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
Miami's metamorphosis from sleepy resort town to thriving metropolis came in the Eighties, when the whole burg seemed to have been suckling on a giant cocaine teat. The city sprang into the international consciousness as the cash, coke, and killing capital of the United States.
Even with cocaine on the wane, Miami's vice remains a source of constant civic embarrassment. In September 2007, at the close of the last fiscal year, the Miami-Dade Office of the Inspector General (OIG) announced it had made 20 arrests on charges ranging from aggravated white-collar crime to bribery. The OIG had taken in $24 million in restitution for the county, four times the amount recovered in 2004.
Presented with Graves's idea, Inspector General Christopher Mazzella laughs. "I just hope he doesn't prosecute me for ... whatever it is he's going after," he says.
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.
Graves isn't laughing. "The book of Ecclesiastes asks us to consider the work of God," he says. "For who can make that straight which He has made crooked?"
His answer, of course, is Simon Graves.
The New Covenant Bible Church operates out of a small pink one-bedroom house on Campbell Drive in Homestead. Nothing about it suggests that it doubles as a center for bizarre salvation or political subversion. Palm trees sway out front. Christmas lights hang from the eaves. Only a handmade cross — a pair of two-by-fours screwed together and jammed into the front lawn — gives a hint of what goes on beyond its front door.
On a recent Saturday morning, Graves stands in the middle of the home's large main room. Clad only in plaid boxer shorts, he tinkers with elements of his fantastic stool. His pasty white body drips with dusty sweat. His hands and fingers are bandaged and scratched.
All around him, his homemade church sits in a state of arrested development. Construction materials line the perimeter of the cavernous room, along with 20 or so disparate chairs — dining, folding, and rolling — and a makeshift pulpit. The white stucco walls are marred in places where Graves, in moments of religious ecstasy, remodeled his home to create an adequate place of worship. Torn blue carpeting, sprinkled with crumbled drywall and sawdust, covers some of the floor. Pipes, still crusted with debris and fluffy pink insulation, extend up to the ceiling like candied stalagmites. You could throw a rock from the front door through the back window.
Soon after his dunking dream, and the poorly received sermon it inspired, Graves canceled services and pushed everything to the far corners of the room to begin work on his stool.
"God didn't want all that space for church," he says, hurrying into his bedroom to don a fluffy blue robe. "He knew I'd need the room to build Him a stool. My oh my, He works in mysterious ways."
Ruth follows Graves out of the bedroom and briefly stops to assess her husband's progress on the stool — a chair nailed to a beam as wide as the room, and a half-completed fulcrum. The small woman smiles a bit and then goes about filling the house with the aroma of bacon.
The project has been slow-going. Cesar Melindez, the pastor's teenage neighbor and Internet coach, took Graves down some dark paths online to find the blueprint for a dunking stool. "There are certainly those in the world who would use such a thing for a ... less-than-righteous purpose," Graves says delicately. (Indeed Melindez's parents no longer allow their son to visit the Graves household and declined to make him available to comment for this story.)
Ruth hands her husband a bacon sandwich wrapped in a paper towel. He sighs and takes a seat at a dusty table covered in paperwork and handwritten notes. She sits to his left as he considers his meal and begins to give lengthy thanks.
He thanks the Lord for New Times and the Charter Review Task Force. He thanks Him for his church, for his very existence, for Ruth, and for the bounty of bacon He hath bestowed on them both. Most of all, he thanks God for not striking him down for being such a miserable sinner.
A month ago, Pastor Graves launched a rather poorly conceived political and publicity blitz. He purchased a tape recorder and a listening device and documented — illegally — his telephone calls. (He has since provided copies to New Times, which has confirmed the validity of the conversations.)
Melindez created an e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org, and the website, which comes across as extremely angry and asks people to sign on to Graves's cause. (So far no one has.) Bold red capital letters implore, "Face your Lord on bended knee, Miami" and "Bring forward your sinners ... to be dunked!" The site has not seen much traffic. "Cesar took me a little too literally while we made that one," Graves says.
Graves was promptly blown off by the staffs of all 13 Miami-Dade County commissioners. "Some were nicer about it than others," he says. He spoke at length with the head of the State Attorney's Office public corruption unit, Joseph Centorino, who told Graves his ideas sounded "kind of passé." Graves countered that the government was probably dunking a bunch of terrorists down in Guantánamo as they spoke. Centorino did not seem to approve of that practice either.