Drake has radical biblical injunctions--"love thy neighbor," "thou shalt not harden thine heart," "whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers"--and a capacity to calculatedly enrage. He has delayed payments on building applications and dared officials to shut him down.And he has ambition. The quixotic fight against Disney? The high-profile war against the city that keeps his name in the L.A. Times and The Orange County Register each week? "I'd be less than honest if I said I didn't like the attention." And every day the battle with City Hall drags on, Drake increases his value as a media figure.Here's where the battle now stands: according to Lee Hitchcock, Buena Park's building and safety manager, Drake is permitted to start construction on a homeless shelter, provided he meets shelter guidelines. But Drake has refused, arguing that his Conversion Transition Center is not a shelter: it's a religious refuge for the dispossessed to get back on their feet, look for work and change their lives. That makes it a specifically religious endeavor--and that, Drake has said, put the city on the wrong side of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which ostensibly protected the ways Americans practice their faith until the Supreme Court struck down the congressional mandate on June 25. Drake must now pray the First Amendment shelters his religious-refuge assertion. "The city is telling us to move the homeless off our property, and if we don't, we are violating municipal zoning codes!" Drake said. "The city is saying we cannot do virtually all the ministering we plan to in our new facility except for administering traditionally acceptable services to the homeless!!" City prosecutor Greg Palmer has one word for that: "ridiculous." Former Buena Park City Council member Donald Bone found Drake's arguments irrelevant: "All churches have to pay for building permits and abide by shelter guidelines," he said. "This is not a case of God's law vs. man's law. . . . There are alternative ways of helping the poor without running afoul of the law." City planner Rick Warsinski claimed the shelter guidelines were created by the privately funded Orange County Homeless Issues Task Force, so Drake's cry of government infringement upon religious freedom is not only desperate, but it's also unfounded.Residents in the blue, pink and yellow Edward Scissorhands-style neighborhood around First Southern are pretty pissed off, too. Lourdes Vargas, 32, doesn't care what Drake calls his homeless shelter. "Whatever the building is, it should be in a nonresidential area," she said. "Homeless people sleep on our lawn and constantly ask residents for money to buy cigarettes and liquor. They're not looking for work. I've seen the same people around here for two, three years. My kids know them by name." Among more than 20 residents living near the church, not one supported Drake. Most called him "self-interested" and "fanatical.""Look," explained city prosecutor Palmer with a boiled-down, battle-hardened, Wiley-Drake-is-out-of-touch-with-reality delivery, "there are four major problems with Drake's case: his [church's] recreation structure is operating without permits; he changed the use of his structure from a recreation/patio to a food-and-clothing storage-and-distribution plant; they store many of their items outside in public view; and the homeless are living in a parking lot. He's in violation of the law. End of story." Not if you're Wiley Drake. But when Drake countered that what his church does on its own property is nobody else's business, Palmer responded: "If you live amongst poppies on an open plain in Montana, great. But in an urban area, we have zoning laws that apply to all inhabitants and meet the needs of the entire community. Drake started out with good intentions, but now he's just media-hungry." The young Wiley was raised by James and Elna Drake, products of Arkansas' not particularly religious working class. Family lore has it that they can trace their roots back to Sir Francis Drake, the 16th-century explorer; the reverend, who is fond of making links between himself and spirited historical figures who bucked the system, doesn't reject the possibility. But behind this hero identification is a tempestuous past you wouldn't expect in a man publicly committed to God and the homeless. As Drake explained, "I know what it's like to be hungry and without the Lord."Drake's circuitous path is fatefully linked to the paradoxical relationship with his father, a rugged, earthy roughneck who worked oil fields throughout the South. Never mind that Wiley's dad didn't provide much in the way of nice things--the reverend describes his upbringing as "an Arkansas dirt-farm-poor childhood"--the young Drake was enamored of his virile, straight-talking father. But James was no smaller- government-is-better-government-Republican. He taught his family that living on government cheese and vats of peanut butter and going without shoes in the summer was nothing to be ashamed of--just as long as it wasn't forever. There was little actual Southern Christianity--churchgoing, hymn singing and snake charming--until the 17-year-old Drake entered the Navy. Then, while aboard a ship off the coast of Vietnam, he heard a "bunch of sailors making a hell of a racket," he said. Expecting to see empty bottles of Southern Comfort and tattooed jar heads, Drake was surprised to find his shipmates singing from an hymnal. The songs raised him clear out of Arkansas, off the ship, and then dumped him onto the lap of the Lord. By evening's end, Drake had committed himself to Jesus. Drake returned home to become a minister. Meanwhile, his once-hard-working father was drinking himself into a dark hole. When he reached the bottom, James blew his head off with a shotgun. Drake was 25. By the mid-1960s, Drake had sharpened his ministerial chops. Working a series of small, raucous Southern churches, he had become a distiller of religious enthusiasms. Declaring himself ready for the big leagues, Drake decided to bring his message of hope to the seemingly irreligious people of Southern California. After "soapboxing on the street corners of Los Angeles," Drake landed a job at the Ellis Avenue Baptist Church in Huntington Beach. There, his lack of formal education and blunt, confrontational ministering--which had worked so well in the South--thwarted his climb up the ecclesiastical ladder. By the early 1970s, with a growing family and mounting bills, he reluctantly left the ministry for an international-marketing position with Ingersoll Rand.Financially the move proved lucrative. Spiritually, it was disastrous. "I was a free-wheelin', deal-makin' corporate roller with Ingersoll Rand, selling our wares in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East," Drake recalled. "In a position like that, the pressure is intense." And that brought Drake face-to-face with the same beast that had destroyed his father. "I began to drink socially--martini lunches, some wine at dinner," he said. "But over the course of nine years, I became dependent on the stuff. I was an alcoholic." When his slurring speech became conspicuous, Drake tried to cover it. "I switched to cocaine so I could function high," he admited. "I became an addict adept at deception. By 1980, everything was blowin' and goin'--the money, the booze, the drugs. And then I finally crashed." His business career went down in flames during a debauched evening of partying 17 years ago in Chicago. That night, he drank like a fiend, snorted a "boatload of coke," and eventually passed out in his own urine on the floor of a hotel bathroom. "I thought I overdosed," he recalled, a trace of vulnerability evident in his direct voice. "And then I heard a voice that said, ‘Wiley, if you come to the Lord, I'll take you back.' As I lay there in this pathetic state, I thought about my wife and my kids, and I said, ‘I'm going back to God.' I haven't touched drugs or booze since that night in Chicago." That was also the night that Drake may have earned renewed respect for the poor. Squeezed out of Ingersoll Rand by his drug and alcohol problems and by larger, invisible economic troubles, Drake and his family were humiliated in ways he never knew as a kid in outhouse-rich Arkansas. "It was bad enough that I was getting unemployment checks for a year," he recalled. "But after they ran out, we started buying groceries with food stamps from a Bernardsville, New Jersey, welfare agency. We lived in the same neighborhood where Jackie Onassis, Meryl Streep and the secretary of state had homes, and we couldn't even buy a turkey for Thanksgiving."Even without drugs and alcohol, Drake found himself getting closer to the bottom of the same dark hole that swallowed his father. He packed up the family, returned to Arkansas, and recommitted his life to the ministry.Drake admits that it has been difficult running a modest parish in the plush backyards of Orange County and with the added competition of nationwide tele-churches. After seeing his flock grow in the late 1980s to 250, it began to dwindle; it's now just under 100. Drake denied responsibility for the drop. He leaned forward, hands clasped, and explained: "Numbers don't mean success. Some of our families left because the aerospace industry went sour, others found our congregation to be too diverse: any Sunday, you'll find a CEO sitting next to a guy who has been on the street for three years. We accept everybody."Not everybody agrees with that analysis. "The guy is completely narrow-minded. You don't know where he is coming from," claimed the 30-year-old daughter of a local machinist who has seen Drake in action at tense City Council meetings. "Where is he going to get the money to support his so-called Conversion Transition Center, even if it were approved? Certainly not from the parishioners because most of them have left." The reverend's most vocal neighborhood opponent may be the 80-year-old woman who has, for the past five decades, lived in a well-kept, one-story home a few doors down from the church. The 5-foot-tall octogenarian was pulling weeds from a lawn entrenched behind a formidable chainlink fence that separates her suburban back yard from the increasingly urban city street when I met her. She was hesitant to speak at first, but she opened up when the subject turned to Drake--and then she was unstoppable."He's a pain in the ass," she asserted unequivocally. "He's [housing the homeless] for himself, and he doesn't care what the neighborhood thinks. I saw two of his people take a crap on my lawn. I mean, what is this?" Like a lot of secular folks, she figured Drake's church ought to be an aesthetically pleasing icon--not a center of charity and radical subversion. She recalled a time when First Southern "was a wonderful place of worship with a beautiful organ I could hear [while I was] sitting on my porch." Those days are gone, she said, thanks to Drake--a man she dismissed as "asinine." And she blamed the many parishioners who've left the church, too: "In my day, we'd fight until we got him out," she said. "The cowards just got up and let him ruin everything."Drake has some allies, if only the homeless themselves. One 49-year-old Vietnam vet skilled in sandblasting and painting (he asked not to be named because it may hurt his chances of staying at other shelters) has been parking his van on church property for the past week while he looks for work. He said he earned $23.50 per hour at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard until the facilities were scaled back. Now he works far-less-lucrative jobs."There are plenty of smart, skilled people who are living on the streets because the economy is changing and contractors are looking for cheaper labor here and overseas," he said. "I have a skilled craft, and I can't tell you how many times I've lost a job for being overqualified. No company is going to pay $15 an hour if they can get less skilled labor at $5." I asked him about Drake's critics. Those who haven't been thrown out on the streets are frequently clueless when it comes to homelessness, he said. "We're not all junkies and whores. You don't know how close you are from being where I am now," he said. "The way the American money machine is run, most people are a paycheck away from a nice cot in a shelter. We need a guy like the reverend."

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