In the Name of the King

The leader of a church that's drawn presidential hopefuls and the devout is enveloped in scandal.

Smith's attorney Michael Tein calls Scruggs's claims concerning Smith's 2002 lawsuit and taxes "untrue" and detrimental to the pastor's upcoming trial. "I am... shocked that the State Attorney's Office is giving their opinions to the press about an ongoing case that is set for trial," the lawyer says. "Just doing that is wrong, unfair, and definitely violates a defendant's constitutional rights."

Spence-Jones, though widely reported to have been "cleared" of the state's investigation, isn't out of hot water either, Scruggs says. "That didn't come from us. She's still under investigation," the prosecutor says without going into detail.

Reached on her cell phone and then tracked down at Soul Café, her new Liberty City restaurant, Spence-Jones, who still attends Smith's church, declined to comment both times. "I've been assured that I'm in the clear here. I didn't do anything wrong at all," she says. "But Gaston's going to trial soon, and I don't want to say anything that might mess anything up for him."

Pastor Gaston Smith proclaims his innocence and calls his grand theft charge a point of prayer: "I ask God, 'Why me?' He says, 'Why not you!'"
C. Stiles
Pastor Gaston Smith proclaims his innocence and calls his grand theft charge a point of prayer: "I ask God, 'Why me?' He says, 'Why not you!'"
The IRS investigated Smith after politics and religion mixed during the 2004 presidential election: Sen. John Kerry stumped at Smith's pulpit, flanked by retired Rep. Carrie Meek and Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
The IRS investigated Smith after politics and religion mixed during the 2004 presidential election: Sen. John Kerry stumped at Smith's pulpit, flanked by retired Rep. Carrie Meek and Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

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It's noon on a July Friday in Miami, and Rev. Gaston Smith, wearing a loose gray three-piece inside the air-conditioned black-leather cockpit of his black 2006 BMW X5 SUV, is the picture of cool efficiency. Strewn in the back seat are the tools of his trade: a black leather-bound King James version of the Bible and a Communion goblet. For Smith, Saturday is funeral day, Sunday is the main event, and Monday is his lone day off. The rest of the week, he's essentially on holy call.

"You must have a lot of faith," he cracks to the reporter sitting in the passenger seat as he swerves into traffic with a phone pressed against his ear. "You're driving with me."

He's already several hours into a draining day. First thing in the morning, he showed up at Jackson Memorial Hospital, where he camped out with the families of 12 victims of Miami's latest teen shooting, at an Overtown birthday party. Then he told a dozen pastors about it at a breakfast meeting in his church. "Most of these children aren't covered by any kind of insurance and don't have any sort of resources," he related to his colleagues. "I'm [donating] service just to get these children buried. It's a sad testament and a devastating indictment."

Next he stops at the Miami Police station on NW 62nd St., where he meets with high-level cops in the oak-paneled office of Maj. Roy Brown. Among other things, they discuss the funeral Smith will perform for Michelle Coleman, a 21-year-old woman slain in the Overtown shooting. Smith is concerned there might be a retaliation shooting at the funeral, but Major Brown assures him several undercover cops will be among the mourners.

As Smith leaves the station, an irate, shabbily dressed older man in the lobby screams about his son getting pistol-whipped by coke dealers. The 20-something son stands shyly aside, his eyebrow leaking blood. "I ain't need no police!" the dad announces. "I'm going to handle my business!"

The imposing pastor leans into the man's contorted face. "You OK?" he asks.

"Yeah, I'm all right, Rev," replies the dad, suddenly sheepish.

Knowing when to intervene in a neighborhood like Liberty City is a pastor's biggest challenge, Smith explains as he climbs behind the wheel and steers the SUV onto I-95. It's a dilemma he faces every time he spots a young member of his church hustling on a street corner. "I might just tell him: 'Hey, man, pull your pants up,' and see how he responds," he says. "You never know, they may pull out a weapon on you. But usually, they show me a level of respect. They say, 'Sorry, Pastor.'"

Thirty minutes later, Smith stands in a dank, curtain-partitioned sick room at Hialeah's Palmetto General Hospital, joining hands in prayer with a bedridden 30-something church member named Rochelle and her grief-stricken husband. Rochelle has suffered an aneurysm, and she's draped in the undignified garb of a long-term patient: a baggy gown and hair net, cotton taped to her arms to protect needle marks, an IV hooked into the crook of an elbow. But she smiles convincingly when Smith squeezes her hand and tells her: "Kim and I have been praying for you," and promises to bring Communion on the next visit. He seems relaxed about the day's packed schedule and is content to remain bedside for as long as Rochelle wants to talk. "I'm always holding on to my faith," Rochelle tells him.

"The job never leaves you," Smith says later as he buys a cup of fresh-squeezed orange juice from the hospital gift shop — his lunch on the run. "Even if you're relaxing, you're still pastor."

His early afternoon includes another hospital visit and a stop at a Liberty City funeral home to check on the arrangements for Coleman's ceremony. At 2 p.m., he cocoons himself in his church office to take calls. Everywhere he goes, he is recognized, and it is his duty to recognize back: "I didn't know you were on that cane!" he says to a hobbled elderly church member he runs into in the hospital lobby.

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