SAN DIEGO — The Rev. Dorman Owens, the fundamentalist minister who along with six of his followers was arrested Thursday on charges of conspiring to bomb a clinic that performs abortions, is an open-collar preacher who is the antithesis of the telegenic, and often wealthy, religious leaders who frequently appear on television.
For Owens, the test of religious faith is not met through the accumulation of wealth, large religious compounds or the damnation of evil. Rather, it is met through deeds and action.
Owens' many past statements and interviews with Baptist church leaders and others show a common thread flowing through his Bible Missionary Fellowship Church in Santee in the 1980s. The common thread is that the world is either black or white, an absolute vision with no room for grays.
Owens, who today sits in the downtown San Diego Metropolitan Correctional Center and could not be reached for comment Friday, has been outspoken about the war he and his "soldiers" are conducting against a plethora of evils, a battle that has isolated him from other churches and caused some in his small flock to leave.
"If you go to church, sometimes the preacher might get up and say something about abortion or homosexuality. Usually, he won't, because he's afraid he'll run somebody off from his church," Owens said in an interview earlier this year with The Reader, a San Diego weekly newspaper. "I've had a lot of people leave this church because of stands I've taken.
"The redneck who loves America, he'll be excited about the things I say about standing up and loving America and being patriotic and standing against evil. But when I start standing against his booze, he is not going to like that. Then there are people whom the world has programmed to believe that all religion is good, so when I preach against the doctrine of Roman Catholicism or Unitarianism, they are offended.
"Truth of the matter, the world is greatly offended at God. If you just take this book (the Bible) and just preach it, just like it is, it is going to be offensive to a lot of people. There are people who are going to be mad."
Owens, who in the past has been arrested for ignoring court orders restricting picketing in front of abortion clinics, is unassuming in appearance. He is a stocky, 54-year-old who wears dark-rimmed glasses and who, by his own word, owns one suit.
Refuse to Talk
His congregation, which numbers about 300 to 400, reflects that too. They are, Owens has said, "hard-working" people. The parking lot of the congregation's five-acre headquarters in the 8800 block of Prospect Avenue in Santee is prone more to pickups than BMWs. So far, no one at the church has agreed to talk publicly about the arrests or the congregation.
Owens has said he intentionally wanted to keep things simple when he co-founded the church in 1971. He had been working with alcoholics and derelicts at another Baptist church where he started his ministry after graduating from the San Diego Bible College at the age of 37. He is paid $22,000 a year as pastor of the church, he has said.
In the early years, Owens' congregation met in rented buildings and schools. In 1975, the congregation built their current structure, a simple building of corrugated steel and concrete blocks. Later, a tan, stucco building was added that houses a kindergarten-through-12th-grade school, which is unaccredited because Owens does not want any part of state regulation that would come with it.
His oldest son, Paul, is also a minister.
Starting in 1982, Owens and his congregation began to take their faith into the streets. Protests at X-rated movie houses and abortion clinics and in the homosexual community became as much a part of church activities as Sunday services.
The escalating series of protests led to what police allege was the planting of a bomb in July outside the offices of a San Diego medical clinic that performs abortions. Although the bomb never detonated, police arrested a member of Owens' congregation, Eric Everitt Svelmoe, 32, for allegedly placing the device at the clinic.
On Thursday, after an investigation by both police and federal authorities, Owens and six others in his congregation were arrested in connection with an alleged conspiracy to bomb three clinics. Owens was also charged with witness tampering for allegedly attempting to talk Svelmoe into not cooperating with authorities.