By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Panchanita Fordham is outside on the front steps of Northwestern Holy High School with the Lord's tingle in her belly so bad she's buckling at the knees. From her right hand hangs a borrowed Bible, from her left a Kool cigarette, which she attacks with the ferocity of the ex-junkie she is. It's been three months since she banished crack from her life, two weeks to the day since she allowed Jesus Christ in.
Standing alone in her Sunday best, a faded sundress, Fordham can hear the voice that compelled her rebirth thudding off the dingy concrete. Inside the church A a converted school auditorium where she will return after reducing her cigarette to a lip-sticked butt A the Reverend Victor Tyrone Curry is imploring the followers of New Birth Baptist Church to treat Scripture with the dignity of a credit card. "Don't leave home without it," he roars, and leaps from his pulpit. "His Word is all you need. In the Word is healing. In the Word is re-juv-e-na-tion. Don't go to sleep on me, New Birth!"
Fordham straightens up. "That's a man I love," she says. "He real. He real. That's why I'm here. He start that preaching and it's like a tingle inside that tells you the Lord want to come in." She reaches out to steady herself on a passing shoulder, laughs at the absurdity of a grown woman surrendering motor control to the Word. Then she turns back toward the auditorium. "Oooooh Lord A I'm tingling all over."
Six Liberty City blocks away A which is to say, six blocks of potholed roadway, gutted storefronts, and missed opportunity A Rosa Leland sits inside New Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, feeling a similar sensation. A lightness overtakes her when she listens to the Reverend Richard Paul Dunn bark out the Word. "Like you been uplifted," says the middle-school teacher. "Not like," she corrects herself. "You are uplifted."
Such is the defining genius of the 32-year-old reverends Dunn and Curry: that they can, with Word alone, compel strangers to accept Christ. The staccato eloquence of their weekly sermons has won them bragging rights as two of South Florida's most popular preachers. Not long ago, the two pals were much more.
Young, handsome, and ambitious, they leapt from the pulpit into the thrall of social activism and by 1989 were widely regarded as the voice of black Miami. Thousands tuned in to their fiery radio program and turned out for the protests they orchestrated. By turns radical and savvy, the so-called Dynamic Duo enjoyed the run of City Hall A all this as their collection plates grew heavy with the tithes of new worshippers. It was not atrocious, in those heady days, to envision either man as a potential heir to the empty throne of Martin Luther King, Jr.
But just as quickly as they ascended, Dunn and Curry stumbled. Dogged by allegations of personal misconduct, they left their respective congregations eighteen months ago. The press, driven by its lust for moral irony, dove like buzzards. Within six weeks, the men lost their radio show and exited the limelight in the costume of that most ignominous breed: the fallen preacher.
Today Dunn and Curry are back, looking mightier than ever. Each is preparing to move his swelling congregation into a new building. Dunn made a darkhorse run for the Dade County School Board this past fall and shocked the pundits by winning big in the primary before losing in a runoff. Curry declared just last week that he will seek a seat on the revamped Dade County Commission. Dunn says he is "90 percent sure" that he, too, will announce his candidacy this week.
Unable to resist the semiotics of Christian theology, the Dynamic Duo have attributed their resurrection to divine intervention. "We're supposed to be dead," is how Dunn puts it. "You accuse a preacher of stealing or womanizing and that's it. No one counted on God being in the picture."
But more than a validation of His work, the tale of Dunn and Curry reflects the perilous path trod by black religious leaders, men hamstrung between the conflicting mandates of the spiritual and the political, haunted by a legacy of oppression that is alive and seething in black Miami. None would dispute that Dunn and Curry have a talent for luring souls toward redemption. Leading the actual flesh of their grim community will prove quite another matter.
The Holy Ghost caught up to Jarius Wilson Dunn II on a blistering day in August 1959. Dunn was headed north on West Dixie Highway with a batch of freshly pressed clothes when he felt the ripple of air whoosh across his neck. The young launderer could have sworn he felt someone sneak in the back door of his Spic and Span Drycleaning van. Except that the door was shut. And the Chevy was pushing 50 mph. Then he heard the voice.
"How long you gonna run?" it murmured.
For Dunn, who had spent the better part of his 27 years dodging the urge to join the ministry, the question meant only one thing. God was calling him to the pulpit, and only a fool or a sinner turned from that offer. Dunn was neither. That evening he broke away from a social engagement and returned home. He lay on the floor and commenced praying for three hours. Exhausted, he crawled into bed and, according to his wife, preached a whole sermon in his sleep. Early the next morning she found him slumped on the bumper of his 1953 Oldsmobile. "Daddy," she pleaded, "why don't you come to bed?" He just stared out into nothing.