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Church Members Take Their Beliefs Out to the Streets : Congregation in San Diego County Aggressively Battles Abortion, Gays

January 03, 1988|RALPH FRAMMOLINO and RICHARD A. SERRANO | Times Staff Writers

SANTEE — The church is one of a thousand such strongholds throughout the country--a plain one-story building hugged by a school, surrounded by large trees and a chain-link fence where the politics of the John Birch Society and the National Rifle Assn. flourish among the literal interpretation of the Scripture.

The members carry their well-worn and marked-up Bibles to Sunday worship service . Many of them tithe. The men have short hair and wear jeans. The women wear dresses that fall well below the knee. The children sit obediently in the wooden pews.

All eyes look to the pulpit, all voices raised in song as the preacher vigorously waves his arm in time with the piano player, who keeps missing the same note in the chorus of the old-time hymn, "Blessed Assurance."

View of the World

The Bible Missionary Fellowship--founded in this city east of San Diego by a West Texan named Dorman Owens--is a home for true believers. When they describe their view of the world, they use labels: anti-Catholic, anti-Communist, anti-evolution, anti-homosexual, anti-womens' lib, anti-public schools and anti-abortion.

Yet it is not the nature of these beliefs that sets the church apart from other Baptist churches. It is the tactics.

Since 1983, members of the Bible Missionary Fellowship have been marching out of their ordered world to confront homosexuals and abortion providers with the threat of eternal damnation. Steadily, their methods have become more extreme.

They have stood on street corners and yelled and screamed and preached from bullhorns and carried picket signs depicting dismembered fetuses, telling all within earshot that God will not suffer the sinner. Dorman Owens once donned the uniform of a Mexican federal officer to threaten Latino women who sought abortions. Last year one of the church members used a stun gun on a man escorting his girlfriend into an abortion clinic.

"A nation cannot go on killing its posterity," said the preacher's son, Paul Owens. "Who knows who we've killed up to this point? Seventeen, 18 million people?

"We're trying to save America."

But America, in the form of the federal government, is saying that the pastor and a handful of his followers are the ones endangering the safety of society.

Eric Everette Svelmoe, a church member, was arrested in July after planting a bomb--which never went off--at Family Planning Associates Medical Group, a San Diego abortion clinic. Svelmoe has pleaded guilty to the crime. In a series of criminal charges filed in November against Dorman Owens and seven others, the government contends that the group conspired to bomb the clinic as part of a well-coordinated plan.

3 Clinics Targeted

The informant whose statements triggered the investigation said the scheme initially targeted three abortion clinics and included moonlight surveillance. According to the informant, who spoke with The Times on the condition of anonymity, the bombing conspiracy grew out of a determination by some church members to do more than just pray for an end to sin.

"They kind of thought of themselves as soldiers for God, and they had been specially commissioned to do this for God," the informant said. "It would bring glory to God. People would see that some of (them) were committed enough to go to jail."

Seven church members have been released on bond. All the defendants but Svelmoe have pleaded innocent to the charges. Only Dorman Owens remains in jail, denied release by two judges who listened to tape-recordings secretly made of a jail house visit between Owens and Svelmoe. Based on that visit, the preacher has been charged with witness tampering for allegedly urging Svelmoe not to testify against him and other church members.

Neither Owens nor any of the others charged in the case would discuss the indictments.

To the members of the Santee congregation, the imprisonment justifies a sense of persecution.

Bill Meyers, a Navy veteran who teaches math and science at the BMF Christian school, finds comfort in the avenging promise of Psalm 37: "The wicked plotteth against the just, and gnasheth upon him with his teeth. The Lord shall laugh at him: for he seeth that his day is coming."

On a recent morning, when headlines about Owens were splashed across newspapers, Meyers had his students read and discuss that passage during their morning devotional.

"The people who are laughing at our church are the abortionist and the atheist," Meyers told his class. "They are laughing at our calamity now. But the Scripture says that when the Judgment Day comes, the Lord will be laughing at their calamity."

Yet those who have been Owens' targets say the church instills an uncommon religious zeal that borders on the fanatical.

"I'm sorry for the guy. I'm sorry for him, and I'm sorry for his family. I'm sorry for his church," said the Rev. David Farrell, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church, a primarily gay congregation that was frequently picketed by the Bible Missionary Fellowship.

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