By Michael E. Miller
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By Sabrina Rodriguez
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By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
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Perhaps not surprisingly, when Diaz and his cohorts plunge into South Beach's feverish Saturday nights, they frequently are met with curious stares, derisive jokes, even tense confrontations. “A lot of times people scream at us. They call us freaks, fanatics, or holy rollers,” Diaz says matter-of-factly. “I'm very aware we offend people, but we're here to do God's will on Earth.”
It's an endeavor that carries risks beyond taunts and threatening encounters; spiritual endangerment also lurks at every turn. And so before leaving their Westchester church, the Let My People Go members spend two hours praying for protection from the temptation and sin they will encounter in the Deco District.
After about 40 minutes at Ocean Drive's Lummus Park, Diaz huddles the group around the cross for a final round of protective prayer before they begin marching through the streets to their next destination: the libertine nightclubs of Washington Avenue.
They wend their way single file along sidewalks that are beginning to pulse with nymphets, would-be Casanovas, and drag queens. Passersby shout mocking hallelujahs. A couple of skateboarders adopt fake Southern accents and yell out: “Praise Jesus!” Diaz is now sweating as he hauls the heavy cross through the thickening pedestrian traffic.
The procession arrives at ground zero -- Washington Avenue between Sixth and Seventh streets -- before any lines have formed at the nightclub entrances. They walk south, past the Living Room and Kit Kat Club to Bash, where the doormen, familiar with the church troupe, seem to be expecting them. “Here they come,” says a black-clad employee behind the velvet ropes. After briefly greeting the doormen, Diaz sets down the cross in front of an empty storefront between Bash and Pucci's Pizza. He begins preaching: “God is not willing that any of us should perish.” But at this still relatively early hour, the sidewalk is short on sinners. A trio of gay men and a drag queen pass by without stopping; a man in a sequined vest wanders past, handing out free drink passes to a nearby club. Despite the dearth of misguided mortals, Let My People Go begins a rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
Coke Carbayo, Bash's doorman, smokes a cigarette and watches. “Freedom of speech is a beautiful thing,” he says with a smirk. Between puffs he invites a spectator to drop by later for a drink and a glimpse of real evil. “The Devil's inside,” he whispers, “and she's wearing a tight blue dress.”
Bash bartender Liz Dennis steps out for a breath of fresh air. When she sees the commotion, she animatedly waves her hands above her head and jokes, “The Devil is here! The Devil is here!” For a moment she silently scrutinizes Diaz and his followers, then furrows her brow. “These are people who need attention and they haven't found any other way to get it,” she says, an edge of annoyance in her voice. “They are wasting their time. All they're doing is disturbing the peace.”
If anyone's peace is being disturbed at this moment, it's that of two young women in miniskirts and platform shoes, who've been corralled by a couple of Diaz's acolytes. The girls listen politely and accept the Where Are You Going? pamphlets, then they're off. As they walk away, one of them giggles. “I feel like I'm walking on air,” she says facetiously, out of earshot.
By now it's 11:30 p.m., the hour at which most South Beach nightclubs just begin to come alive, when swarms of people start to mass at the velvet ropes. Prime time for soul-savers like Raul Diaz and his Let My People Go ministry. But instead of kicking into spiritual high gear, Diaz hoists the crucifix once again and leads his brood away from the action, up the street and around the corner to the Seventh Street parking garage, where they pile into Central Bible's van and head back to Westchester.
Tomorrow is Sunday, the Sabbath, and God's revolutionaries have to get up early for church services.