No prison time! See below for update.
This is the day of reckoning for Liberty City's most well-known pastor. Rev. Gaston Everett Smith, head of the Friendship Baptist Missionary Church, will be sentenced for blowing county grant funds on personal expenses. He could face five years in prison, but will likely receive a lighter sentence, given that he had a clean criminal record.
The real question is what a prison sentence might mean to his congregation. In reporting last August's feature on the pastor as he was preparing for trial, New Times encountered a flock which was steadfastly bonded to their charismatic leader:
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Asked about the theft accusation, [parishioner Chauncett Riley] 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."
The religious community has remained loyal to him even after the conviction. Judge Beatrice Butchko will consider letters pleading for leniency from pastors such as the Miami Revs. W. Edward Mitchell and Gregory Thompson, and Reverends from his hometown of Houston Eric T. Anderson and Harvey Clemons.
No matter what the sentence, Riptide is guessing that his congregation will keep his pulpit warm for him, probably naming only an interim pastor in his stead. In Miami, a felony conviction is just a platform for a noisy comeback.
Update: Guess they won't need that interim pastor after all. Smith was sentenced to five years probation and five years monitoring. He will also have to repay the $10,000 he was convicted of stealing.