Man on a Mission

Stephen Baldwin, youngest brother of the famous Irish American acting clan, became a born-again Christian in the aftermath of 9/11. Since his conversion time he's written a best selling book about his experiences and has lead a national campaign to bring Christianity to one of the most unwilling audiences of all - American teenagers. CAHIR O'DOHERTY talks to a man who describes himself as the first "psycho" for Christ.

STEPHEN Baldwin was back in the headlines a couple of weeks ago when Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin appeared on Saturday Night Live and informed the American public that he was her favorite Baldwin brother.

It was hardly a surprise, since both the candidate and the actor share more than a few opinions. They're also linked to right of center evangelical Christian organizations that are often as brazenly political as they are religious.

But for Stephen Baldwin, a staunch supporter of Senator John McCain's candidacy, it didn't start out that way. As recently as 2001 he was a dissolute celebrity actor often more famous for his off screen antics than most of his films.

Then, in a move that seems to be happening more and more frequently to former wisecracking bad boys, he gave up all of his hard partying and found God. But not just any God, the my-way-or-the-highway God of the Old Testament, the one with the notably short temper who'd plague you with frogs and locusts as soon as look at you.

"For the year previous to 9/11 my wife had been experiencing her walk of faith," Baldwin tells the Irish Voice. "It wasn't too long after she began that I became curious and started pursuing it as well.

"For myself it was a curiosity, so to speak. It was 9/11 that was the wake up call for me in my adult life that made me say, 'Wow this event is a demonstration of something bigger going on.' It made me think about life and what my priorities were. It quantum leaped me into my faith experience."

Growing up in Massapequa, Long Island Baldwin loved the close-knit Irish American community that surrounded him. "Even with that small percentage of Irish in me, of my entire heritage it's the one I brag about the most, which my wife finds to be quite humorous. She's a full-blooded Brazilian and she often says to me, 'Honey, you shouldn't claim to be Irish when it's just 10% of your background.

"I reply it's a very dense 10%. Long Island, New York was flooded with the Irish and the history of the Irish and their history here is just awesome. I'm proud of the little Irish in me. As for Ireland itself, to make a film there some day would be a dream of mine."

In America, when celebrities undergo dramatic conversions, they rarely choose to keep it to themselves. But even by Hollywood standards, Baldwin's conversion and the fuss he then made about it in his books The Unusual Suspect and The Death and Life Gabriel Phillips of are more attention grabbing than usual.

The youngest of the Baldwin acting clan - his older brothers are Alec, Billy and Daniel - he's a veteran of more than 60 films, including The Usual Suspects and television shows like Celebrity Mole and Fear Factor.

Now, as a self-described "spiritual activist," it's hard to keep up with the many projects Baldwin's undertaking. Last year he launched his own ministry, the Breakthrough Ministry. This year he's setting up what he calls the Assalt Arena Tour, another radical Christian sports arena event that sounds more like the billing for a rock concert and that attracts thousands of young people to each stop on its national tour. The idea for it originally came to him from a sports event he witnessed at a Christian festival in Florida.

"I went to a large Christian festival three years ago and I saw a pretty amazing skateboarding and BMX bicycle stunt show," says Baldwin. "The athletes themselves were sharing their Christian experiences with the crowd. With the global impact that extreme sports has been having for over a decade now it made me put two and two together and say to myself, wouldn't it be interesting to try to create an extreme sports evangelistic tour?"

Baldwin decided to direct and produce an "extreme sports" DVD to reach kids in the skateboarding and stunt biking culture. Images of pious, conservatively dressed older folks raising their hands to heaven would be replaced by "gnarly" skateboard pros to make you gasp at their daring as a prelude to saving your soul. As an advertising pitch to impressionable teenagers, who often long for community and fellowship, it's very hard to resist.

"I produced two Christian skateboard videos called Livin It which have been hugely successful," says Baldwin. "They're the top two skateboarding videos in the world now."

Apart from the tour and the videos, the Livin It website (www.livinit.com) features a section it calls Merch, a Christian lifestyle online shop that includes DVDs, books, tapes, concert tickets and even hoodie tops and t-shirts featuring the distinctive Livin It sports designs. It's street meets chapel, it's youth culture meets the Old Testament. It's attracting American teens by the thousands.

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