Pastor's quest to save children brings doubt
Exhausted and stiff-legged, Pastor Wayne Coombs stepped off a plane in Los Angeles, cradling a dying Russian orphan in his arms.
Three-year-old Nikolai weighed a skeletal 17 pounds. A bulbous mass resembling a second head swelled on his lower back, his legs were paralyzed and he suffered from a double hernia. Russian doctors had given up on him, having neither the money nor expertise to correct his condition.
Nikolai was being gradually starved at his overcrowded orphanage because the Russians thought he would never live a normal life. Coombs' group, the Adam Children's Fund, found him late last year.
The Palos Verdes Estates pastor badgered administrators at County Harbor-UCLA Medical Center near Torrance to get Nikolai two operations, persuaded a local couple to provide foster care and launched an appeal to find an adoptive family.
Eight months after the orphan's near-fatal journey to the United States, Nikolai is a 40-pound blond cherub who recently moved in with six new brothers and sisters in Virginia.
The man who saved Nikolai is an enigma -- a hero to some, a blundering amateur to others. He has transformed himself from a successful Christian music promoter into a church pastor uniting children with families. But he has paid a price at his church -- in fact, he's quitting in January -- and met heavy criticism along the way.
When it comes to child welfare, Coombs operates on the principle that the end justifies the means as long as the means are legal -- even if they've never been tried or don't follow someone else's procedures.
"Our goal is to empty all the orphanages in the world," said Coombs, 54.
In the past three years, American and Canadian families have adopted 50 children found through Coombs' group. Among them are 28 Romanian orphans who arrived in the United States in August after a months-long diplomatic battle.
Coombs plans to reach out to the Philippines next year and hopes to nearly triple his fund's budget from $700,000 to $2 million with the help of a new executive director based in Toronto.
Working close to home
Closer to home, Coombs and his wife, Jan, have worked to increase the ranks of Christian foster parents to care for drug-addicted babies by bringing the foster care agency Koinonia to Rolling Hills Estates.
The Coombses became licensed foster parents four years ago and still see the two children they helped raise from infancy. One foster son now lives with his birth mother and the Coombses have temporary custody of the other child, for whom the Adam Children's Fund is named.
Despite those who hail Coombs as a savior, others -- including U.S. State Department officials -- have questioned his international adoption methods.
They say the maverick tactics of Coombs and others damage the integrity of international adoptions, and save only a few orphans at the expense of thousands left behind. They charge that the Adam Children's Fund tries to bend or bypass adoption rules set by other countries.
Coombs' church also has suffered during his global activism. His 7-year-old Lunada Bay Christian Fellowship peaked at about 400 members at the end of the 1980s. It dropped by about half after Coombs began his mission to "rescue the born," although he blames the recession for some of the decline.
Last month, Coombs announced to his church that he will resign as pastor Jan. 1 to devote full attention to the Adam Children's Fund, leaving the church under the leadership of assistant pastor John Prassas.
Coombs said his decision to resign was crystallized by the tragic robbery-murder in October of Laura Binkley, an Adam Children's Fund employee working in Moscow. "I felt like I just have to put my life into this thing now," he said.
The former talent agent with connections from Pat Boone to Roy Rogers already led a full life before he got into preaching and saving children.
As his old friend Boone said, "I never know from meeting to meeting with Wayne what surprises he has in store for me about his current involvements."
But those who left his church say Coombs' visions eclipsed his ability to lead his flock. And those who criticize Coombs' crusade for orphans say that if he wants to help, his group should get licensed as an adoption agency.
"I am controversial," Coombs readily acknowledges.
He said those who attack him seem more interested in controlling international adoptions than in saving children from a lifetime in orphanages.
But his group's involvement with the adoption of 28 Romanian orphans earlier this year turned into such a fiasco that Coombs had to pledge he would never again try to adopt Romanians using similar tactics.
The Adam Children's Fund had persuaded destitute Romanian mothers who did not want to keep their children to travel to Hungary and abandon them there, so the children could be adopted by American parents under the more lenient Hungarian laws.
But Hungary, Romania and the U.S. State Department balked when they learned of the arrangement. U.S. politicians and a licensed adoption agency intervened to get the children to the United States.
"Right now, Romania is the last place I want to go," Coombs said.
His group has turned its attention to Croatia and Bosnia, where an estimated 10,000 war orphans live in the streets, orphanages and refugee camps.
Bill Pierce, head of the non-governmental National Committee for Adoption, said Coombs and others like him make international adoptions more difficult for licensed adoption agencies. While acknowledging that Coombs "seems basically well-meaning," Pierce opposed the Adam Children's Fund's tactics in the Romanian adoption episode.
Coombs said he does not want to license his group as an adoption agency because "I do not want to be in the adoption business. I want to be in the business of finding the kids."
Pierce said he wants to put Coombs out of business if Coombs continues to conduct international adoption activities without a license, even though he acknowledges his group has no power to do that.
Another critic of Coombs and others who work outside Romanian restrictions is Lydia Rice, founder of the Beverly Hills-based Romanian Orphanage Fund.
"If everyone who is working in Romania were to get together in a concerted effort and put pressure on, then all the kids would get out sooner," Rice said. "Twenty-eight kids is not it. . . . I'm glad those kids are out, I really am, but there are hundreds of thousands of other kids that (Coombs) may have put in jeopardy."
Finding time for it all
Between negotiating for the Romanian orphans' release and fund-raising across the country for his group, Coombs found little time this year for Sunday sermons, particularly in the summer.
He returned to his church in September after a three-week driving trip to Canada and back, looking slightly uncomfortable in his navy-blue pastor suit, but hugging all who greeted him.
Coombs' church is a converted auditorium at the closed Margate School, a beautiful but remote hilltop site. The "pews" are made of folding chairs, and the emphasis is heavy on music -- the five-member church worship band plays for an hour before the sermon. Congregation members wave their tambourines to the beat.
The festive mood among the 75 churchgoers is tempered by discussion during the service about the church's financial difficulties.
A few times in the past two years, the church fell behind on its rent payments to the school district. A congregation member confided that "Wayne and Jan haven't gotten paid some months."
The Coombses have been trying for a few years to reduce expenses by selling their hilltop Palos Verdes Estates home, which they bought when Coombs was a talent agent. Coombs drives a Ford Taurus station wagon with the license plate "REV WC."
The Lunada Bay worshipers who have stayed with their church remain fiercely loyal to Coombs, whom they see as the embodiment of living Christianity.
Strong family ties
One loyal member, a recovering heroin addict who travels from Long Beach each Sunday to attend church, is the birth mother of one of the Coombses' foster children.
The mother, who did not want her name used, said she has been drug-free since her son was born in March 1992. The county Children's Protective Services division took custody of her son as soon as he was born.
She planned to place her son with relatives while she went through the required rehabilitation program to get him back. Then she met the Coombses, who had been contacted about her son through the Christian foster care agency they established.
"I knew from the beginning that my son belonged with them," she said. "I hate how it happened, but I think meeting Jan and Wayne was for the best. I could never have done it without them."
The Coombses, especially Jan, nursed their foster son through fitful nights of drug withdrawals and helped the mother. The county gave the woman's son back to her when he was 6 months old, but she quickly realized that she had not been sober long enough to handle the responsibility.
"I called Jan and Wayne about a month later and asked them, `Can you take him back?' and they said they would," she recalled. The Coombses cared for her baby until he was 15 months old. She now supports herself and her son with housecleaning and welfare.
She was apprehensive about attending the church, but soon felt at home.
"Everyone came up to me and talked to me and told me they loved me," she said. "It's the safest, happiest, most loving place I know."
Coombs said he wanted to create a church that would bring middle- and upper-class Christians together with others like the mother of his foster son who are not so fortunate.
"I don't want a Christian country club -- I want people to come to church to be challenged to make an impact on someone else's life," Coombs said. "I've had people leave the church just because of my ministry to kids. They say, `What are you doing for my kids?' "
Outside his church, Coombs maintains friendships with other ministers. Father John Pustaver of St. James Catholic Church in Redondo Beach met Coombs when the priest was putting together a youth Mass and attended Coombs' service.
"I was always astounded at the guy's ability to just do things," Pustaver said. "He has the vision all of us can embrace."
Coombs' vision to help children is shared by his wife, daughter Jenny, 20, and son Brad, 22. Jenny works at the Koinonia foster care agency in Rolling Hills Estates.
Making early choices
Wayne Coombs, born and raised in Canada, decided early that he wanted to be a minister and majored in religious studies at McMasters University in Canada and Taylor University in Indiana, then student-pastored a church in Indiana. In 1967, he shifted career paths and joined a Chicago advertising agency.
At the agency, he booked clients on talk shows and wanted to try his luck in Hollywood. He landed Pat Boone as a client in 1970, and in 1972 started his own talent agency, representing Dale Evans and Roy Rogers, Boone's daughter Debby, and even John DeLorean after he became a born-again Christian in jail and wrote a book about it.
"Coombs was big-time," said Tim Swift with Pierre Cossette Productions, which now manages Boone. "He was the first agent to make Christian contemporary music big."
Boone said he and Coombs share a passion for saving the world and sometimes a fault of not knowing their limitations.
"We both tend to get scattered and pulled in many different directions and we always figure we can add one more activity," he said. "The scripture that moves both of us, I think, is, `Be ready unto every good work.' The trouble is, if you don't put on the brakes somewhere, they could be doing a (fund-raiser) for you."
Despite Coombs' success in Christian entertainment, his drive to lead a church never went away. In the early 1980s he helped form the Tetelestai Christian Center, which began meeting at Rolling Hills High School and moved to Torrance under the leadership of Hal Lindsey.
"In 1986, I realized I was supposed to plant (another) church," Coombs said, and Lunada Bay Christian Fellowship was born. Four years later, Wayne and Jan became foster parents and decided to make needy children a focus of their ministry.
Helping needy children
It's hard to imagine a more needy child than the Russian orphan Nikolai, who was born with spina bifida. After Coombs intervened, Nikolai stayed at the home of Dr. Sidney and Karin Schneider of Palos Verdes Estates, who volunteered to care for him through two surgeries.
Doctors at County Harbor-UCLA Medical Center successfully operated on Nikolai, and Coombs' group found him a home. Coombs said that one day Nikolai might be able to walk with the aid of braces and canes.
A week before going to his new family in mid-October, Karin Schneider fondly watched Nikolai as he pulled himself around her living room with strong forearms.
"When I first saw him, he would not make eye contact with me -- you know how children think that if they don't look at you, you can't see them," Schneider said. "He had total social deprivation (in the orphanage). Now he knows tenderness, he knows love."
Coombs knows there are thousands of Nikolais in the world.
"Every church should be rescuing orphans," he said. "I have a lot of ideas, but 90 percent of them are my ideas and 10 percent are God's ideas. It's the 10 percent I try to focus on.
"I try my best to love everybody I can, and you either like me or you don't."