The Conviction of Tim Dreste

Tim Dreste's journey from Christian missionary to anti-abortion racketeer cost him a $6 million federal fine for his role in threatening to "kill, assault or do bodily harm" to abortion providers. But he isn't about to stop his crusade.

His family, the church, stresses doing God's work from a more practical point of view than many fundamentalist Protestant denominations, always reminding members that gaining entrance to heaven isn't like buying a lottery ticket. There is no magic to it, no speaking in tongues, no handling snakes, no eternal security. You work hard here on Earth, quietly, diligently, to retire in eternity. Your works are an outward manifestation of your faith, and your faith is what saves you.

A young woman wedged in behind an organ calls out, "Somebody pick a hymn," and somebody else calls back, "How about 392?" There are no candles, no potted lilies, no ushers passing trays. There are no heavily robed ministers -- it's the congregation's job to learn and teach -- so Dreste's uncle, after the hymn, approaches the small podium to teach a lesson about the shootings in Colorado.

While the congregation listens attentively, there are no amens, hallelujahs or praise-the-Lords; all eyes, at one point of the sermon or another, sneak a look at the back pew, where I'm seated. Afterward, several people ask politely, "So, how do you know Tim?" He later confesses that the church is trying to get him married.

Most of the family and friends who've known Dreste over the years describe him as a "normal kid," "nice guy," "smart as a whip" -- but always add, "I never saw this coming." Whether they mean the militant anti-abortion activism he has engaged in since 1985 or his federal conviction this March is swallowed up in the person they knew "before."

Dreste was born between five sisters and two brothers in a working-class neighborhood in Normandy that he still calls home. Like every other kid on the block, he flourished on baseball, movies and weekly family trips to church. As one childhood friend, Dave Gansman, now says, "He was a pretty normal kid. I mean, he's pretty outspoken now, but he has really strong beliefs and opinions, and he sticks by them. But he was a normal kid, a normal teenager. I mean, I never saw any of this coming."

His parents, Mildred and Richard Dreste, were strict disciplinarians who instilled in their eight children the love of God and respect for worldly authority the Bible commanded. At a recent family gathering at his sister's house in Affton, Mildred explains that her grandfather founded an Apostolic Christian Church congregation in Ohio, "so it goes way back, it's been ingrained in us for years and years"; her children weren't even allowed to date until they found someone spiritually sound in the church. "A practice," she says smiling, "they still hold over my head." Predictably, Mildred describes her oldest son as an "intelligent" and "funny" child who never gave her any trouble. But Dreste's siblings, unable to keep straight faces, scramble over each other to tell all: the ornery sense of humor (he admits); the techniques for sneaking in after curfew (he admits); the homework he let them copy (he admits). Mildred's head snaps toward her son as if she's seen a vampire. "It's amazing," she says after a moment, "what you learn about your own children over the years."

But like many church-raised children, Dreste didn't fully latch onto the church's teachings until he became a teenager, when, during a church youth rally near Peoria, Ill., he was asked whether he knew the Lord. "I realized that I really didn't," Dreste says sedately, "and I realized that that's what I wanted." So he was baptized, read the Bible with clearer eyes and thought about what it was God wanted him to do. Meanwhile, he learned to fix cars, fell in love with Star Wars, graduated from Normandy High School, skipped college and joined the Marine Reserves, where he was trained as a telephone and telegraph wireman.

Then, in the early '80s, Dreste became a missionary for the church in Brazil, where he floated the Amazon and learned to speak Portuguese within two years. When he returned to St. Louis in 1983, Dreste found himself spiritually mired, stuck wondering what God wanted him to do next, and he wandered -- from working in an auto-parts store to repairing air-conditioners to fixing cars in a garage. At the time, he says, he couldn't have defined abortion if you asked him.

Things changed when, in 1985, members of Missouri Right to Life showed the movie "Silent Scream," a video that showed an actual abortion at 11 weeks of pregnancy, at Dreste's church, and the implications of what he saw hit him like a 6-foot wall of rushing water. "I said to myself, 'I have to stop this now, the injustice of this,' and I started picketing every Wednesday night at the clinic in University City."

It was there, on the picket line, that Dreste met a man named John Ryan, the Catholic director of the Pro-Life Action League, who changed both Dreste's life and the anti-abortion movement in ways no one had dreamed of several years before. Because abortion was the murder of a child, Ryan told his followers, there was an obligation on the part of Christians to save that child, that day, in any way within legal boundaries. The peaceful sit-ins of previous years no longer sufficed, and Ryan, who would later have whole chapters in books written about him, was getting arrested on a regular basis for his clinic blockades. As Ryan said later at a National Right to Life convention in Kansas City, "If it's radical for us to enter an abortion clinic and place ourselves between a murderer and his victim, then I want to be a radical."

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