'Nothing I'd change'

Preacher who knew the Yates family stands by his message

The Dallas Morning News/April 6, 2002
By Bruce Nichols

Willis, Texas -- Michael Woroniecki has wandered the globe with his family for more than 25 years, preaching hellfire and salvation on street corners and college campuses, often getting arrested for his confrontational tactics.

But he attracted little notice until Andrea Yates drowned her five children in their Houston home last June.

Mrs. Yates pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, and psychiatrists testified that she suffered from delusions that Satan was in her and that she could save her children from Hell only by drowning them. A jury convicted her of capital murder last month and sentenced her to life in prison. Her lawyers are appealing.

Some people seeking an explanation for the tragedy have focused on Mr. Woroniecki's ministry. Mrs. Yates' husband, Rusty, met the preacher while a college student and tried to emulate the Woroniecki lifestyle: living for a time in a bus, seeing his wife as his helpmate and home-schooling their children.

Mr. Woroniecki preaches that everyone is doomed to Hell unless they find Jesus, and that salvation is not possible through organized religion. One theory is that this message combined with cramped living and lots of young children sent Mrs. Yates over the edge.

"Some of Andrea's delusions had their roots in some of the things that were said by these people," Rusty Yates said.

Mr. Woroniecki says he is devastated by the tragedy but rejects blame. He says he simply delivered God's message and that the Yateses, particularly Rusty Yates, misinterpreted it.

"If someone was to say, when I look back, would I have talked to Andrea and said the same things, I would say, of course. There's nothing I would change," the preacher said.

Some of Mr. Woroniecki's beliefs are common among conservative Christians, though most don't reject all organized religion.

Rice University sociologist Bill Martin said that he did not know Mr. Woroniecki but that he's not the first to preach such beliefs. "We have a variegated pattern of religion in America, and almost anything is allowable," Dr. Martin said.

Mr. Woroniecki has been enmeshed in controversy before.

Early in his ministry, he was, in essence, thrown out of his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., for accosting a woman and telling her she was destined for Hell. It was the last straw in a long-running feud with authorities over his methods, and they told him to hit the road or go to jail. He left.

Since then, he and his family say, they've experienced a long string of arrests, from Utah (where he confronted Mormons and told them that church founder Brigham Young was in Hell, and that Billy Graham and the pope would soon join him) to Morocco (where he told Muslims that the only true hope is Jesus).

But the atmosphere was non-confrontational when the Woronieckis described their life and mission in a recent interview at a lakeside campground north of Houston.

The 48-year-old preacher, he has a degree from Fuller Theological Seminary in California but is not ordained by any church, travels from college to college with his wife, Rachel, 46, and their six children, ages 12 to 21.

Their home is a 40-foot former tour bus fitted with beds, a kitchen and living space and painted with signs that read "Hallelujah! You are lost! The end is near! Come alone. Meet Jesus. Not Church!"

They typically park the bus at a motor-home park or campground, then make side trips to schools in the area using a Volkswagen van that they tow behind the bus.

Mr. Woroniecki focuses on college campuses because, he says, that's where he can find people responsive to his message. But the Woronieckis have also appeared at the Super Bowl and the Olympics.

They hand out leaflets that they've written and had printed. They wave big banners that warn of Hell and call for repentance.

A big part of Mr. Woroniecki's belief system is that organized religion is corrupt, a creation of man, not God. "There is an alternative to the system, and it's the living Jesus," he said, directly accessible through prayer and reading the Bible. He doesn't even like the term "preacher" for himself because it sounds too much like organized religion. "I'm a son," he says, not a preacher.

Mr. Woroniecki also argues that marriage should conform to what he believes is the biblical definition, with the man as head and the woman as servant, but he says people misinterpret that, and that he's his wife's servant, too, responsible for meeting her needs.

His three oldest children are female, and they don't fit a stereotype of subservient women. All striking, outspoken blondes, they firmly defend their father and mother. "We see the life in them," said 17-year-old Elizabeth. "They don't just sit down and teach us. ... They show us."

The three younger kids are boys, and they chime in, too.

All the children have been home-schooled. When asked what the future holds for them, whether they'll move out, go to college, get married, the family rejects the question.

Sarah, 21, said she has no plans to leave. "Jesus is my life. He's my fulfillment," she said. "Wherever we go from here, I will be living for him."

In the past, the family has acted out skits, including one in which Mr. Woroniecki wore a rubber Satan mask and roared "Going to Hell" over and over.

A videotape of that skit was obtained by a Houston television station and broadcast as an example of Mr. Woroniecki's preaching.

He said that it has been taken out of context, he used it when the family was in Europe because he didn't speak the language and wanted to make a visual impression, and that the scary mask is not the only message.

"It's not Hell, Hell, Hell. It's Jesus, Jesus, Jesus," he said. Still, he's unapologetic. "I'll do anything to communicate the gospel. If people misunderstand me, and say I'm this or that, that's part of the price. ... God knows my heart."

Mr. Woroniecki said he's not preaching a theology of denial, although he argues there are things a believer won't do. The family dresses attractively, play cards, sing and dance. They trick-or-treat at Halloween and perform magic tricks to attract crowds, activities that some fundamentalists consider sacrilegious.

The Woronieckis have a lot of stuff. At the campground, five dirt bikes and a set of weights sit outside the bus. There's a television and a VCR inside. They don't have a telephone, and they don't have a computer. The kids don't know much about the Internet. But they've been to 32 countries, hiked, climbed mountains, snow-skied.

Asked how he finances all this, Mr. Woroniecki is evasive at first. Then he says the family accepts gifts from followers, although they don't emphasize donations when they preach.

If they run out of money, they work temporary jobs. Mr. Woroniecki and the older children have done chores. Mrs. Woroniecki has clerked in stores.

They have a line of credit, Mr. Woroniecki says without going into detail. They also use credit cards to shop at inexpensive stores, he said.

"God provides," Mrs. Woroniecki said. "People say it can't happen. ... We're living proof that he does."

The path wasn't always clear.

Mr. Woroniecki grew up in Michigan, one of six children of a tool plant worker. He attended Catholic schools and became enough of a football star to earn a scholarship to Central Michigan University, where he says he started at fullback and was a lost soul who partied hard.

Injuries dimmed, then ended his football career and caused the change in his life that led to Jesus, he said. Photos from the time show Mr. Woroniecki holding up a helmet that he'd decorated with a cross made of tape and inscribed it with the word "Jesus."

His future wife was a cheerleader, one of five children from a Catholic family in Detroit. Her father was a General Motors executive. She declined to reveal her maiden name because her marriage and mission have divided her family, she said.

At first, Mr. Woroniecki thought he wanted to be a Catholic priest but says he was turned off by the process and the "perversion." Then he looked for other seminaries, settling on Fuller, a nondenominational school that emphasizes evangelism.

By the time he finished his master of divinity degree, he had married Rachel. They moved back to Grand Rapids, where he tried working at a warehouse and she worked as a social worker. He preached on the side.

When he got into trouble with the law, the couple bought a travel trailer and hit the road.

The kids have been born all over, Sarah in Grand Rapids, in 1980, Ruth in Tampa in 1982, Elizabeth in Chicago in 1984, Abraham in Lawrence, Kan., in 1986, Joshua in Indianapolis in 1988 and David in Denver in 1990.

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Woroniecki was preaching at Auburn University in Alabama when he met Rusty Yates, who was studying math and headed for a career in the space program.

They stayed in touch after Mr. Yates went to work at Johnson Space Center in Houston, married a nurse named Andrea Kennedy and began having a family.

Most of the communication was by telephone or letters, but in 1998, the Yates family visited the Woronieckis in Florida for a week. Mr. Woroniecki sold Mr. Yates a bus to live in and delivered a tough message to the young NASA engineer.

"My primary confrontation with Rusty was that he wasn't saved. If you were saved, you'd be living differently," Mr. Woroniecki said. He complained that Mr. Yates was consumed by his work and not attentive enough to his wife and family.

"It's not a macho, 'I'm head of my wife, and you submit to me, baby,' " Mr. Woroniecki said. "As Christ loved the church, a man is supposed to love his wife. With regards to training your children ... you don't just ... name them biblical names and that's supposed to be a magic wand."

After the 1998 visit, the two men grew apart, and Mrs. Yates apparently fell into despair, Mr. Woroniecki said.

The tragedy could have been avoided, Mr. Woroniecki said, if Mr. Yates had given his wife the "profound love" envisioned in the Bible. "If he would give that to her, she would never have killed her children," Mr. Woroniecki said.

Mr. Yates rejects the criticism, saying that the Woronieckis were never really that close to his family, particularly in the period leading up to the drownings. "The fact is, they don't really know us very well," he said.

The Woronieckis haven't spoken with Mr. Yates since the drownings but said they're praying for Andrea Yates as she starts her life in prison.

They won't change their ministry, they said.

"We're responsible for what we shared with them, which was the gospel of Jesus Christ," Mrs. Woroniecki said, echoing her husband. "We're not responsible for what someone does with what we say."

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