In the Name of the King

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

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."

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.
Young minister D'Andre Dawkins says Smith delivered him from a life of crime: "I know he wouldn't do what he's accused of. That's not the pastor."
C. Stiles
Young minister D'Andre Dawkins says Smith delivered him from a life of crime: "I know he wouldn't do what he's accused of. That's not the pastor."

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!"

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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."

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.

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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.

In July that year, Powell left, and after a trial sermon, Smith was voted pastor by the congregation. Smith says he quit a lucrative hotel position to chase his calling.

The reality might have been less altruistic. In May 2002, Smith was sued for $5,000 in "contract indebtedness" by his employer and then-owner of the Royal Palm, Starwood Hotels & Resorts. Within a month, the new preacher settled the suit, agreeing to pay back the money in installments, court records show. Most of the case file has since been destroyed, and Smith's general manager at the time, Jesse Stewart, declined to comment. But Richard Scruggs, an assistant state attorney familiar with the lawsuit, says Smith was caught pilfering from the company. "From what I understand, he was caught with his hand in the cookie jar somehow, and rather than press charges, because it was such a small amount, they took it to civil court," Scruggs says. "You know how much of the $5,000 he's paid back to the hotel? Zero. But they know they'll be chasing him forever, so I think they're just chalking it up as a loss."

One of the reverend's attorneys, Michael Tein, denies the litigation had to do with Smith leaving the hotel business. "There's absolutely no evidence... Pastor Smith did anything illegal," he declares. "Just because somebody settles a lawsuit does not admit liability. Sometimes time and expense can cause a defendant to decide to settle even if they're innocent of all wrongdoing."

Public records indicate Smith's money troubles continued that year. In October 2002, according to a Broward County suit, he was evicted from his Pembroke Pines apartment around the same time he moved into the church-paid Miramar house where he still lives. (Reached by New Times, the owner of Pembroke Landings Apartments says he doesn't recall his former tenant.)

And in 2007, Capital One was awarded a judgment against Smith in a Plantation court after he failed to pay $3,015 he'd racked up on a platinum credit card. Interestingly, in the 2004 application for that card, Smith wrote he had an annual income of $70,000 — but claimed in taxes that year to have made only $28,641, according to returns later subpoenaed by the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office.

But even as he struggled privately, Pastor Smith was a smashing success in the pulpit. His congregation has more than doubled to 3,000 since he took over, he says, and the church has become so popular with politicians — before every service, Smith invites "all candidates for public office" to stand up and accept applause — that, in 2004, the IRS took exception.

In September that year, presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry dropped by Friendship Missionary on a Sunday, joined by Congressman Kendrick Meek and Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. When Kerry commandeered the pulpit to stump for votes, it posed a possible violation of Friendship Missionary's tax-exempt status. The IRS launched an investigation but eventually dropped it.

Smith's most important role was as the community's symbolic protector. When children were murdered, he prayed with their parents and performed the burials, including the 2006 ceremony for Carol City High academic standout Jeffrey Johnson Jr. The Miami Police Department appointed Smith as the official chaplain, and he met with cop brass to hash out community initiatives and bury deceased officers. And this past January, when Sharpton again flew to Miami to speak out against the "Stop Snitchin'" trend in the wake of a Liberty City dice-game shooting that left nine teens riddled with bullets, Smith stood at his side at Friendship Missionary.

"If anybody comes to us with a domestic violence situation, or maybe they've been evicted and have no place to live, we tell them to call Pastor Smith," says Eric Thompson, an activist and Liberty City Community Revitalization Trust board member. "Somebody gets killed, people will call him before they call the police. Very few pastors in this community actually reach out to regular folk from the housing projects, and he does that."

It was a little-known nonprofit called Friends of MLK Inc. — founded by Smith and two other pastors in 2004 to revitalize Martin Luther King Boulevard, the long-blighted main artery of Liberty City — that would lead to his mug shot being plastered on the nightly news.

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When a team of state and county investigators descended on the Flagler Street offices of the Metro-Miami Action Plan Trust (MMAP) and seized all of its files in December 2007, few familiar with Miami politics were surprised.

Founded in 1983 in the aftermath of the Liberty City riots, MMAP is supposed to spend its $12.2 million county-funded annual budget on cash assistance for small businesses and down payments for low-income homebuyers. It also oversees Teen Court, a rehabilitation program for youth offenders. But for more than a decade, MMAP has been dogged by charges of corruption and mismanagement, which include an administrative officer serving time for accepting bribes in 2002. Last year, a scathing county audit resulted in the dissolution of its board of trustees. Now its future is in doubt.

The raid was part of an investigation that will eventually lead to "several indictments," says State Attorney's Office investigator Bob Fielder. Caught in the net: Rev. Gaston Smith, arrested a month after the raid on a charge of grand theft. "Pastor Smith just had the pleasure of being one of the first to be charged," the detective says. "His case is just a very small piece in a much larger picture."

At a budget hearing in September 2004, MMAP awarded the pastor-run Friends of MLK group an economic development grant of $25,000. While Smith was the president and director of the group, two other Miami preachers were named as partners in its incorporation files: Revs. Vinson Davis and Joaquin Willis.

Willis, the well-respected 60-year-old pastor of Liberty City's Church of the Open Door, hedges gracefully when asked about the original intent of the organization. "Every year, there was a celebration of Dr. King's birthday on Martin Luther King Boulevard," he explains. "As far as I know, all we were trying to do was provide support for that cause and promote the memory of King. We never did discuss how this thing was going to be funded. To be honest, I wasn't as detail-oriented and aware as I should have been."

Smith's guidelines for how to make use of the MMAP cash weren't exactly stringent. The "project description" filed with MMAP was vague: "Promotion of the principles and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr." According to a grant proposal, the MLK fund's $25,000 would be spent on four areas: "development of promotional material," building a website, coordinating a fundraising reception, and setting up a community garden for senior citizens.

None of that happened. Instead, unbeknownst to his partners Davis and Willis, Smith procured a debit card connected to the nonprofit's Washington Mutual bank account and treated it like his own personal travel fund, prosecutors say. Over a span of three months, he paid for plane tickets, hotel rooms, and car rentals for trips to Atlanta, Memphis, Dallas, and New York City. He withdrew $10,356.50 in cash from ATMs, including 20 withdrawals of $400 or more. In September 2005, he took $500 from a bar-side cash machine at Las Vegas's posh casino nightclub MGM Grand Zuri.

Most signifigant to investigators, Smith gave checks for "consulting fees" totaling $8,000 to Karym Ventures Inc., a company owned by Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, a member of his church. Asked about the nonprofit, Smith declines to answer. "My lawyers have actually told me not to even touch it," he says.

He was more forthcoming during a secretly recorded October 9, 2007 interview with authorities three months before the MMAP raid and four months before his arrest. He claimed that then-mayor's aide Spence-Jones urged him to found Friends of MLK, even suggesting the name. "Pastor Smith, we need an advocate group in the community," the reverend quoted Spence-Jones as telling him. "You're the person for the job."

Smith told investigators: "I remember that discussion taking place before grant money even came up."

Spence-Jones then wrote the MMAP proposal for Smith, prosecutors say, and then-commissioner and longtime ally Barbara Carey-Shuler helped push it through.

The pastor told investigators the $8,000 paid to Karym Ventures was for Spence-Jones's marketing work: She helped get donations from Burger King Corp. and former baseball star Mo Vaughn.

"Did she earn $8,000, in your opinion?" prosecutor Scruggs asked.

"Uh, in hindsight, I'd say no," Smith replied.

The pastor fairly seethed during his conversation with the investigators. "Now that I've had the chance to think through this and look at the documents," he said, "I feel completely violated... It's almost like date rape."

Just after 6 p.m. January 31, 2008, Miami-Dade detectives pulled over Smith in his luxury SUV after tailing him throughout the day. They seized the permitted .38 Smith & Wesson he had in the car and cuffed him. Charged with felony grand theft for misusing public funds and released on $7,500 bond, he later rejected a misdemeanor plea deal that would have required him to pass a polygraph test.

Smith's lawyers say he has done nothing wrong. The travel expenses were for religious conferences where he promoted Friends of MLK. The cash withdrawals were to pay the organization's lone employee, part-time Friendship Missionary receptionist Maude Sherrod. He treated the $25,000 as "seed money," says Guy Lewis, a former U.S. attorney who represents Smith. "I'm not going to get into the details of the case, but I will tell you that Pastor Smith is as honest as the day is long," Lewis says. "The allegation that he somehow pocketed or stole this amount of money is ludicrous, and we have our own forensic accountants who will show that if we do go to trial."

Reverend Willis says he believes Smith intended to pay back whatever money he borrowed. "It certainly wasn't his brightest or his finest moment," the 60-year-old pastor says of Smith. "Sometimes in our haste, moving too fast, we make mistakes we're not proud of. I absolutely believe he's innocent of any legal charges."

But Smith's problems don't stop at the grand theft accusation. As part of its investigation, the State Attorney's Office subpoenaed his tax receipts and banking records. Since becoming Friendship Missionary's pastor, he has filed his taxes as a self-employed "consultant" to the church and declared earnings ranging from $30,654 in 2003 to $54,500 in 2007.

Scruggs believes Smith has taken improper deductions, counting as business expenses costs that are actually covered by the church. In 2007, for example, he deducted more than $2,000 for "clergy uniform expenses" and ended up paying only $2,082 in taxes. "He didn't buy the clergy's uniforms," Scruggs says with an exasperated head shake. After combing through Smith's personal banking records and taking into account "love offerings" and other cash donations from church members, Scruggs estimates that in 2007, the pastor made "around $120,000" — more than twice what he declared. "We've passed on our observations to the IRS. They're very interested." (Tax documents show the agency placed a lien — an official garnishment of wages and assets — on Smith and his wife Kimberly in 2000 and again in 2006, seeking back taxes for three years prior, totaling just under $3,000.)

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."

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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.

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."

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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