In the Name of the King

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

On a day like today, it seems little has changed for Pastor Smith since his arrest in early 2008. That night, he returned to the church after posting bond to find parishioners waiting, the women holding home-cooked meals. The next Sunday, dozens of fellow pastors joined the packed Friendship Missionary sanctuary to show their support for Smith, all cheering when his lawyer Guy Lewis pumped a fist and declared him "100 percent innocent!"

At a church service today, it's hard to mention his name to Friendship Missionary members without hearing why their support will never waver — and what the pastor has done to earn such devotion.

Talk to skinny, gold-toothed D'Andre Dawkins, 23-year-old assistant minister at the church, and you'll hear how Smith took a chance on a troubled teenager with a violent rap sheet. Dawkins, a Liberty City native, says he barely knew his criminal father, and his mother was a prostitute. He attended Friendship Missionary as a kid, dragged to services by an aunt. As a teenager, he was "selling drugs, robbing people, stuff like that," he says casually. He was homeless, living in his PT Cruiser, carrying a gun, and itching to use it. But when he got locked up for an attempted carjacking in 2007, the only person he could think to call was Pastor Smith. The reverend quickly posted a $1,000 bond and put Dawkins up for a few months in a church-owned apartment behind Friendship Missionary. Today, Dawkins has his own apartment and a new wife — Smith performed the marriage — and works at Publix as he trains to be a pastor. "He's the greatest man I've ever met," Dawkins says. "Sometimes I wish he was my real father."

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.

Smith shrugs off the bond, saying the church has funds for such emergencies. "I have a saying that everybody in the church knows," he says in reference to his young assistant minister. "You have to catch the fish before you can clean it."

Chauncett Riley also tells a story about the reverend showing up during one of her most difficult moments. In May 2006, she and her husband Horace gave birth to Kiera, a girl born severely premature at 25 weeks. After two months of the baby struggling to breathe, doctors told the Rileys she had no chance to survive. Chauncett called Smith, and he showed up within minutes to counsel Horace, who couldn't bring himself to sign papers taking Kiera off life support. "He was there when my child took her last breath," she says, sitting in a church pew on a Wednesday night, fending off sobs. "Do you have any idea what that means to somebody?"

Asked about the theft accusation, Chauncett doesn't hesitate. "I'm not concerned about that. Whatever he's going through has nothing to do with his work here."

But isn't stealing a violation of a commandment? "So is 'Thou shalt not lie,'" she replies indignantly. "So is 'Thou shalt not covet.' He's human."

Smith doesn't talk about his legal troubles in church. "They don't come to hear about my problems," he says. As a result, he's become something of a silent martyr — and race has been brought into the equation. "Anybody who tries to do something to help the community and to make a difference suffers this persecution," says Rev. George McRae, a Liberty City institution as pastor of the Mt. Tabor Missionary Baptist Church. "In my own mind, if he had been of another race, we wouldn't be going through this."

But Smith doesn't play that card. He doesn't lose his cool with bombastic declarations of persecution. He remains calm even when it's suggested that — if the accusations are true — he insulted Dr. King's legacy. "I would never do anything to bring harm to that name," he remarks, sitting in his SUV in the parking lot of his church. "I consider him to be my mentor, and his older sister is like family. Does it hurt to have his name associated with this? I guess it does, but after the vindication, the pain will be relieved. We've not done anything wrong. The good I do for my church and my community, my life story, it all speaks for itself."

"We all make mistakes; we all exercise poor judgment," says Rev. Joaquin Willis of Church of the Open Door. "In the end, God's will shall be done. This whole thing has tied him up in too many ways to be as effective as I hoped he could be, and that's a shame."

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