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.
Says Baldwin, "You have these young people who are edgy and culturally relevant who have had their lives impacted and transformed with their faith. Guys who were drug addicts and alcoholics and suicidal. Young people are the most ignored."
Like his brother Alec - a Saturday Night Live staple, recent Emmy winner for his starring role on the NBC comedy series 30 Rock and liberal blogger for the Huffington Post - for years Stephen wasn't exactly the sort of person you'd expect to dip a foot in the culture wars. But that was then.
In his book The Unusual Suspect Baldwin opened a long running feud with Bono of U2 about the nature and effectiveness of the rock star's attempts to bring debt relief to Africa. To Baldwin, unless Bono is also saving their souls, all his efforts are to no avail.
"I'm a Christian who, as a result of the experience I'm having, I suffer from something called 'holy discontent.' It just seems to me that the meaning of being a Christian is something that is so watered down now around the world," Baldwin feels.
"With a guy like Bono, with the platform that he has, it seems to me that according to what the Bible says - share Jesus Christ - he could take six or eight minutes at every show to do so."
Baldwin doesn't fault Bono for working to end Third World debt relief, but in his view caring for the poor and the homeless are pointless if their souls are not also saved.
"If they still don't know Jesus as their lord and savior all of those people are going to hell. Bono needs to share the gospel with them. That would be the appropriate thing for a true Christian to do."
The tension between the directives of the Bible and the compromises of living in a democracy are a perennial theme for born-again Christians. On his website, Baldwin underlines his own take on the issue with the - to some, chilling - statement: "There's no democracy in a kingdom," echoing John 3; 30.
"When someone is the servant of a king, then you do what the king would have you do and you don't ask questions," says Baldwin. "If you don't do as the king asks you are not part of the Kingdom. This is where the heart of a true Christian should be. My life is not my own."
For more on Stephen Baldwin, visit www.stephenbaldwin.com.
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