Grand Theft, Church

Ghetto redevelopment Miami style is anything but divine

His arrival in Overtown was the product of a disastrous effort to run simultaneously for several local political offices in Georgia. According to a 1982 Newsweek article, King made "a decidedly illegal campaign promise: that he would give $100 to anyone who voted for him. When he was found guilty of election violations, the judge offered him twelve months' probation, but King insisted on going to jail. He apparently had a quick change of heart, however, because he skipped to Miami -- where he filed for a Congressional seat. His bid ended when his check for the $3000 qualifying fee bounced." King acquired the Divine Mission apartment building in Overtown in 1981.

Lawyer Toby Brigham remembers getting a phone call in 1983 from "a man who said he was a preacher and that the police were knocking down the doors of his church and would I come. And it turned out to be Reverend Clennon King." (Brigham specializes in getting top dollar for people whose properties are acquired by governments for public purposes, a process known as eminent domain.)

After the reverend's call the attorney headed over to 910 NW Second Ct. "Code enforcement officers were there with the police because the building had a lot of violations of the minimum housing code," Brigham recalls. "The Herald had come out with some very sensational stories juxtaposing 'Church of Divine Mission' with the condition of the building, which was less than divine. And I called them and said, 'I don't understand why you're doing this because Reverend King, as best I can determine, feeds the hungry, houses the homeless, and clothes the naked. And he's doing something good.'"

Leo Casino believes the Lord, and possibly government prosecutors, will judge the ones who sold this holy building
Steve Satterwhite
Leo Casino believes the Lord, and possibly government prosecutors, will judge the ones who sold this holy building
The Divine Mission was eternal in Clennon King's plan, but not the CRA's
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
The Divine Mission was eternal in Clennon King's plan, but not the CRA's

A judge granted an emergency injunction on the violation fines so that the church could seek a loan to help fix the building. United National Bank (now Mellon United National Bank) extended $87,000. "We got a contractor and they put the building in like-new condition," Brigham says. "Reverend King was a very unusual man, but he was devout to his cause and he felt he was on a divine mission to help out as he could."

Dwight Hill, the banker who processed the loan, also remembers King fondly. "He was a character and a half," he says. "You know one day he showed up in my office and he's got this purple sash and he puts it around me and says, 'I'm conferring a doctorate of divinity on you from our church.' It was interesting."

As rare as the reverend were the articles of incorporation he wrote for the Church of the Divine Mission. The church's purpose was "to serve here in Miami, Florida and throughout the world as a pure and perfect manifestation of the living body of Jesus Christ," the articles stated. But the document also accepted such earthly realities as state and federal laws, and through various amendments specified that if sold, all proceeds "must go" to "such organizations as are tax-exempt." In addition the church's original bylaws forbid church officers from receiving any part of the church's "wealth or income," except for "official expenses previously approved." The bylaws also prohibited sale of Divine Mission property "for personal profit." But the bottom line was this: The articles stated that the church could not sell or buy property without "the full approval of The Founding Minister."

So when the reverend transcended this world, things got tricky. Under state law only the Divine Mission board in place at the time of the reverend's death was empowered to determine the corporation's fate. According to state records, Muriel was not on the board then. Leo Casino, however, was, along with David Cohn, a 50-year-old doctor who works at Mount Sinai Hospital on Miami Beach. Cohn visited Clennon King about a dozen times in 1999 after the minister had become bedridden from prostate cancer. "I'm a liberal from New York and I saw this as a great opportunity to help the community," Cohn recounts. "And I said, 'What are you going to do with this when you're gone?' And we talked about that." Cohn says he and the minister both thought the building should become some kind of community center. "That's why he put me on the board of directors. [He thought] some white Jewish doctor from New York, a liberal guy, maybe would be another steadying force for whatever dream he had."

Also on the board at the time of King's departure: his sister Valencia Nelson, who lived in Alabama; Clifford Bell, a doctor in Arizona; and Antoinette Keaton, who lived at the Divine Mission building and helped the reverend aid the destitute.

By February 2001, a year after the reverend's death, the Divine Mission records had morphed. The board had been expanded to include Muriel and a brother named Lee King. Replacing Clennon King's name as registered agent: Martin Siskind. Clennon King's name still appeared as a director. The document was signed by Muriel and Siskind, who wrote the word "manager" next to his signature.

Cohn eventually learned from Casino that a coup d'état had occurred and they were no longer on the board. "Martin Siskind I guess strong-armed or whatever the term is, changed things around, and then we were out," Cohn says. "And you know there was no board meeting [in which] we were taken off. We just one day were out."

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