They Needed Jesus

Former GR street preacher defends friendship with Yates

Grand Rapids Press/March 9, 2002
By Steve Grinczel

Their families prayed together, laughed together, and kept in touch through letters when miles apart. Then Andrea Yates drowned her five children, and Michael Woroniecki found himself back in the spotlight.

"When we heard what had happened, we wept," said Woroniecki, a former Grand Rapids street preacher. "I was so upset by it I thought I was going to throw up, and we continue to grieve."

Woroniecki received a measure of national attention when his in-your-face preaching style got him run out of Grand Rapids in 1981. Today, he's battling the implication that his spiritual influence contributed to the Texas mom's mental state.

In an exclusive interview with The Press, Woroniecki lashed out at the media, husband Rusty Yates and Texas author Suzy Spencer. Spencer's new book, "Breaking Point," suggests spiritual counseling by Woroniecki and his wife Rachel may have exacerbated Yates' fragile psychological condition.

"We loved Andrea and Rusty," said Woroniecki, 48. "Our relationship was a good thing, not a bad thing. We knew them for at least 15 years and were friends with them. We shared the Word with them. We went on picnics together, played games, went boating."

Yates, 37, has been on trial in Houston the past three weeks. Woroniecki's name has surfaced during testimony, but he has not been subpoenaed to testify. He says that is evidence his critics are wrong about his role in the case, he said.

Police say Andrea Yates confessed that she drowned her sons -- Noah, 7, John, 5, Paul, 3, Luke, 2, and 6-month-old daughter -- in the family's bathtub on June 20 in Clear Lake, Texas. The prosecutor has charged her in three of the deaths and is seeking the death penalty on two counts. Yates' attorneys are seeking a not-guilty verdict by reason of insanity.

Woroniecki spoke for almost two hours this week from a phone booth an hour's drive north of New Orleans, where he, Rachel and their six children preached at festivities leading up to last month's Super Bowl and Mardi Gras.

His friendship with Rusty Yates has cooled since the deaths, and Woroniecki reiterated some points he made to a reporter for O, the Oprah Magazine, and which appeared in the Feb. 28 edition of the Dallas Morning News.

After Rusty Yates, a NASA computer engineer, invoked Woroniecki's influence during his court testimony, Woroniecki countered that Rusty may share responsibility.

"If Rusty thinks painting a picture of me as a crazy madman will, in any way, help the defense of his wife, then so be it," Woroniecki said in his prepared statement.

"I will gladly sacrifice my reputation if it can spare Andrea from the death penalty and give her a second chance at life. However ... it is deceitful and irresponsible to blame doctors, hospitals, clinics or 'postpartum depression.' They both know that the issues which culminated in this tragedy are much, much deeper."

In his Press interview, Woroniecki said, "The bottom line was they needed Jesus, and he (Rusty Yates) was not willing to give up that pretense. He was in love with working for NASA more than he was in love with his wife. It just deteriorated over the years."

Woroniecki was born and raised Roman Catholic in Grand Rapids. He graduated from West Catholic High School, where he earned All-City football honors as a fullback.

While studying and playing football at Central Michigan University, he underwent a spiritual conversion that took him away from organized religion and put him in Grand Rapids as a Bible-based street preacher in the early 1980s.

Loud and abrasive, Woroniecki's shocked many he encountered, especially when he called them sinners and told them they were headed for hell if they did not accept Jesus Christ as their savior.

Police dealt with Woroniecki by arresting him for disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace. The last arrest came in October 1981, when he was accused of accosting a woman who had gone to the Grand Center to buy tickets for the Shrine Circus. He allegedly told the woman she was a sinner who was going to hell, berating her until she was in tears.

Faced with jail time, Woroniecki agreed to stop preaching and leave town in exchange for the charges being dropped.

Since then, Woroniecki preached at more than 50 colleges and universities across the nation and in foreign countries. The Woronieckis travel to events like the Olympics, the Super Bowl and rock concerts, so they can preach to large crowds.

Carrying large banners and sometimes playing music, Woroniecki's wife and children accompany him wherever he goes.

"I have never spent a single day apart from my children," he said.

Sarah, 21; Ruth, 19; Elizabeth, 17; Abraham, 15; Joshua, 13, and David, 12, all have been home-schooled.

The Woronieckis live and travel in a 40-foot tour bus. Most nights are spent in a campground.

Woroniecki and Rusty Yates met at Auburn University in Alabama.

"I was preaching on the campus," Woroniecki recalled. "He was a typical college kid, had good grades. It was kind of cool because there was that understanding between us that there was hypocrisy in religion."

The long-distance friendship continued to flourish after Rusty Yates married Andrea. Woroniecki or his wife corresponded with the Yateses, or visited whenever they were in the area.

"My daughters baby-sat their kids. We interacted and laughed together. We made spaghetti together," he said. "They let Sarah drive a car for the first time when she was 16. When Sarah was sick she (Andrea) brought her a fruit basket."

Letters written by the Woronieckis to Andrea Yates have become a point of contention.

"The Woronieckis' letters are hammering her about her salvation," Spencer said in a Jan. 23 Press story.

Woroniecki takes issue with that characterization. He said his only contact with Spencer came last fall when she wrote to him "pretending she was interested in Jesus." The Woronieckis sent her some pamphlets and a tape recording.

"We never met (Spencer), and she writes this book like she's an authority and really knows us," Woroniecki said. "There was a big vacuum before the trial. No one had any sources, so she became an instant authority because she wrote a book.

"It's just a bunch of garbage. They (the authorities) have my letters and they substantiate that our relationship with Andrea was a good thing."

Even his worst detractor would have a hard time assigning any culpability to him, he said.

"Even if you wondered whether we were weirdoes or something, it's just not logical for a woman to do what she did based on a relationship she had with us," Woroniecki said. "Somebody's going to kill their five children because of that?..."She could have gone away or cried out for help. There were so many options."

Woroniecki [claims] the Jan. 23 Press article failed to challenge Spencer's point of view. Woroniecki did not respond to repeated interview requests at that time, but he said the story lacked objectivity, nonetheless.

"That made me really angry," he said. "It just fed all the Woroniecki-haters by saying, 'See what happens when you listen to this guy?'"

"As bold as I may seem, I'm just like any other guy. Just because I make a choice to yell Jesus and preach to people and tell them they're going to hell if they don't repent, that means I don't count?"

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