On Saturday nights in Miami Beach, the wicked don't begin stepping out before 9:30. Girls will squeeze into miniskirts, men will gel their hair, hopeful night crawlers will splash themselves with libidinous fragrances. But even at that hour, at Mango's Tropical Café on Ocean Drive, early-bird tourists are already worshipping the bronzed goddesses wiggling on bar tops to salsa and merengue. Along the boardwalk across the street, a knot of people have gathered to watch Victor Leon as he artfully sculpts his latest sandcastle creation. A soft breeze stirs the expectant air. Sin City is just beginning to simmer.
This may be good news to thousands of nightlife junkies and the businesses that cater to them, but it's bad news to Raul Diaz. A former South Beach nightclub bouncer, Diaz is the charismatic leader of a group of Pentecostal Baptists intent on dousing the infernal flames of the Devil. Miscreant muscle boys and promiscuous vixens beware: The faithful from the Central Bible Assembly of God church in Westchester are determined to transform you from soulless club kids into servants of the Lord. They call themselves the Let My People Go ministry, and they are prepared to engage you in your own sinful back yard.
The hordes haven't yet begun wandering the streets in search of a place to party as Diaz carries his eight-foot wooden cross up Ocean Drive, followed by a dozen young men and women dressed in jeans and T-shirts who sing and clap rapturously. Sounding like a revivalist pep squad, they belt out I am a soldier in the army of the Lord, while their leader plants the towering crucifix between two Lummus Park palm trees at Ninth Street, near the sandcastle in progress. Affixed to the cross, which is constructed of hefty four-by-four posts, are white sheets of paper on which have been scrawled the sins they have come from the suburbs to battle: greed, rage, abortion, divorce, homosexuality, murder, lust.
After a couple of songs, and without amplification, 31-year-old Diaz makes his pitch for Jesus. He warns the potential evildoers gathered around the boardwalk's sea wall that the Devil is alive and well and running rampant on the Beach. In fact, God revealed to him, he says, that sin is deadlier than murder, that sin has killed more people than heart attacks. Exhorting onlookers to change their ways before it's too late, he calls for a revolution against Satan. Repentance can come through one way and one way only, he intones. And that is through the blood of Jesus of Nazareth.
The crowd of people who had been watching Leon sculpt his intricate castle have now turned to face the preacher and his flock. One couple actually stands and applauds Diaz, but simultaneously a muscular man in his thirties, dressed in charcoal slacks and a matching silk T-shirt, approaches the cross and places his hands on it as if to topple it. This is a crock of shit, he says heatedly to ministry member Ralph Muñoz. Can't you do something better than this?
As Muñoz takes up a theological argument, Let My People Go members fan out, distributing pamphlets titled Where Are You Going? and offering their testimonies to anyone who will listen. We're exactly where we need to be, says 22-year-old Jorge Monzon, who formerly helped produce a floating South Beach rave party known as Fever. If Jesus were on Earth today, he'd be right here on South Beach. He then recounts his revelation two years ago while smoking pot at a rave. I was looking at the clouds, and then I saw that the world is so big -- there must be a God, he says. I looked at all the drugs and stuff going on around me and I was disgusted.
Raul Diaz's past also included South Beach nightlife. For two years he worked as a doorman at the now-defunct after-hours watering hole Club Niva, where he embodied the club-bouncer cliché: shaved head, bulging muscles, cocky attitude. Nights were a blur of steroids, alcohol, marijuana, and fights -- lots of fights. Rather than breaking up brawls as he was supposed to, Diaz had a knack for starting them. I was a troublemaker, he admits. And I didn't know what I was doing.
In 1996, after his fourth arrest for disorderly conduct, a judge warned him he would face serious jail time if he were arrested again. That was enough to make him back away from the South Beach club scene. He found a job selling insurance. A colleague at his office got to talking about religion, and somehow she persuaded him to try prayer, which he says he did that very night. It was an unexpectedly moving experience, Diaz recalls. Deep emotions welled up in him and burst out. He felt profound remorse for the people he'd hurt in the past.
The next day, Diaz says, his office manager announced that the pious co-worker had died in a tragic automobile accident: Her car had careened into a canal.
It was then that Diaz committed himself to God. I always wanted to be a goodfella, a mobster, you know? he relates. The last thing I thought I would be is an evangelist preacher. About six months ago, he returned to South Beach, what he calls a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, to rescue souls. When you go to South Beach, what you see is the lust of flesh, vanity, self-righteousness, and people pursuing immorality, he says. It's a safe haven for people to destroy their lives.
Perhaps not surprisingly, when Diaz and his cohorts plunge into South Beach's feverish Saturday nights, they frequently are met with curious stares, derisive jokes, even tense confrontations. A lot of times people scream at us. They call us freaks, fanatics, or holy rollers, Diaz says matter-of-factly. I'm very aware we offend people, but we're here to do God's will on Earth.
It's an endeavor that carries risks beyond taunts and threatening encounters; spiritual endangerment also lurks at every turn. And so before leaving their Westchester church, the Let My People Go members spend two hours praying for protection from the temptation and sin they will encounter in the Deco District.
After about 40 minutes at Ocean Drive's Lummus Park, Diaz huddles the group around the cross for a final round of protective prayer before they begin marching through the streets to their next destination: the libertine nightclubs of Washington Avenue.
They wend their way single file along sidewalks that are beginning to pulse with nymphets, would-be Casanovas, and drag queens. Passersby shout mocking hallelujahs. A couple of skateboarders adopt fake Southern accents and yell out: Praise Jesus! Diaz is now sweating as he hauls the heavy cross through the thickening pedestrian traffic.
The procession arrives at ground zero -- Washington Avenue between Sixth and Seventh streets -- before any lines have formed at the nightclub entrances. They walk south, past the Living Room and Kit Kat Club to Bash, where the doormen, familiar with the church troupe, seem to be expecting them. Here they come, says a black-clad employee behind the velvet ropes. After briefly greeting the doormen, Diaz sets down the cross in front of an empty storefront between Bash and Pucci's Pizza. He begins preaching: God is not willing that any of us should perish. But at this still relatively early hour, the sidewalk is short on sinners. A trio of gay men and a drag queen pass by without stopping; a man in a sequined vest wanders past, handing out free drink passes to a nearby club. Despite the dearth of misguided mortals, Let My People Go begins a rendition of Amazing Grace.
Coke Carbayo, Bash's doorman, smokes a cigarette and watches. Freedom of speech is a beautiful thing, he says with a smirk. Between puffs he invites a spectator to drop by later for a drink and a glimpse of real evil. The Devil's inside, he whispers, and she's wearing a tight blue dress.
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Bash bartender Liz Dennis steps out for a breath of fresh air. When she sees the commotion, she animatedly waves her hands above her head and jokes, The Devil is here! The Devil is here! For a moment she silently scrutinizes Diaz and his followers, then furrows her brow. These are people who need attention and they haven't found any other way to get it, she says, an edge of annoyance in her voice. They are wasting their time. All they're doing is disturbing the peace.
If anyone's peace is being disturbed at this moment, it's that of two young women in miniskirts and platform shoes, who've been corralled by a couple of Diaz's acolytes. The girls listen politely and accept the Where Are You Going? pamphlets, then they're off. As they walk away, one of them giggles. I feel like I'm walking on air, she says facetiously, out of earshot.
By now it's 11:30 p.m., the hour at which most South Beach nightclubs just begin to come alive, when swarms of people start to mass at the velvet ropes. Prime time for soul-savers like Raul Diaz and his Let My People Go ministry. But instead of kicking into spiritual high gear, Diaz hoists the crucifix once again and leads his brood away from the action, up the street and around the corner to the Seventh Street parking garage, where they pile into Central Bible's van and head back to Westchester.
Tomorrow is Sunday, the Sabbath, and God's revolutionaries have to get up early for church services.