Going South

Civics and spirituality. Politics and prayer. In the ongoing battle against inertia, Goulds bares the conflicts at its core.

Going south on U.S. 1 near SW 220th Street, off to the right in a grassy clearing down a scarcely paved road from the Disco South Inn and a ramshackle grocery braced by metal bars that stretch over every gap in its faded wood faaade, you can see Pastor Bonny Coney's big blue-and-white-striped tent. On Sundays the preaching and testifying and singing pulsate from the tent on sound waves that drift upward into the tall pines and palms or lightly graze the ears of the crack and heroin dealers who congregate around the scarred buildings that 40 years ago were part of a thriving business district in the South Dade community known as Goulds.

Two whimsically lettered wood signs proclaiming "Believers in Christ" have been pounded into the ground at either end of Pastor Coney's tent. Inside, the ground is completely covered by beige carpet remnants, atop which rows of rusty metal folding chairs have been arranged to face a raised area where a clear acrylic podium stands in front of four decaying upholstered chairs, a drum set, and loudspeakers. The backdrop is a large poster that depicts bold red words scrolled across an open Bible: "'Greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.' A 1 John 4:4." Despite a pair of generator-powered fans, the heat is stifling.

Pastor Coney is beside the podium in his chocolate-color double-breasted suit, crying and prancing. "What manner of love! What manner of love!" he yells into his hand-held microphone. "What manner of love! Glory to God! While we were yet sinners -- hallelujah! -- He came -- yes He did!" The pastor stomps, bends over, and hollers rhythmically, his lungs expelling a loud grunt after each phrase. "What love hafta do with it! HUNH! I heard Tina Turner say, 'What love hafta do with it.' Yes, Lord. HUNH! Love had something to do with it! He was crucified! HUNH! And He went down to Hell! HUNH! And on the third day He rose! HUNH! All power! All power!" His voice rises to a piercing chant. "ALL POWER! HUNH! IS IN MY HAND. HUNH! YES, LORD. THAT'S WHAT LOVE HAD TO DO WITH IT! I GOT A FRIEEEEEEEEND! HE SAYS: 'I WILL BE WITH YOU, EVEN UNTO THE END OF THE WORLD!' THAT FRIEND IS JESUS! IS JESUS!" The speakers fairly steam in the wet heat.

The audience is mostly women, about fifteen of them, dressed elaborately in defiance of the weather in hats and ruffled jackets and patterned vests. Several have lived or are still living in one of the trailers arranged in a haphazard ring around the clearing. Others, while they were crack-addicted, had lived among the dealers and prostitutes plying their trades just a few blocks away. They came to Pastor Coney and he took them in, and now they're lifting their hands to Heaven.

Coney lets out a whoosh of amplified breath, stands hand on hip, then resumes calmly, rhythmically, his voice building again. "On this week, the county -- I'm talking about Dade County -- came down and said, 'Pastor Coney, we're gonna . . . close you down, we're gonna take your people . . . somewhere. Somewhere. Put 'em in a shelter.' I said, 'No, no.' I said, 'God, deliver us.' THEY ARE IN A SHELTER!"

The women sitting on the rusty chairs clap and call out, "Yes, Lord. Praise God!" Pastor Coney wipes his face with a white cloth.

"I HAD TO STAND. I HAD TO STAND AGAINST THEM! We lost two or three . . . they gone back on crack cocaine. I seen one of the brothers A you know him A down on the street all drunk. BUT DO YOU KNOW WHAT? THESE PEOPLE HAVE TO PAY FOR THAT. YOU GOTTA STAND FAST. UNMOVABLE!" He wheels his left arm back like a windmill, crouches, insists, anguished: "DON'T DROP YOUR GUAAAAAARD! I'M NOT WORRIED . . . BECAUSE THE DEVIL'S DOING HIS JOB!"

Coney's cluster of sixteen battered trailers, a remnant of the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, is the target of Dade officials who for more than a year have been warning the pastor that his so-called Dade Outreach Center is in violation of myriad zoning ordinances. Despite repeated attempts by community leaders and social-service workers to help Coney comply, the center has no running water, no sewers, no electricity, and none of the operating permits or licenses the county and state require. Coney has promised to purchase the land and build a church on it, but Dade officials have lost patience. In April they filed misdemeanor criminal charges -- operating a church without a proper public hearing, improper disposal of waste, et cetera. Having been granted several extensions, Coney is scheduled to stand trial next month.

So the unsettled souls in Coney's camp will again be displaced. Within Goulds, the close-knit community of 7000 where Coney and many of his flock grew up, the standoff has been swept up in a larger, often bitter conflict that emerged out of Andrew's winds. At its core, the rivalry is between Goulds's established power elite and a newly organizing collection of residents bent on sharing that power. Like the homeless people clustered in the impermanent shade of Coney's tent church, all of the citizens of Goulds are in some ways displaced, maneuvering for position in the communal history of their 90-year-old enclave.

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