BUENA PARK, Calif. (BP)–Pastor Wiley Drake and two other church members face a jury trial April 10 for nine criminal misdemeanor charges related to First Southern Baptist Church’s ministry to poor and homeless people in Buena Park, Calif.
Judge Richard E. Behn in a Feb. 14 hearing dismissed two of 11 charges against the trio, who are legal officers of the church corporation. Upon advice from counsel, Drake, church secretary Vondel Mumaw and treasurer Eugene Chance pleaded “not guilty” to each charge.
The three could face a $1,000 fine and six months in jail for each charge.
Behn suggested mediation as an alternative to a jury trial.
“If the city will sit down with a mediator, we will do everything we can to correct the situations the city objects to,” Drake said in an interview. “However, there is one non-negotiable point of contention. We will not force anyone to leave church property so long as they abide by all church rules.”
Buena Park Assistant City Prosecutor Gregory Palmer said city officials would meet within a week to discuss the city’s mediation terms.
The city’s planning commission earlier in the week unanimously denied a conditional use permit for a multipurpose building on First Southern’s two-acre lot.
They said Drake did not submit guidelines as to how a
homeless shelter in the building would be operated.
“We do not believe the city has the right to dictate how, when and where we may minister to the people who come to us for urgent help,” Drake said. The church provides about 400 meals each week for the homeless. About 30 sleep at the church in their vehicles or in the rear of a building technically called an enclosed patio.
Drake said he did submit guidelines for use of the building, but that what he submitted — the church’s 40-year-old bylaws and constitution — was not what the commission wanted to see. He said he objected to the city’s requirement that all homeless shelters follow Orange County shelter guidelines. Those guidelines limit religious activity and include the payment of fees, Drake said.
“I cannot support giving carte blanche to Drake to do anything he wants on that property,” planning commission member Robert Niccum said at the meeting, adding he was outraged by Drake’s attitude. “He wants brinkmanship instead of dialogue.”
Such flaming rhetoric is typical of Drake and Palmer, too.
Drake: “I am not going to make a man, his wife and his two kids, sleeping in their car, leave church property because they are violating a camping ordinance. I am not a policeman. I am a pastor.”
Palmer: “We’re not trying to take away his ministry. All we want is for him to make it legal. They’re interested in making sure people are saved and don’t burn in hell. All we are concerned with is that they don’t burn here on earth from unsafe conditions.”
The standoff between Drake and the city started last May.
The city’s position is that residents of the residential neighborhood are complaining — but First Southern is in a treeless, commercial area.
It fronts Western Avenue, a four-lane arterial, beyond which are retail establishments. To the south of the church is a rectangular Masonic lodge, beyond which is a small strip mall. To the north of the church, across Melrose Street, is a 30-foot-deep, 50-foot-wide flood control channel, guarded by a six-foot-high chain-link fence on either side of the canal. West of First Southern’s parking lot and its soccer field-size grassy area is a light manufacturing complex.
There are perhaps a dozen vehicles — cars, vans, old RVs — neatly parked on the church lot. The few people who choose to socialize do so in the far corner of the lot, against the four-foot-high chain- link fence that marks the boundary between the Baptists and the Masons.
It is in this corner where donated furniture is set out for whomever wants it to stop by and get it, where newspapers and cardboard are stored for recycling reimbursement and where donated bread is set out for those in need.
The front door to the enclosed patio is in this corner. This 30- by-60-foot building once was a foundation slab and roof; it became a gathering place for gang members and was enclosed more to keep them out than because of First Southern’s need for space.
A few years later, Drake was called as pastor. A few years after that, with the church’s clothing and food closets overflowing, the pastor suggested the building on the far side of the patio.
Volunteers from Saddleback Community Church built shelves for food storage and racks on which to hang clothing. Those racks now divide the food and clothing distribution area from the coed sleeping area — accessible from a side door and wall-to-wall with about 20 wooden cots.
“According to county records, 13,000 people were homeless last night,” Drake said. “There are 3,000 available beds. Some of the 10,000 bedless come to us.”
The city hinges its objection to First Southern’s homeless ministry on violation of a city ordinance that prohibits camping within city limits. Drake wiggles away from that label.
“We have never allowed camping,” he said. “In my 10 years as pastor here, I have never allowed people to camp here.
“We will feed them, clothe them and tell them about Jesus,” the pastor said. “If they choose to not exit the property, we will not force them to leave. We will enforce good, moral behavior, dress code and personal hygiene. We will also insist on conversion from a lifestyle of drugs and alcohol and unemployment to a sober, clean, employed lifestyle.”
A pretrial hearing of the nine misdemeanor charges is set for March 17. Drake said he anticipates a settlement out of court.
“I would like to not go to court,” he said. “It doesn’t cost me any more to go to court.” Attorneys Jon Alexander and Adlore Clarambeau, as well as the Christian Law Association are representing Drake and the church at no charge.
“But I came here for life,” Drake said. “I don’t want to fight with the city the rest of that life.”