Pastor Targets Corruption
This past November 3, Pastor Simon Graves had a dream in which God's giant hand reached into a towering downtown condo and plucked a plump politician from his bed. The round little man kicked, screamed, and showered coins all over town as the Lord carried him through the air toward Biscayne Bay. The hand halted over the black waters, where God "just dunked him like a doughnut," Graves says. Miamians flocked to the shoreline to watch. "And it was like a light just opened up overhead."
Graves recalls the night fondly. "It was an epiphany," he says. "My epiphany." From that moment on, Graves knew Miami needed to bring back the dunking stool.
Paunchy, pale, and bearded, the 36-year-old Graves looks like he's spent a good deal of his life stuck in the stacks of some frozen New England university library, though he says he hasn't set foot in those parts for more than 20 years.
Pastor Graves doesn't look or sound extreme in person. He's modest even to the point of being camera shy — his picture doesn't appear on his website (www.pastorsimongraves.com) or his MySpace page (myspace.com/pastorsimongraves).
His self-described "hillbilly" drawl is disarming, even pleasant. He wants you to understand why this town should start dunking its crooked politicians. He wants you to believe in the stool. "Think about it," he cries. "We catch someone stealing public money and then we spend probably five or six times more money trying to prove it. God forbid we find them guilty and send them to jail. That's a free taxpayer meal ticket right there!"
Graves wants Miami to construct a dunking stool along Biscayne Bay, build an arena around it, and "sell tickets and get back some of that money they blew," he says. Asked why he chose dunking, he turns to scripture: "The Book of Numbers tells us that whatever cannot be cleansed in the fire must be purified in the water," he says. "I'm not gonna come out and say we should light these people on fire...."
On Sunday, November 4, Graves delivered a passionate sermon in his 1,200-square-foot house in Homestead (which doubles as a rudimentary church). He sang and bellowed about accountability and moral backwardness for nearly four hours in front of a group of seven parishioners he'd recruited outside the Daily Bread Food Bank in Miami Gardens.
Only two ever came back.
"I liked the dunking sermon," says Serena Enriquez, a 21-year-old waitress who came to Graves to cure herself of a sex addiction. "I realized that I lack any, like, moral compass — except for Pastor Graves, of course. I dunno, he just kinda let us know that we need to start holding ourselves to a higher standard. We need ... more shame."
Since his arrival in South Florida this past fall, Graves has been combing the streets near homeless shelters, posting flyers in the bathrooms of dive bars, and canvassing outside the criminal courthouse for recent releases. Some folks he hooks by talking up his wife Ruth's fine home cooking. Others he lures with offers of free beer. Graves brings them into his home, also known as the New Covenant Bible Church, and does his best to "cleanse them of sin and get them ready for God."
In his short career, which has taken him all over the nation, Graves has counseled sociopaths, drunks, and drug addicts, with middling success. For the past two months, however, he's been scrambling to save us all. If only Miami-Dade County would let him.
Simon Graves grew up in rural Vermont in a small wooden house, where he reveled in hard work and hard punishment. "Simon had a gift from a very young age," recalls his brother James, who runs a feed store in Georgia. James remembers how his brother used to bang his own head against the wall for telling lies. "He has always held on to the idea of salvation through punishment — ever since he was a little boy."
At age 18, Graves hit the road, traveling the country in search of God. Ten years later, he found a kindred soul in Ruth Morton, the daughter of a wealthy Texas evangelist. They eloped during their first year at the Beeson Divinity School, in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2001. (Neither graduated. Graves went on to obtain his degree through the mail from Big Mountain Bible College.)
They have crisscrossed the country ever since, going where the Lord has said they need to be. In Tennessee, they worshipped at the New Life Pentecostal Home — a wacky congregation that, Graves recalls, experimented with venomous snake handling. In Iowa, they raised pigs and drifted further into Baptist Fundamentalism. "Simon decided, one day, that we were needed in Alaska," Ruth sighs. "So we sold all the pigs and nearly went bust heading up north — God love him."
Late last summer, Graves asked God to point him to the most "sordid, wanton place in this great nation. He guided my hand to the very tip of Florida," the pastor announces with a charmed fervor. "I told Ruth: 'Pack the bags, honey.'"
They arrived in October and found a house for rent in Homestead. Ever since his big dream, Graves has remained fixated on lobbying the Miami-Dade County Charter Review Task Force to do away with formal ethics proceedings and replace them with a dunking stool.
The review has taken place every five years since 1957, with little fanfare. The outlook for this year's process was not terribly good. In June, a blogger at Eye On Miami despaired, "On a sliding scale, I expect nothing from this task force all the way to bad things." In November, former county manager and task force chairman Merrett R. Stierheim told the current panel: "I don't have much hope for substantive and meaningful change, no matter how badly needed or justified."
Realizing the whole system was under review, Graves began reading the papers like mad — poring over old clips online and trying his best to get a handle on how things work in Miami. He has no car and a limited grasp of technology; his research and publicity are handled entirely by a 14-year-old neighbor named Cesar Melindez.
At the end of this month, the 21 appointed members of the review panel will recommend changes to Miami's home-rule charter (essentially a county constitution). If the county commissioners approve the recommended changes, they will be put to a public vote.
Graves's idea has a slim chance, but he believes voters would support it if given the opportunity.
Most people think Graves is crazy, he acknowledges. He has staked out a site for the stool and has constructed several (poor) prototypes in his living room. If Graves had his druthers, the device, a modified seesaw with a chair attached to one end, would have gone up in Bayfront Park this past January 1.
Graves believes the stool will create a "terrifying scourge" for all "the nasty little devils on [crooked politicians'] shoulders." If he ruled the county, anyone looking to take office would agree to be dunked if he or she were caught violating the county's code of ethics.
From a purely historical perspective, Graves's idea is not crazy.
In the Old World, the process of being strapped into a chair and publicly submerged was reserved mainly for shrews and hot-tempered women, the belief being that the waters would somehow cool their ire. Underhanded merchants and cheats also got dunked, sometimes to the point of execution.
The New World preserved the great white tradition of public ruination. "We used to cut people's ears off," asserts Professor William Dunlap of Quinnipiac University, in Hamden, Connecticut. "We used to brand them on their faces. We've put them in the stocks or in the pillories. We've banished them — out of colonies and towns — and publicly whipped them. [We've] stuck them in the stocks with an iron wedge in their mouth so they couldn't talk. We've burned them and pelted them with rocks."
The Fredericksburg (Virginia) Police Department's website proudly notes that, in 1782, the town sergeant enforced the law by dunking convicts in the Rappahannock River. "This device caused great discomfort and even death," it notes.
Dunlap guesses that most of it came to a stop after the end of the Revolutionary War. But dunking officially ended in 1829, when a Washington, D.C. circuit court convicted newspaper editor Anne Royall of being a common scold. The Marines at the Washington Navy Yard had constructed a stool for her punishment and were prepared to dunk her in the Potomac, but an appeal saved her hide at the last minute.
Royall still had to pay a fine of $10.
Despite the kibosh on dunking, Americans have trumped their European forebears in terms of humiliating and beating undesirables. Prisoners in Delaware were whipped in the yard until the mid-Forties. In Arkansas and other Southern states, corporal punishment continued into the late Sixties. The current administration has long asserted its right to torture and humiliate "enemy combatants," often by dunking them during lengthy interrogations.
In Florida, the tradition lives on — albeit somewhat less severely. Peter Miller, a 63-year-old judge in Putnam County, has sentenced more than 600 shoplifters to the task of carrying a sign reading, "I stole from a local store." Miller offered thieves the option of carrying the sign in lieu of jail time.
Dunlap, who teaches Comparative National Security Law and holds a side interest in bizarre sentencing, does not believe Graves's proposal would stand up to constitutional review. "The government can't make people give up their constitutional rights to hold office," he scoffs.
For his part, Graves laments that public humiliation has been reserved for the poor and pathetic. "We need to bring humiliation back in America, but it needs to fall on the shoulders of the rich and the slick. I want every politician in the county to understand they're skatin' on thin ice. When they take office, they need to fear the wrath of this town."
Miami could use some wrath. From its humble beginnings as a torpid hideaway for pirates and fugitives, the town has provided a kind of frontier for human mischief and avarice. Ruthless plumage hunters and gator poachers composed its earliest economy, followed by gangsters and real estate hucksters. The very soil we stand on is thick with scandal. Swindlers hawked the land to out-of-towners before it was even dry.
Miami's metamorphosis from sleepy resort town to thriving metropolis came in the Eighties, when the whole burg seemed to have been suckling on a giant cocaine teat. The city sprang into the international consciousness as the cash, coke, and killing capital of the United States.
Even with cocaine on the wane, Miami's vice remains a source of constant civic embarrassment. In September 2007, at the close of the last fiscal year, the Miami-Dade Office of the Inspector General (OIG) announced it had made 20 arrests on charges ranging from aggravated white-collar crime to bribery. The OIG had taken in $24 million in restitution for the county, four times the amount recovered in 2004.
Presented with Graves's idea, Inspector General Christopher Mazzella laughs. "I just hope he doesn't prosecute me for ... whatever it is he's going after," he says.
Graves isn't laughing. "The book of Ecclesiastes asks us to consider the work of God," he says. "For who can make that straight which He has made crooked?"
His answer, of course, is Simon Graves.
The New Covenant Bible Church operates out of a small pink one-bedroom house on Campbell Drive in Homestead. Nothing about it suggests that it doubles as a center for bizarre salvation or political subversion. Palm trees sway out front. Christmas lights hang from the eaves. Only a handmade cross — a pair of two-by-fours screwed together and jammed into the front lawn — gives a hint of what goes on beyond its front door.
On a recent Saturday morning, Graves stands in the middle of the home's large main room. Clad only in plaid boxer shorts, he tinkers with elements of his fantastic stool. His pasty white body drips with dusty sweat. His hands and fingers are bandaged and scratched.
All around him, his homemade church sits in a state of arrested development. Construction materials line the perimeter of the cavernous room, along with 20 or so disparate chairs — dining, folding, and rolling — and a makeshift pulpit. The white stucco walls are marred in places where Graves, in moments of religious ecstasy, remodeled his home to create an adequate place of worship. Torn blue carpeting, sprinkled with crumbled drywall and sawdust, covers some of the floor. Pipes, still crusted with debris and fluffy pink insulation, extend up to the ceiling like candied stalagmites. You could throw a rock from the front door through the back window.
Soon after his dunking dream, and the poorly received sermon it inspired, Graves canceled services and pushed everything to the far corners of the room to begin work on his stool.
"God didn't want all that space for church," he says, hurrying into his bedroom to don a fluffy blue robe. "He knew I'd need the room to build Him a stool. My oh my, He works in mysterious ways."
Ruth follows Graves out of the bedroom and briefly stops to assess her husband's progress on the stool — a chair nailed to a beam as wide as the room, and a half-completed fulcrum. The small woman smiles a bit and then goes about filling the house with the aroma of bacon.
The project has been slow-going. Cesar Melindez, the pastor's teenage neighbor and Internet coach, took Graves down some dark paths online to find the blueprint for a dunking stool. "There are certainly those in the world who would use such a thing for a ... less-than-righteous purpose," Graves says delicately. (Indeed Melindez's parents no longer allow their son to visit the Graves household and declined to make him available to comment for this story.)
Ruth hands her husband a bacon sandwich wrapped in a paper towel. He sighs and takes a seat at a dusty table covered in paperwork and handwritten notes. She sits to his left as he considers his meal and begins to give lengthy thanks.
He thanks the Lord for New Times and the Charter Review Task Force. He thanks Him for his church, for his very existence, for Ruth, and for the bounty of bacon He hath bestowed on them both. Most of all, he thanks God for not striking him down for being such a miserable sinner.
A month ago, Pastor Graves launched a rather poorly conceived political and publicity blitz. He purchased a tape recorder and a listening device and documented — illegally — his telephone calls. (He has since provided copies to New Times, which has confirmed the validity of the conversations.)
Melindez created an e-mail address, email@example.com, and the website, which comes across as extremely angry and asks people to sign on to Graves's cause. (So far no one has.) Bold red capital letters implore, "Face your Lord on bended knee, Miami" and "Bring forward your sinners ... to be dunked!" The site has not seen much traffic. "Cesar took me a little too literally while we made that one," Graves says.
Graves was promptly blown off by the staffs of all 13 Miami-Dade County commissioners. "Some were nicer about it than others," he says. He spoke at length with the head of the State Attorney's Office public corruption unit, Joseph Centorino, who told Graves his ideas sounded "kind of passé." Graves countered that the government was probably dunking a bunch of terrorists down in Guantánamo as they spoke. Centorino did not seem to approve of that practice either.
In the end, however, Centorino seemed taken with the pastor's charm, and asserted that the county needs more civic-minded individuals like Graves: "I wish that every citizen had the attitude and said, 'Look, we gotta change this. We can't keep things going the way that they are.'"
From there, Graves made some inroads at the Miami-Dade County Attorney's Office. Assistant County Attorney Cynthia Johnson-Stacks told Graves he sounded like a delightful person. She declined, however, to tell him whether his idea was viable or even legal.
Michael Murawski, an advocate for the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, explained to Graves that, as of now, politicians caught being naughty are fined an initial penalty of $500. Each additional violation costs $1,000.
Graves balked at the county's piddling price tag on vice and then unveiled his scheme.
"We're not talking about killing these people?" asked Murawski, aghast.
"No, sir!" Graves exclaimed. "We're just talking about bringing a little shame back to Miami. I want politicians to know: Steal a dollar, you're gonna get dunked."
Murawski insisted he would pass the information on to his superior and that a return call would be forthcoming. (It wasn't.)
County Commissioner Dennis Moss chuckled when Graves invited him to join in "dunk[ing] us some sticky-handed politicians."
Moss called the idea "interesting."
"Everyone thinks this idea is 'interesting,'" Graves moaned.
He tried to get John Timoney to volunteer for a test dunk, but the Miami Police chief would not return his calls. "That was very disappointing," Graves said. "[Timoney] seems like such a good man."
On December 12, Graves rose before sunrise to take the bus from his house to the Dadeland South Metrorail station. He took a train into downtown Miami and rode an elevator up to Mayor Carlos Alvarez's conference room. It would be his first and last Miami-Dade County Charter Review meeting.
Inside the windowless chamber, official types (the mayor of Miami Gardens, lawyers, lobbyists, lobbyists' lawyers, etc.) sat jabbering around a massive wooden table. Aides, secretaries, and assistants created a pantsuit orbit around the gathering — typing into Blackberries and filing handouts into large binders while their bosses bickered through the meeting agenda.
It went on for three hours.
While various speakers droned incessantly about municipal incorporation, Graves muttered to himself in the corner, practicing a speech he would never get the chance to deliver. His fevered murmur and swishing slacks blended into the room's white noise as he marched from his chair to the metal coffee urn and back — over and over.
By 1 p.m., Graves — so caffeinated he was nearly running in place — watched the entire room rise and exit. Horrified, he dashed over to the panel's honorary chairman, attorney Victor M. Diaz Jr., and implored him for a chance to speak.
The petite advocate, dressed in a pinstripe suit, told the pastor he would have to attend one of their public hearings.
Graves handed him some literature and explained his plan. Diaz offered a patronizing smile and passed Graves's materials to his secretary to be "filed into the agenda."
Carlos Gimenez, the only county commissioner to appoint himself to the task force, briefly — and dismissively — spoke with Graves. "There's a system in place to deal with this sort of thing," he said, shaking his head. "Dunking ... that's, um, I don't believe that's appropriate."
Graves left him with a copy of his prepared remarks, which read, in part: "I'm here today because I've come to realize that Miami is a dirty town. Filthy, in fact.... I want to offer [errant politicians] the opportunity to have a little moment with God, a few feet down in the bay. I want to give them the gift of underwater contemplation. I want to bring them to salvation through humiliation. And, let's face it, the only way that's going to happen is to give them a little taste of damnation." The last word was underlined twice.
The following afternoon, Pastor Graves had all but given up on the charter review process. "They're liars," he boomed, drawing uncomfortable stares from the midday passengers sharing his Metromover car. "They've just blown me off over and over again. I suspect that some of them are trying to keep the people of Miami from dunking these crooks!"
Graves's campaign was looking grim. His MySpace page, which took his young neighbor nearly a day to concoct, had garnered only one friend: a militant Evangelical Christian named Duane whose profile featured a lot of self-portraits — with and without guns — as well as an injunction against movies: "There is some heresy in them all." (Duane, a divorced truck driver in Great Neck, New York, nullified their friendship a few weeks later.)
Determined to take his dunking movement to the streets, Graves decided to print up some propaganda. He spent a sleepless night perfecting a flyer, mainly consisting of a cartoon depicting an 18th-century maiden being dunked into a river by punitive colonists.
"Once the people see my literature, they're gonna start coming to the site," he explained as the now empty train car rocked from side to side. "I just know it."
He stopped at a downtown Kinko's and had 150 copies printed on canary-yellow paper. Graves had chosen to focus on the downtown courthouses and government buildings between Flagler and NE Second Avenue, descending around 4 p.m. on Miami's government nerve center, where he preyed mostly on the elderly (they moved slower).
Reactions ranged from confusion to abject horror. A few signed his petition, hoping their chicken scratchings would placate the energetic pastor.
Gilbert Saint-Jean signed outside a Cuban coffee joint while awaiting his cortadito. The middle-age Haitian-American was not dressed in attire indicating any official capacity, but he seemed to scan the street for supervisors before taking Graves's pen. "They can't touch me," he said finally, jotting his name at the top of the bare sheet of paper.
Graves worked his way back to the foot of the monolithic Stephen P. Clark Government Center, where he locked in on a middle-age paralegal dragging a caddy full of files. "This is so silly!" she cawed, stomping her foot in the crosswalk. "This is never going to happen. I'd sign onto this if you had anything here that might actually happen."
"Ma'am," Graves countered, raising an eyebrow, "anything is possible."
She shoved the flyer back into his hands.
Hours later, the pastor ended the day with 15 signatures — five of which were illegible. As the sun disappeared behind the skyline, he resolved to try for one last name. A pale woman in a heavy white sweater agreed to speak with him on the way to her bus. Graves worked her in just half a block, explaining the merits of his mad plot in clear, plain English.
She turned to him at the corner and reached for his pen without asking a single question. "Sounds fair," she said and signed her name as Hertase.
"Hallelujah!" Graves cried, hopping jauntily into the air. "I do believe I've got it!"
The next afternoon, Graves appeared to have lost it. He arrived after lunchtime and leapt, head-first, into the hungry midday rush of bureaucrats. The suits didn't like him much, insisting at every approach that they were needed in court.
Just when all hope seemed lost, he was rescued by Juver Diaz. At 29 years old, Diaz stood a couple of inches over Graves. The man's shoulders stretched wide under a dusty pinstripe coat, and his head was a sweaty ramp of wavy sun-bleached hair. A four-inch scab stretched across the back of his neck. His face remained flat and severe as he watched Graves get rejected by everyone he approached.
After a few minutes, Diaz accosted the portly pastor, demanding money. "I'm sorry, my son," Graves uttered. "I can only offer you an everlasting spoonful of Jesus."
"I'm not your son," Diaz said, flicking his spent cigarette butt over the pastor's shoulder. "I'm your brother." Diaz told Graves everyone feared and respected him on the streets of Miami because he was the son of God. "No one can hurt me," he said.
Graves seemed touched by this outpouring. "You're right, Juver," he agreed. "We're brothers."
Diaz snatched Graves's clipboard. "Lemme show you how it's done," he muttered. In 10 minutes, Diaz (whom court records show was arrested for aggressive panhandling just three weeks earlier) filled an entire column with signatures. He kissed women's hands and pledged to marry them. He roused vagrants with idle threats and beat his chest with each passing person, shoving out flyers with a cracking bark: "Respect!"
"God bless you, Brother Diaz," Graves said after the flurry was over and Diaz had gone his way. When Diaz was out of view, Graves prayed. He asked the Lord to protect and keep Brother Diaz. He asked that Diaz one day become a part of the New Covenant Bible Church, perhaps even like Luke was to Jesus — a warrior for Christ.
"If I had five men like Brother Diaz," Graves began, tears welling in his eyes, "we'd have 10 dunking stools in this county by next Sunday."
Graves rushed home early to meditate on his meeting with Juver Diaz. After several hours, he called New Times with a plot to petition every elected official in Miami-Dade County. "Let everyone who believes they are above reproach say so," he declared.
On Friday, December 7, a petition was sent to every elected official in the county — dozens in all, from the recently elected mayor of Homestead to the most senior commissioner of Sunny Isles Beach — explaining Simon Graves's plan. Attached were two questions:
1. Would you agree to be dunked should you be caught doing anything fiscally untoward?
2. If not, why?
So far no one has answered the query.
"Lordy, I feel like Noah," Graves cried over the phone last Thursday. "Is there not a good man in all of Miami?"
Graves says he and his wife are considering selling their home and buying a boat. He says it's possible he won't even live in Miami by the time the task force hands its charter review report over to the county commission on January 28. But he acknowledges there's a better chance he might attend one of the four scheduled task force meetings between now and then.
"If the Good Book is any indication," he sighs, "God will be permanently dunking Miami any day now, I'd imagine."
Graves has begun to make phone calls to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, asking what it would take to legally create a floating zoo. "We need to get a breeding pair of all the special animals in the Everglades out onto a boat before the next hurricane season starts up," he cautions. Graves has had another epiphany.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.