By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
This past November 3, Pastor Simon Graves had a dream in which God's giant hand reached into a towering downtown condo and plucked a plump politician from his bed. The round little man kicked, screamed, and showered coins all over town as the Lord carried him through the air toward Biscayne Bay. The hand halted over the black waters, where God "just dunked him like a doughnut," Graves says. Miamians flocked to the shoreline to watch. "And it was like a light just opened up overhead."
Graves recalls the night fondly. "It was an epiphany," he says. "My epiphany." From that moment on, Graves knew Miami needed to bring back the dunking stool.
Public meetings of the Miami-Dade County Charter Review Task Force: January 9 at 10 a.m., Main Library Auditorium, 101 W Flagler St, Miami; January 16 at 6 p.m., Stephen P. Clark Government Center, 111 NW 1st St, 2nd Floor, Miami; January 17 at 10 a.m., Stephen P. Clark Government Center, 111 NW 1st St, Conference Rooms 18-3 and 18-4; and January 23 at 10 a.m., Main Library Auditorium, 101 W Flagler St, Miami.
Paunchy, pale, and bearded, the 36-year-old Graves looks like he's spent a good deal of his life stuck in the stacks of some frozen New England university library, though he says he hasn't set foot in those parts for more than 20 years.
Pastor Graves doesn't look or sound extreme in person. He's modest even to the point of being camera shy — his picture doesn't appear on his website (www.pastorsimongraves.com) or his MySpace page (myspace.com/pastorsimongraves).
His self-described "hillbilly" drawl is disarming, even pleasant. He wants you to understand why this town should start dunking its crooked politicians. He wants you to believe in the stool. "Think about it," he cries. "We catch someone stealing public money and then we spend probably five or six times more money trying to prove it. God forbid we find them guilty and send them to jail. That's a free taxpayer meal ticket right there!"
Graves wants Miami to construct a dunking stool along Biscayne Bay, build an arena around it, and "sell tickets and get back some of that money they blew," he says. Asked why he chose dunking, he turns to scripture: "The Book of Numbers tells us that whatever cannot be cleansed in the fire must be purified in the water," he says. "I'm not gonna come out and say we should light these people on fire...."
On Sunday, November 4, Graves delivered a passionate sermon in his 1,200-square-foot house in Homestead (which doubles as a rudimentary church). He sang and bellowed about accountability and moral backwardness for nearly four hours in front of a group of seven parishioners he'd recruited outside the Daily Bread Food Bank in Miami Gardens.
Only two ever came back.
"I liked the dunking sermon," says Serena Enriquez, a 21-year-old waitress who came to Graves to cure herself of a sex addiction. "I realized that I lack any, like, moral compass — except for Pastor Graves, of course. I dunno, he just kinda let us know that we need to start holding ourselves to a higher standard. We need ... more shame."
Since his arrival in South Florida this past fall, Graves has been combing the streets near homeless shelters, posting flyers in the bathrooms of dive bars, and canvassing outside the criminal courthouse for recent releases. Some folks he hooks by talking up his wife Ruth's fine home cooking. Others he lures with offers of free beer. Graves brings them into his home, also known as the New Covenant Bible Church, and does his best to "cleanse them of sin and get them ready for God."
In his short career, which has taken him all over the nation, Graves has counseled sociopaths, drunks, and drug addicts, with middling success. For the past two months, however, he's been scrambling to save us all. If only Miami-Dade County would let him.
Simon Graves grew up in rural Vermont in a small wooden house, where he reveled in hard work and hard punishment. "Simon had a gift from a very young age," recalls his brother James, who runs a feed store in Georgia. James remembers how his brother used to bang his own head against the wall for telling lies. "He has always held on to the idea of salvation through punishment — ever since he was a little boy."
At age 18, Graves hit the road, traveling the country in search of God. Ten years later, he found a kindred soul in Ruth Morton, the daughter of a wealthy Texas evangelist. They eloped during their first year at the Beeson Divinity School, in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2001. (Neither graduated. Graves went on to obtain his degree through the mail from Big Mountain Bible College.)
They have crisscrossed the country ever since, going where the Lord has said they need to be. In Tennessee, they worshipped at the New Life Pentecostal Home — a wacky congregation that, Graves recalls, experimented with venomous snake handling. In Iowa, they raised pigs and drifted further into Baptist Fundamentalism. "Simon decided, one day, that we were needed in Alaska," Ruth sighs. "So we sold all the pigs and nearly went bust heading up north — God love him."
Late last summer, Graves asked God to point him to the most "sordid, wanton place in this great nation. He guided my hand to the very tip of Florida," the pastor announces with a charmed fervor. "I told Ruth: 'Pack the bags, honey.'"