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It's difficult to imagine more loyalty. As Smith leaves to prepare for his next sermon, an older female church member grabs a reporter by the hand. "You be good to the pastor, do you hear?" she says, light brown eyes flashing with feeling, before turning on her heels.
The sweltering days of summer seem to melt into each other in Liberty City. Outside of every bulletproofed bodega, a dozen people gab the day away — older folks, with few teeth and sagging skin, savoring brands of liquor named for Indians, guns, or horses; the younger set, dressed like a child army in uniforms of billowing white T-shirts, baggy denim, and puffy sneakers, perched on the corner and making no secret of an illegal occupation. The unemployment rate exceeds 20 percent here, and pockets of midday commerce are few. Boarded-up storefronts seem to outnumber open businesses two to one.
But to say there is no hope in Liberty City is to overlook what fuels its most thriving legitimate industry. The neighborhood is crowded with churches, all of them touting their pastors in prominent script on the outside walls. Preachers tool the neighborhood dressed in fine suits and driving elegant cars; they collect hugs, waves, and appeals for blessings wherever they go.
It was in a very similar neighborhood in Houston where Gaston Everett Smith got his start in the ministry. Though he was raised in the black working-class neighborhood of Northwood Manor, his family attended Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in the city's Fifth Ward, the bombed-out hood originally established by newly freed slaves and made notorious by the violence-laden raps of native hip-hop legend Scarface.
Gaston was the youngest of six children born to James, a truck driver and hotel bellhop, and Dorothy, an entrepreneur of modest means who brokered real estate and owned a barbershop. It was a "lower-middle-class" upbringing, he says, where the kids might be packed three to a bedroom, but the parenting was stern and pious. "I literally grew up in the church," Smith says. "From as early as I can remember, I served in some capacity, from usher to trustee to deacon to transportation director to Sunday schoolteacher. I always realized there was a calling on my life to preach."
Smith learned to command a crowd's attention from his mother, a skillful public speaker who lectured schoolkids during Black History Month and Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. "She taught me about eye contact, putting passion in your speaking, the importance of knowing your material, and assessing your audience."
He counts as a mentor Pleasant Hill Pastor Harvey Clemons Jr., a gunpowder-throated, politically active preacher who touts the black church as the community's only reliable seat of power. (Like his prodigy, Clemons has been scrutinized in the local media for questionable finances. In 2002, the City of Houston killed a plan to award $90 million to Clemons's housing nonprofit, the Pleasant Hill Community Development Corporation, after discovering it hadn't filed tax returns in years and that Clemons owed $17,000 in personal property taxes.)
But Smith says he tries to channel two black heroes in every sermon: King Jr. and Muhammad Ali. As a child, he met the fighter during an exhibition at a Houston amateur boxing association, and he later pored over recordings of the reverend. He considers King's older sister, Christine King Farris, who lives in Atlanta, to be a "close friend." "Dr. King was inspirational, and he talked about the dream," Smith says, "but Mo Ali talked about greatness."
A football tight end in high school, Smith earned a bachelor's degree in political science at the University of Houston and surpassed his dad in the hospitality industry, climbing the rungs of management at hotels while studying at the Houston Bible Institute. In 1987, Smith, then 21 years old, married Kimberly Robbins in a ceremony performed by Clemons. Three years later, he was ordained as a minister.
But fast-tracked to the pulpit as he was — unlike other preachers, Smith admits no early period of disillusionment or straying — public records reveal Smith had trouble meeting paternal obligations. A woman named Pennie Avletta Thomas sued Smith in 1990, winning a child support judgment. A year later, the county began garnishing Smith's wages. Few other details are available; the case has been deemed "confidential," and a Harris County judge denied New Times' request to view the file. Thomas did not return several phone messages requesting comment.
In 2001, work brought the rising hotel exec and his family to South Florida. Smith was hired as an executive manager for the opening of the Royal Palm Crowne Plaza in Miami Beach. Helmed by real estate magnate R. Donahue Peebles, the Royal Palm was Miami Beach's first African-American-owned resort. The Smiths — now with a daughter and son in tow — worshiped at Friendship Missionary Baptist, where Gaston joined the ministry staff. The church was then under the leadership of D. L. Powell, an enormous, fiery preacher.
Then, as now, photo op-seeking politicians identified the church as a convenient portal into the black working class. In early 2002, State Attorney Janet Reno attended a Sunday service as one of the final acts of her gubernatorial race.