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7/17/97 Wiley Drake, church go on trial for controversial homeless help

BUENA PARK, Calif. (BP)–After months of legal wrangling, the case of pastor Wiley Drake has gone to trial for city code violations over his church’s ministry to homeless people in Buena Park, Calif.
Drake says it’s an issue of religious liberty; the city claims the case has nothing to do with the church’s religious affairs.
A criminal trial over five misdemeanor charges against Drake and the church (the church secretary also is named) began July 9 in North Orange County Municipal Court. Four other charges were either settled or dismissed.
Judge Gregg L. Prickett told potential jurors he “promised” the trial would be concluded by August.
That remains to be seen. Prickett and defense and prosecution attorneys revealed their respective strategies as they reviewed potential jurors on the first Wednesday of the trial.
Assistant City Prosecutor Gregory P. Palmer asked each potential juror to state whether he or she is a detail-oriented or big-picture person, then proceeded to eliminate those who said they were “big picture.”
Defense attorney Jon Alexander hammered on differentiating between strong suspicion versus definite proof.
Judge Prickett repeatedly told potential jurors to listen only to him for points of law, and that the city has a right to impose certain requirements on non-religious aspects of a church’s practices.
In an interview after the day’s session, Palmer said he was going to prove the church remains in wilful violation of city structural codes that are in place to protect the lives and property of its residents.
In an interview that night at First Southern, Alexander responded to Palmer’s charges:
“Just like a boat caught in a heavy storm, taking on water and threatening the lives of the people in it, who then commit an act of trespass by tying up to a private dock, this church saves people from drowning while maybe committing minor violations of the city’s building code,” Alexander said.
The legal wrangling has caused some strife in the church. One of the defendants is Eugene Chance. A 30-year deacon at First Southern and church treasurer, he resigned his positions and turned state’s evidence in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
Another church member, highly respected for her work with the church’s ministry to the homeless, has filed a 60-page deposition with the city that is expected to be used against Drake in the trial.
Church offerings are down. Drake said there have been months he hasn’t been paid, months in which he’s gone to the electric and telephone companies and asked for more time to raise the money to pay the bills.
Morale is up, meanwhile. Alex Whitten was called in June as assistant pastor. Charlene Volner recently was added as music and praise leader. There is some new paint and a shower used in the homeless ministry is being remodeled.
Reports of flagging attendance are untrue, defense attorney Alexander said, and on one recent Wednesday night there were 35 people sprinkled throughout the spacious sanctuary. Plus a camera crew from a public television station. Plus a woman and child who came in just as the sermon was starting, saying, “I heard they were having church here tonight.”
James and Madaline Borgfield know the church’s schedule by heart. They lived on church property for a year before finding a place to rent.
“We lived under a bridge until we heard of this church,” Madaline Borgfield said. “It’s been heaven-sent from God. We felt safe here. When we stayed on the street we knew it was just a matter of time before we’d be in jail or dead.”
Drake has been quoted in the secular media as saying like the Apostle Paul he’s prepared to lead the congregation from jail — but he doesn’t expect to.
Drake being quoted so much is part of the problem, city prosecutor Palmer said.
“He’s never met a camera he didn’t like,” Palmer said. “I think Wiley is doing this for his own self-aggrandizement.”
Drake’s wife disagrees.
“I see him like David,” Barbara Drake said. “I see him wanting to be a man after God’s heart.”
In the 10 years Drake has pastored the church, the community has changed, she said. When defense industries moved out, the area’s economy scrambled for sustenance. Homeowners in many cases gave to lower-income renters. More people started coming to the church for help with basic needs — food, clothing, shelter.
Shortly after First Southern members participated in the Baptist “Experiencing God” discipleship training course, Drake found someone sleeping on the church’s doorstep, a not-unusual occurrence, Barbara Drake said.
However, this time she said God spoke to him, “Are you going to join me?”
That was early 1994, Barbara Drake said. God kept sending more homeless people to the church and continued to provide enough food for all of them.
“My husband is just being faithful to what he understands God wants of him,” Barbara Drake said. “These betrayals by trusted church members have hurt him deeply, but he won’t give up.”
Not on any front. Drake and six other people picketed Disneyland the first Saturday of the trial. They passed out pamphlets that listed reasons for not buying Disney memorabilia.
Disneyland is in Buena Park. Drake was instrumental in 1996 in messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in New Orleans passing a resolution to consider a boycott if The Disney Company continued in an “anti-family” direction. This year in Dallas, SBC messengers followed through on a Disney boycott.
The Disney/Drake connection was made during the trial. All prospective jurors with Disney ties were rejected by either prosecution or defense attorneys. The judge released one person who said he feared on-the-job repercussions if Drake is not found guilty by the jury.
The trial continues with a jury that is predominantly young, white and female.