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It's Sunday morning in the heart of Liberty City, and the rain-dampened sidewalks are empty. The last of the weekend's slouching corner boys and listing streetwalkers slunk away hours ago. The whole world, it seems, is either asleep or at worship. And in an expansive and scrubbed-clean sanctuary on the corner of NW 58th Street and Seventh Court, the Rev. Gaston Smith is just about to bring the Word.
The imposing man in a lush beige three-piece suit bounces on the heels of his gator-skin shoes behind the pulpit. His face is wide like a bobcat's under a crown of closely trimmed hair. In a sonorous twang, the native Texan lays the foundation for an unconventional sermon. First he quotes an Old Testament passage in which the disgruntled prophet Jeremiah attempts to call it quits on preaching but can't: "His word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones."
Then he parses the lyrics from a 1985 Frankie Beverly hit: "We like the joy but we can't really stand the pain. I'm just happy to see you and me back in stride again."
Both "philosophers," Smith explains, are in relationships too good to shake — one with God, one with a girl.
The pews and an overhanging balcony are packed to fire-hazard density in what is arguably Liberty City's most popular church, Friendship Missionary Baptist. An eclectic crowd of young and old, blue jeans and church hats urges him along as he builds into a frenzy over the course of the next hour. Smith's gesticulating arms act as bodily exclamation points, and it seems everything he says rhymes or is alliterative: Jeremiah "suffered humiliation, frustration, aggravation, and even vexation," Smith declares without a breath. "He comes now with a new determination!"
Like every sermon Smith preaches, this one speaks to the myriad frustrations of one of America's poorest and least-employed communities, a neighborhood where more than half the residents live below the poverty line. But the preacher could just as well be talking about his own predicament: Next month, he's set to stand trial for allegedly stealing from a community fund named for his hero, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Pastor Smith insists he's innocent — in fact, he turned down a plea bargain in favor of a public trial. If he and his church family are experiencing any jitters about the upcoming day in court, none of it is evident this morning.
Jeremiah grew discouraged with God because "he doesn't see any change," Smith says, aiming the Word at his hard-knocks flock. "Somebody know what I'm talking about, because you dealing with the same thing... It seems like there's more bills coming in than money coming in. It seems like you stay depressed... It seems that in the midst of what Jeremiah is dealing with, there's no appreciation, but rather there's hateration. And he makes up in his mind that 'I'm quitting. I'm done. I'm not fooling with them no mo'.'
"Good thing about God is when you quit on God, he don't quit on you."
The congregation is on its collective feet now. They rapidly fan themselves and wave their Bibles in the air. A keyboardist bangs out a stilted harmony, and Smith rides it with a bluesman's cadence: "Ain't he a doctor! In a sick room! Ain't he a lawyer! In a courtroom! Ain't he a friend! That stick closer than any brother!"
It's just any given Sunday for a man whose arduous occupation demands more than physical fortitude. This 11 a.m. service is actually the second of three perspiration-soaked performances: Smith also preaches to the early-bird crowd at 7:30 a.m., and at 4 p.m., he'll do it again as a visiting pastor in an Opa-locka church.
For the members of Friendship Missionary Baptist, Pastor Smith is much more than God's messenger. He is a role model, a father figure, and a diplomat. In Liberty City, where politicians are phantoms and cops are there only when you don't want them, he's one of the few authority figures who still elicits trust.
After the service, Smith dabs himself with a white towel as he fields a human queue of handshakes and hugs. He whispers soft words into ears and points new parishioners to a five-dollar lunch in the next room. His congregation looks spent by the service, but Smith is, as always, composed.
This church has the feel of a family, and perhaps no accusation would be dastardly enough to cause these parishioners to abandon their patriarch. The felony grand theft charge certainly hasn't done it. Prosecutors allege Smith raided a $25,000 community revitalization fund and blew it on frivolities — including $500 withdrawn from a bar-side Las Vegas ATM.
Other skeletons in his closet, among the collection of sharp Rasool's-purchased suits, include claims of unpaid child support in Houston, his hometown; a dispute over $5,000 with a former employer; and several IRS liens, public records reveal.
Smith says he did nothing wrong with the community fund. "I'm not worried about it. I know we will be vindicated," he tells New Times after the service, his black dress shirt soaked with sweat. His everyday speaking voice is accentless and even prim. "We're going to be a better church when all this is done."