Doug Drucker could have walked away from pastoring when his church was foreclosed on in 2008.
A dream of a new building had died, another casualty of the mortgage meltdown, and his congregation of about 100 people was scattering amid the turmoil.
Without a brick-and-mortar church home, Drucker wasn’t sure he could continue the work he had devoted nearly all his adult life to. Such a loss would have been a death knell for other preachers’ careers.
But he had faced down worse trials. In fact, he was still living through them. So numerous and so devastating were they, that some friends began drawing parallels between Drucker’s life and that of Job, the Biblical character who endured a crucible of losing his children, wealth and health with unwavering faith.
So he kept his phone line open for parishioners who continued to call his house for counseling and prayer. He made himself available for hospital visits, wedding ceremonies and funerals. And he kept writing sermons to email the faithful few each Sunday and Wednesday.
Drucker’s website, www.gospeloutreachchurch.com, is his virtual link to his congregation now. And — not unlike televangelists before him — he has found an untapped market in the kind of people who, for one reason or another, do not attend traditional church.
Many of the 300-or-so households that receive his message are elderly, homebound, poor, sick or imprisoned. And don’t they need spiritual sustenance, too?
He sees himself as an outlaw pastor, someone who embraces castoffs that don’t fit in or whose ailments or personal circumstances keep them at arm’s length from a traditional church fellowship.
After all, Drucker started out as just that sort of young man. He was a doping-and-drinking, guitar-playing hippie when he attended a household prayer meeting in 1971 that changed him into a self-described “Jesus Freak.” But conventional churches recoiled at his appearance when he crossed the threshold with his shaggy, shoulder-length hair, tie-dyed shirt and bell-bottomed blue jeans. They sang somber hymns accompanied by a piano or organ, if there was any musical instrument allowed. Somehow it all seemed much too buttoned up to contain the joy bursting inside Drucker’s heart.
Perhaps it was only fitting that he would end up pastoring a similar flock at age 62, in the twilight of his career.
2. Hippie to Jesus Freak
For a lot of reasons, Drucker didn’t seem cut out to be a pastor. He stuttered as a child. He was largely unchurched. His father, a furniture salesman, was Jewish but didn’t practice his faith. His mama’s forced marches to a Baptist Sunday School in their hometown of Decatur had little effect.
Smoking, drinking and partying would get him kicked out of high school during his senior year. He got a diploma instead from an adult school.
By then it was 1969. Vietnam was a far-off place where soldiers were fighting and perishing in sweltering jungles, and the aftermath of the grisly combat was on the nightly news. Drucker drew a low draft number and knew it was only a matter of time before he was called up.
So he joined up with the U.S. Marine Corp Reserves and was shipped off to Parris Island, S.C. Six weeks later, he would arrive back home with a medical discharge in hand. An old elbow injury prevented him from locking his M-16 rifle into position. The Marines decided Drucker wouldn’t do as a soldier.
“When I came home, the world had turned upside down,” Drucker said. “We had gone from fast cars and drinking beer to drugs.”
He lost himself all too willingly in the drug culture. It cost about $160 to buy a pound of weed, and it didn’t take long to smoke it at the rate he was going. Drucker also experimented with “Black Beauties,” an amphetamine that would keep him awake for days.
Then in June 1971, he got talked into attending a Bible study with a friend. It was at the Pine Lake home of the former police chief of Avondale Estates, in what was then a podunk part of DeKalb County. The chief was a devout Christian who, after pulling someone over for a minor offense, would sometimes give them a choice between going to jail or to his weekly prayer meeting.
His friend had chosen the prayer meeting over the slammer, and he wanted Drucker to go along as backup.
It was there that the leader posed a challenge to the new visitors: Ask God to come into your life and change you. If he isn’t real, nothing will happen and you will have lost nothing.
Drucker was initially dismissive. But while laying in bed later that night, he gave the prayer a try.
“For the next six to nine months, my feet never hit the ground.” Drucker said. “I had a revolutionary life-changing experience.”
So much so that he quit drinking and using drugs cold-turkey. Within six months, he had assumed a leadership role in the prayer group. And for the next five years, he would pastor it.
3. Professional Christian
It wasn’t long before a young nursing student named Wanda caught Drucker’s eye at one of those prayer meetings. Within six months, he married the raven-haired beauty.
They had their first daughter, Wendy, a year later. And every two years after that, another child came: Ryan, then Joshua, then Amanda.
Drucker had a good-paying job as a U.S. Postal worker, but Wanda could see it didn’t fulfill him.
He had found himself a church family after walking into a service in 1971. The first man he saw was wearing a gaudy Hawaiian shirt. To his surprise, it turned out to be the pastor, Bishop Harry Mushegan. Drucker felt an instant connection to the man and the others who attended Global Harvester Chapel off Defoor Avenue in Atlanta — many who looked “freakier” than him in dress and appearance, he said.
He was soon put in charge of directing the children’s choir. Drucker felt a calling to full-time ministry and considered going to theological seminary. But Mushegan told him he didn’t need to. He would teach Drucker everything he knew.
“For the next 10 years I was like an apprentice,” Drucker said. “Everywhere he went, I went.”
The church outgrew its original location and moved several times before settling into a new building on 25-acres off Hurt Road in Marietta. Drucker’s stature also increased as the church swelled to 3,000 members. When the aging Mushegan turned the church over to his son, Alan, in 1981, he offered Drucker a full-time position as music minister and associate pastor.
Drucker had fulfilled a dream of becoming a “professional Christian.” But the pay was so low, he was forced to work extra jobs washing windows and delivering newspapers.
But his growing responsibilities began to take a toll on his spiritual life. After directing the 17-piece orchestra and 70-member adult choir at the opening of each worship service, he would return to his office to sip coffee while the Bishop preached. He would only re-emerge in time to direct the final musical number, so he rarely hearkened to the Bishop’s messages anymore. Before long he realized he hadn’t prayed or read the Bible in years. Inside, he felt lost.
Drucker’s all-consuming career was also eroding his personal life. His 16-hour work days kept him away from home and distracted. His marriage was in tatters. He tended to be too lenient when his children erred and did little to deter the now-teenaged kids from careening down the path of rebellion — smoking, using drugs, having sex, stealing petty items.
“I was too busy raising the Kingdom of God to actually raise my own children,” Drucker said.
A member of the church at the time, Jill Cohran, observed Drucker’s struggle.
“I think in some ways his own family got neglected in all that, without him even meaning to,” said Cohran. “Because you think when you’re doing the Lord’s work, how can things go wrong?”
It was around this time that Drucker learned of a small nondenominational church in Stockbridge that was searching for a pastor.
Drucker felt a divine prodding to do it. When he confided in Mushegan, the pastor told him what he already knew: “God is calling you to Stockbridge.”
Almost immediately after accepting the job at Gospel Outreach Church, Drucker’s prayer life got a reboot.
There was nobody else to do the preaching, planning, counseling, singing or even the grass-cutting. The challenge of doing it all drove him back to his knees in prayer.
“I fell in love with people again, I fell in love with God again, I fell in love with ministry again,” Drucker said. “And I still am today.”
But the change came too late to correct the dangerous course several of his children were headed down.
4. Three dominoes
For three years in a row beginning in 2002, the Drucker family would be dealt devastating blows. Drucker refers to the incidents as the three dominoes. The first tragedy triggered the next and the next.
His daughter Amanda was 21 when she got pregnant out of wedlock. The family was dismayed, but there was an upside: She quit smoking, drinking and eating fast-food. She started going back to church. She moved back in with her parents.
Her son, Conner was a sweet child who became the apple of his grandfather’s eye. Drucker proudly toted the boy around to his office and church appointments. Often it was “Zada” (Jewish for grandfather) who took Conner to the doctor, changed his diapers, fed him and babysat him when his mother was at work.
Nightly, Drucker would cradle the child in his recliner as he watched television or chatted on the telephone.
And then one evening, while Amanda was out of town, Drucker fell asleep in his bed with the baby cuddled up beside him. He woke the next morning to find Conner still and cold.
Inexplicably, the boy had succumbed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome at the age of six months.
Why God? Why?
The question taunted Drucker. It clawed at his insides, bounced around in his skull.
Haunted by his anger and bitterness, Drucker took refuge in the church, where he blasted Aerosmith on the stereo in the empty sanctuary.
He would walk the aisles like a ghost, screaming at the top of his lungs, weeping and shuffling through the baby’s photographs. Holidays passed uncelebrated. He couldn’t summon the gratitude to commemorate Easter, Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Finally as the new year approached, Drucker says he felt the physical presence of Jesus enter his office one day as he sat at his desk. You’ve got every right to sit there the rest of your life, blame yourself and blame me, was his message. Or, you can get up and go on.
It was the wake-up call Drucker needed to move on.
But emotional recovery eluded Amanda. She subsumed her grief in drugs and started dating a guy her father thought was bad news.
Drucker and his wife were in Florida visiting their eldest daughter, Wendy, when the next domino fell. A nurse at WellStar Kennestone Hospital phoned.
Amanda was on life support, the nurse said, and may not live through the night.
While at her boyfriend’s home, Amanda had overdosed on a combination of Oxycontin and Xanax. A respirator was the only thing keeping her alive. Doctors said she was brain dead and urged the family to pull the plug.
Doug and Wanda raced to their daughter’s bedside as dozens of church members converged on the waiting room, praying feverishly for a miracle. They couldn’t lose another child. They simply refused to give up.
They rejoiced a few days later when Amanda emerged from her coma. But her oxygen-starved brain was permanently and severely damaged.
Their vivacious young daughter who had her mother’s glossy black hair — the little girl Drucker could still picture as a little ballerina in her tutu and toe-shoes — was gone forever. In her place was an invalid unable to stand or communicate.
Even so, the Druckers count their blessings. They still had Amanda. They would bring her home, care for her and continue to hope for recovery.
“God’s not through yet,” said Wanda one recent day as she spooned small bites of Mexican food into Amanda’s mouth. “She’s going to be walking and talking. She’s going to be married and have two more children.”
But not everybody was convinced Amanda’s miraculous survival was a good thing.
Their youngest son, Joshua, was angry at his parents for refusing to let her go. It tore him apart to see his sister devolve into a thin, jerky convalescent. He reserved a large measure of his pent-up rage for Andrew, Amanda’s boyfriend, who was with her when she overdosed.
Joshua had been a devout Christian as a child. But like the Druckers’ other children, Joshua struggled with drug addiction and was at that time an methamphetamine junkie. By 25, had been in and out of jail for petty thefts and aggravated assault against an ex-girlfriend.
One April day in 2004, Joshua showed up at his father’s house. It was apparent there was something serious on his mind. He asked his father to step outside for a private conversation.
“I killed somebody,” Joshua confessed
“Oh my God, son. Who?”
To Drucker’s amazement, his son tossed out a familiar name: “Andrew.”
5. Impossible choice
Although he was reeling from shock, Drucker did the only thing he could think of. He bowed his head with his son and prayed with him for God’s forgiveness. Then, Joshua left.
Drucker would later learn that his son had in fact killed two people: Andrew Robinson and his new girlfriend, 25-year-old Lora Nikolova.
Joshua’s confession left Drucker with an impossible choice. He could try to protect his son, or he could turn him in.
Drucker walked up and down the dirt road behind his house for four hours as the sun set and the sky darkened. He thought about what might happen if his son ran afoul of a police officer and became aggressive, or if police confronted and killed Joshua. He also feared Joshua might kill himself.
So he picked up the phone and dialed the cops.
Joshua Drucker was arrested the next morning at a motel in Cobb County. He now sits on Death Row at Jackson State Prison, 17 miles from Drucker’s house in Henry County.
After Joshua’s arrest, Drucker felt shame for his son’s actions and planned to resign as pastor of his Stockbridge fellowship. He didn’t know how he could face his flock.
“Here I am lowly, ashamed and disgraced,” Drucker said. “The most unworthy of unworthy. The sorriest daddy, the sorriest husband, the sorriest preacher, the sorriest Christian that ever walked the Earth.”
Laying in bed the next day, Drucker says Jesus appeared to him again in a vision, much as he had after Connor’s death.
The message he received came in the form of a question: Son, what are you doing laying here?
Drucker felt a reassurance wash over him that he had done nothing wrong. So he stood before his church congregation that Sunday with his guitar in hand and poured out his heart in the Bill and Gloria Gaither gospel song “Something Beautiful.”
“… if your dreams turn to ashes and your castles all crumble — your fortune turns to loss. Then wrap it all up in the rags of your life and lay it at the cross.”
Was it God’s will that Conner died? That Amanda overdosed? That Joshua wound up on Death Row?
Drucker still doesn’t know. And he’s stopped trying to figure it out.
6. New man, new ministry
Drucker splashed into a backyard pool in Stockbridge one drizzly Sunday afternoon in July wearing a polo shirt and swim trunks. He was there to baptize a 72-year-old man in front of about 20 of his friends gathered poolside to watch. It wasn’t a baptismal font, but it was a holy place to those who had come.
Drucker had led Bob “Hotrod” Dykes to the Lord on Drucker’s living room sofa a few months before, after the man came to Drucker’s home to deliver medicine. Dykes said he had lived a hard life, but he felt God’s call that night.
Drucker told Dykes he would emerge from the water a new man, his sins washed away. The man came up smiling.
“Jesus was working on me for a while, but (Drucker) saw the need right then,” Dykes said as he toweled off, jubilant after taking the plunge.
Like the backyard baptism, Drucker’s internet ministry encourages informality and openness. Drucker’s flock doesn’t go to church: the church comes to them.
At home the Druckers tend to Amanda as well as their adult grandson, Devin Boleman, who has a chronic kidney disease that could prove fatal without a transplant.
Despite all the responsibilities at home, Drucker still makes time to take calls from others in need of counseling and prayer. Calls from people like Jill Cohran, who still looks to Drucker as her pastor after 40 years, having followed him from Gospel Harvester Chapel.
Drucker’s church in Stockbridge — the physical location, at least — is now defunct. At the end of 2008, the bank foreclosed on the three-story house off West Hemphill Road where the congregation had been meeting. Plans to construct a sanctuary on the five-acre site went by the wayside after church income dwindled during the recession. Finally, even though Drucker forewent his salary that year, the church income couldn’t keep pace with the ballooning mortgage payments.
Nevertheless, many of the former members of Gospel Outreach Church of Stockbridge now consider themselves members of Drucker’s online church, including Cohran, who telephones Drucker almost every day and still leans on him for spiritual guidance.
“His plate is just absolutely full to the brim,” Cohran said. “But he’s always positive. He always has time for me and for my family.”
Drucker is particularly attuned to the needs of prison inmates and their families. Every Sunday he treks 17 miles to Jackson State Prison, where his son is being held facing an all but certain death.
The younger Drucker started his own internet ministry behind bars, writing weekly sermons that go out to roughly 300 people. In a letter from prison, Joshua says he harbors “not one single ounce” of resentment against his father for turning him in.
During the visits, Drucker often pauses to offer prayers and support to other Death Row inmates and their families.
Before Drucker leaves the prison, he and his son touch the glass that separates them and pray for each other. Two weeks ago when they were praying, another prisoner came and started hovering over them, joining them in prayer. Joshua handed the inmate the phone he was using, and his father prayed for the man.
“That’s probably the number one thing I have learned from my parents,” Joshua said. “Love the ones that no one else will.”
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Andria Simmons first met Doug Drucker when she was covering the 2011 death penalty trial for his son, Joshua. At the time, Drucker and his wife, Wanda, had been advised by defense lawyers not to talk to reporters and did not grant interviews. However, it was clear to trial-watchers that their family bond and faith remained unshakeable even as they endured the emotionally crippling ordeal of seeing Joshua sentenced to death. Captivated by the strength of Drucker’s convictions in the face of such extraordinary adversity, Simmons stayed in touch with him after the trial and encouraged him to share his story. It’s a stunning lesson in grace under fire.
Suzanne Van Atten
Features Enterprise Editor, firstname.lastname@example.org
ABOUT THE REPORTER AND PHOTOGRAPHER
Andria Simmons joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2007 and is currently the state transportation reporter. Previously, she covered police, courts and crime trends for the AJC. Before joining the AJC, Simmons worked for The Gwinnett Daily Post for five years. Andria lives in Alpharetta with her husband.
Hyosub Shin was born and raised in Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States about 10 years ago to study photography. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream’s Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series.