Panchanita Fordham is outside on the front steps of Northwestern Holy High School with the Lord's tingle in her belly so bad she's buckling at the knees. From her right hand hangs a borrowed Bible, from her left a Kool cigarette, which she attacks with the ferocity of the ex-junkie she is. It's been three months since she banished crack from her life, two weeks to the day since she allowed Jesus Christ in.
Standing alone in her Sunday best, a faded sundress, Fordham can hear the voice that compelled her rebirth thudding off the dingy concrete. Inside the church A a converted school auditorium where she will return after reducing her cigarette to a lip-sticked butt A the Reverend Victor Tyrone Curry is imploring the followers of New Birth Baptist Church to treat Scripture with the dignity of a credit card. "Don't leave home without it," he roars, and leaps from his pulpit. "His Word is all you need. In the Word is healing. In the Word is re-juv-e-na-tion. Don't go to sleep on me, New Birth!"
Fordham straightens up. "That's a man I love," she says. "He real. He real. That's why I'm here. He start that preaching and it's like a tingle inside that tells you the Lord want to come in." She reaches out to steady herself on a passing shoulder, laughs at the absurdity of a grown woman surrendering motor control to the Word. Then she turns back toward the auditorium. "Oooooh Lord A I'm tingling all over."
Six Liberty City blocks away A which is to say, six blocks of potholed roadway, gutted storefronts, and missed opportunity A Rosa Leland sits inside New Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, feeling a similar sensation. A lightness overtakes her when she listens to the Reverend Richard Paul Dunn bark out the Word. "Like you been uplifted," says the middle-school teacher. "Not like," she corrects herself. "You are uplifted."
Such is the defining genius of the 32-year-old reverends Dunn and Curry: that they can, with Word alone, compel strangers to accept Christ. The staccato eloquence of their weekly sermons has won them bragging rights as two of South Florida's most popular preachers. Not long ago, the two pals were much more.
Young, handsome, and ambitious, they leapt from the pulpit into the thrall of social activism and by 1989 were widely regarded as the voice of black Miami. Thousands tuned in to their fiery radio program and turned out for the protests they orchestrated. By turns radical and savvy, the so-called Dynamic Duo enjoyed the run of City Hall A all this as their collection plates grew heavy with the tithes of new worshippers. It was not atrocious, in those heady days, to envision either man as a potential heir to the empty throne of Martin Luther King, Jr.
But just as quickly as they ascended, Dunn and Curry stumbled. Dogged by allegations of personal misconduct, they left their respective congregations eighteen months ago. The press, driven by its lust for moral irony, dove like buzzards. Within six weeks, the men lost their radio show and exited the limelight in the costume of that most ignominous breed: the fallen preacher.
Today Dunn and Curry are back, looking mightier than ever. Each is preparing to move his swelling congregation into a new building. Dunn made a darkhorse run for the Dade County School Board this past fall and shocked the pundits by winning big in the primary before losing in a runoff. Curry declared just last week that he will seek a seat on the revamped Dade County Commission. Dunn says he is "90 percent sure" that he, too, will announce his candidacy this week.
Unable to resist the semiotics of Christian theology, the Dynamic Duo have attributed their resurrection to divine intervention. "We're supposed to be dead," is how Dunn puts it. "You accuse a preacher of stealing or womanizing and that's it. No one counted on God being in the picture."
But more than a validation of His work, the tale of Dunn and Curry reflects the perilous path trod by black religious leaders, men hamstrung between the conflicting mandates of the spiritual and the political, haunted by a legacy of oppression that is alive and seething in black Miami. None would dispute that Dunn and Curry have a talent for luring souls toward redemption. Leading the actual flesh of their grim community will prove quite another matter.
The Holy Ghost caught up to Jarius Wilson Dunn II on a blistering day in August 1959. Dunn was headed north on West Dixie Highway with a batch of freshly pressed clothes when he felt the ripple of air whoosh across his neck. The young launderer could have sworn he felt someone sneak in the back door of his Spic and Span Drycleaning van. Except that the door was shut. And the Chevy was pushing 50 mph. Then he heard the voice.
"How long you gonna run?" it murmured.
For Dunn, who had spent the better part of his 27 years dodging the urge to join the ministry, the question meant only one thing. God was calling him to the pulpit, and only a fool or a sinner turned from that offer. Dunn was neither. That evening he broke away from a social engagement and returned home. He lay on the floor and commenced praying for three hours. Exhausted, he crawled into bed and, according to his wife, preached a whole sermon in his sleep. Early the next morning she found him slumped on the bumper of his 1953 Oldsmobile. "Daddy," she pleaded, "why don't you come to bed?" He just stared out into nothing.
The following autumn Dunn enrolled in college. Four years later he received a degree in religion. By 1966 he had purchased a funeral home on the corner of NW 58th Street and Second Avenue and refashioned it into Drake Memorial Church.
Having come from a family of ministers, Dunn was pleased to find the same shine in his grandson, Richard. The younger Dunn was an odd-looking kid, with the green eyes of a white man and, for a time, blond hair. Playground bullies called him "Albino." Later, when he'd grown up a bit, they teased him for his baby fat and acne. Richard Dunn took up football to repair his pride and headed off to Central State University in Ohio, with a tight end's four-year scholarship. At eighteen he heard the call and scrapped his dreams of playing pro football. Instead, he enrolled in the seminary at Atlanta's Morehouse College. At 24, he returned to Miami with a master's degree in divinity.
When Richard Dunn joined Drake as associate pastor in 1985, it was assumed he would take over when his grandfather faltered. Possessed of a booming baritone, the strapping minister immediately distanced himself from the liturgical constraints of his grandpa's generation. "If the community doesn't come to the church, the church has to go to the community," he would say, and he made good on the vow one Sunday in 1986 by singing hymns and passing out Bible pamphlets to the drug dealers who congregated outside Drake.
Some would say fate introduced Dunn to Victor Curry: The two met while working at Miami's chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, an organization that was the brainchild of Martin Luther King, Jr., the looming figure in whose shadow both fledgling pastors worked.
Like Dunn, Curry heard the call to preach early and ducked it throughout his teenage years. The youngest of six children raised by a single mother in West Hollywood, he'd copycat the preacher every Sunday, then spend the rest of the week thumping drums in his band, The Rappers, or shooting hoops. He headed off to Florida Bible College on a basketball scholarship, and won an appointment as pastor of Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church at the ripe old age of 24.
His talent for wringing feeling from dry verses of Scripture, his ability to tweak the Word with theatrics in the finest Baptist tradition, rendered his sermons riveting. Dubbed "Little King" by his elder parishioners, he breathed hellfire into the aging church at 6700 NW 14th Avenue. Membership soared from 1200 to 3000, the church's two mammoth parking lots suddenly too small for the standing-room-only crowds that gathered on Sundays.
The two precocious pastors cemented their friendship during the violent uprisings that followed the deaths of two black men at the hands of Miami police officer William Lozano. And though both men had once stressed a desire to emphasize the pulpit over the polling place, they soon undertook a series of high-profile protests.
In February 1989, Dunn and Curry led 1000 blacks into a Miami City Commission meeting to demand economic revitalization in the city's black neighborhoods, an end to police brutality, and the initiation of single-member voting districts. In June they lobbied for a black candidate, Athalie Range, to serve as interim commissioner when Rosario Kennedy vacated her seat to run for Congress, and successfully pressured Channel 7 (WSVN) to pull the plug on a gory nightly news segment called "Crime Check," which they claimed fueled the stereotype of blacks as criminals.
A year later, after Nelson Mandela's divisive visit and the police beating of several dozen Haitian demonstrators in Liberty City, the pair stormed more commission meetings, led community rallies, and organized voter registration drives. All these efforts were amplified by the radio show they hosted on WMBM (AM-1490). The hour-long Issue for the Day began as little more than a noonday prayer on Dunn's contemporary gospel show. But listeners soon began phoning to discuss issues of concern in the black community. Curry suggested they start a talk show and signed on as co-host. They made a strange pair: Curry thin and moody, Dunn chubby and quick to laugh. Like night and day, mutual friends agreed. But somehow sparks flew when they got together.
Issue quickly became WMBM's most popular program. Much of the show's appeal lay in the hosts' knack for tapping the vast reservoir of discontent among Dade blacks. Finally someone was willing to lay bare the padded rhetoric of the mainstream media and blast the power structure. That they did so with frequency and zeal elevated the show into something of a cause celäbre. Every weekend at 2:00 p.m. the phone lines lit up.
"You never knew what they were going to say on the air, and that made everyone listen," recalls Delphine Hannah, WMBM's community service director. "The politicians loved to hate them and we had the TV stations over here all the time. For such a tiny station, we pulled huge ratings."
Sometimes the guests were unexpected A and less than amiable. One afternoon Dade County Commissioner Art Teele huffed into the studio after Dunn had chastised him on the air. The normally calm commissioner grew so agitated that the police had to escort him out of the station. To blacks, the Dynamic Duo was real precisely because the pair worked outside the system. Dunn had quit his $30,000-per-year job as senior aide to Miami Commissioner Victor De Yurre after the Mandela debacle, and he'd left with a bang, firing off a memo that branded Commissioner Miriam Alonso a "racist" and a "demagogue."
For Dunn and Curry, the zenith came in November 1990. Outraged at the Dade County School Board's appointment of Octavio Visiedo as superintendent over Tee S. Greer, a black educator who had twice been named interim chief, the preachers called for an election-day boycott of schools. "The war has just begun," Dunn warned WMBM listeners. On the day itself, the twosome led a protest in front of the district adminstration building. Some 3000 demonstrators hoisted placards as Curry led a rousing version of James Brown's "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud." "Look at these caskets up here," he thundered, nodding to a bank of makeshift coffins. "They represent the fact that justice has died in Dade County." A massive crane and bulldozer stood nearby, a mocking reference to Visiedo's oft-ballyhooed leadership of a building bond program.
"It was a crazy thing, what we did," Dunn recalls. "Reverend Curry was out there in a bulletproof vest because people were calling the station telling us they were going to take us out."
If widely condemned outside the black community, the boycott proved a startling success within. An estimated 85,000 children, 1000 teachers, and 700 school bus drivers sat out the day, virtually shutting down schools in predominantly black neighborhoods. At the polls, more than 15,000 voters penciled Greer's name as a write-in candidate for school board A unprompted. Administrators panicked. Reporters hailed a revival of Miami's civil rights days. And the pair at center stage peered into the attendant TV cameras with the knowing glint of folk heroes.
The fall from grace began, Richard Dunn grumbles, with one lousy paragraph atop a meanspirited column of type in the Miami Times, Miami's black newspaper. "It seems our new young ministerial leadership has fallen on hard times," the item began. "Rev. Victor Curry has resigned from Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, and some members are claiming the reason was 'womanizing,' and we hear that the Rev. Richard Dunn has been ousted as assistant minister at Drake Memorial Baptist for 'taking liberties' with church funds. Stay Tuned." Dated June 6, 1991, the snippet appeared in the weekly installment of Spreading Larceny, a compendium of gossip widely read despite A or, more precisely, because of A its notorious inaccuracy.
The next day the Miami Herald printed a story on its Local section front page reporting that Dunn and Curry "resigned from their churches amid accusations that each abused his position." The piece went on to state that Curry "has long faced allegations that he is a womanizer," and that Dunn had dipped into his church's day-care funds to cover personal expenses after taking a salary cut.
Dunn admitted to the Herald that he misused Drake funds, but insisted he had paid the church back, and had been forgiven months before by church elders A a claim confirmed by Drake's chief trustee. Curry denied the rumors of womanizing, which he labeled old news. Both insisted scandal had nothing to do with their departures. But the unmistakable impression conveyed was that each preacher had been forced from his own pulpit.
That sense was reinforced a week later, when the Herald reiterated the claims in a second article. The story detailed a meeting called by Mount Carmel's leaders to clarify the circumstances of Curry's resignation. "This all boils down to dollars. He can't get hold of them the way he wants to," Deacon James Johnson had told a cheering throng. "We told him a lot of our good pastors had fallen by the wayside because of women and money," chipped in Chairman of Deacons James Eberhart, who went on to enumerate the hefty salary hikes and perks elders had given a thankless Curry.
The pair, who once jokingly referred to themselves as "partners in crime," now found themselves vilified in a South Florida magazine feature entitled, "How the Mighty Have Fallen" A alongside pinnacles of piety like indicted CenTrust chairman David Paul and professional egotist Donald Trump.
The low point was yet to come.
Two months after Dunn and Curry left their congregations, WMBM abruptly yanked the soapbox from beneath them. Station owner Eddie Margolis, who had once vowed to a reporter that killing Issue for the Day "would be a tragedy," decided he'd had enough of Dunn and Curry's spiel. "After the [Herald] articles it seemed to me a lot of listeners were losing interest and respect for the show," Margolis says today. "I was also concerned about the combatative nature of the program. They'd attack advertisers and attack me on the air. My gut feeling was that there wasn't going to be any compromise. So I moved them to once a week and they eventually stopped showing up."
As their stock plummeted, the ministers sputtered about a white conspiracy to bring them down A a theory to which both still adhere. "Curry and I were mobilizing this black community in recent times like no one else had ever done," Dunn proclaims. "We challenged where everyone else was afraid. That's what did us in. They couldn't attack our politics, so they went after us on morals charges."
The sentiment is common among black parishioners, activists, and politicians. "What happened to Dunn and Curry is the 101 of Besmirching Black Leaders," observes County Commissioner Art Teele. "The pattern is that blacks end up attacking other blacks on a personal level and the white media uses that A regardless of its validity A as a way of maintaining control."
Like other leaders who once faulted the duo for their militant rhetoric, Teele now showers them with hosannas. "I'm not going to fight Curry or Dunn," he says flatly, "because I believe God has anointed them to be leaders in the black community." Even the leaders of their former congregations who spoke ill of them in the media insist the preachers were unfairly slammed by the press.
Not that the reverends have earned universal praise. Although few dare to assail a minister A particularly a black minister A publicly, several of their colleagues contend that Dunn and Curry's nosedive was the result of reckless egotism. Had they not thrust themselves into the spotlight with flashy, self-aggrandizing tactics like the election-day boycott, their alleged transgressions would not have warranted headlines.
Indeed, the most stinging I-told-you-so's have been issued, not by white power brokers, but by older pastors who originally urged Dunn and Curry to tone down their act. "The agitation I saw tended to be more of a hype, an emotional masturbation thing," says Richard Marquess-Barry, pastor at Overtown's St. Agnes Episcopal Church. "I don't know what it was that pushed them out there, but I much prefer to work behind the scenes. You can't damn all these people that you eventually want to become a part of."
Nor can you display the kind of ambition Dunn and Curry did without inviting a power struggle. In Dunn's case, the rift ran along family lines. "What happened is that Richard was under a purpose," claims Jarius Dunn II, Drake's founding pastor and Dunn's grandfather. "When I took sick in 1989, he decided he wanted to be pastor of the church."
Dunn the elder claims that during his illness, his grandson stole tens of thousands of dollars in church funds, forged his name on checks, and, even more sinfully, "modernized the church with a lot of unbiblical practices."
Richard Dunn admits that he borrowed about $5000 over the course of a year to pay personal bills. "I got to the point where I'd gotten in the hole, man," he says. "My mistake was not getting approval from the trustees. But that isn't why I left the church. I left because my grandpa went after me."
"Richard stepped down because of the conflict between him and his granddad," confirms Arthur Fair, chair of Drake's trustee board. "But the church never wanted Richard to leave. We did everything we could to keep him because he brought Drake out in terms of membership and money. There was money missing from [church] accounts, but he told us he used it to keep the church kindergarten going and we accepted that. His grandpa, clearly, didn't."
In Curry's case, the dispute was more subtle. "There is always a tension between old and new, not only in terms of ideology but functionality," observes Billy Baskin, pastor of Carol City's New Way Fellowship Baptist Church and Curry's former father-in-law. "Young talent comes in and the old feels pushed aside. The new pastor wants to start projects and feels stymied if he doesn't get approval. Sometimes the bottom line is just power. Mount Carmel is an old, traditional church. Curry got a clean slate when he started New Birth."
Baskin knows from experience. Seventeen years ago he was a greenhorn preacher who stepped down from one church to start New Way, which has since grown into a 4800-member parish. He says those outside the black church community simply don't understand the rancor that such fissures engender: "It's like a family busting up."
Lloyd Major, a former pastor and current member of Dade's Community Relations Board, says black pastors run the risk of all quasi-mystical figures. "It's a pedestal mentality. The membership takes pride, sometimes an exorbitant amount, in providing the pastor everything. To the point that you wonder how much the pastor is a church leader as much as a symbol of what people are aspiring to be themselves. You can't imagine the passion stirred when a preacher leaves the church, or is told to leave." A 1987 Herald article relates, for instance, how at New Mt. Moriah A which later would become Dunn's new church A a controversial pastor inspired rival factions of the congregation to engage in a knife fight after one Sunday service.
Ultimately the downfall of Dunn and Curry was due as much to personal frailty as the weight of tradition. "Unfortunately, they went out of their way to inflame on the radio," Baskin says. "And if you use the media to broadcast your message and rattle cages, you better make sure your own house is in order. There were warnings given to them."
Dunn's ethical end-around with church funds is an obvious example. More disturbing to Baskin, however, was Curry's marital conduct. While he admits that as a father-in-law he may not be an objective source, Baskin believes Curry became so caught up in his success as preacher/activist that he ignored the homefront.
In 1988 Curry filed for divorce after six years of marriage to Cynthia Baskin. "I told him, 'God's not going to be pleased,'" recalls Baskin, who maintains a cordial relationship with Curry. "'How can you go out and build kingdoms if you're allowing the kingdom He cares about most to fall apart? You're leaving two young daughters without an active father. Think of what this will do to your career and your credibility.' I urged him to at least try marriage counseling. But he wouldn't hear it."
Whether Curry was guilty of adultery A and Baskin heard plenty of stories from parishioners as well as from his daughter A he was plainly guilty of vanity. Why else would he leave so many question marks and innuendos? "He'd get furious if Cynthia visited his office, but these [other] girls would walk in all the time without knocking," Baskin recalls. "They'd call the house and ask for Victor but refuse to leave a name. What Curry needed was an older pastor, somebody to warn him about what the Devil can do."
Especially, others stress, in light of the sexual dynamic that pervades black religion. "Our churches are filled by females, many of whom are lonely and frustrated," notes Lloyd Major. "To them a young, charismatic pastor is the epitome of a desirable male. It's a charged situation, and a preacher has to learn how to distinguish between sincere behavior and behavior that entraps. There's a reason infidelity is the number-one problem in our church."
Curry categorically refuses to discuss the issue of infidelity, claiming it serves no purpose other than to slander him. "I was big enough to admit to my congregation that I'd gone through a divorce," he says. "I came to them and told them I'm sorry. You will not crucify me for something like that. That's private."
Indeed, old skeletons are the last thing Dunn and Curry need now. Both are back in the political spotlight, and, just as important, both have re-emerged as major players in the religious community. Curry, who founded New Birth less than two years ago, has seen membership balloon to more than 3000. To accommodate a parish he says will double in three years, Curry orchestrated a bond program and purchased a North Miami Beach synagogue for $4.1 million. The property includes room for 2500 worshippers, a two-story facility for a proposed school and day-care center, and 1.5 acres of parking. Dunn, who took over the slumping New Mt. Moriah parish a month after leaving Drake in 1991, has tripled the congregation, to about 300. Expecting that number to double again within a year, he recently convinced elders to build a larger church on a nearby parcel of land, and hopes to break ground next month.
The fuel for this expansionism flows, of course, from the ultimate fount: each man's pulpit.
Panchanita Fordham can tell you about the day Jesus Christ barreled back into her life. It had been a while since Fordham visited church, a while since she'd done anything besides lust after crack. But it was the week before Christmas, and the holidays always seem to prick the conscience. Besides, New Birth didn't feel like a church at all. There was no stuffy attitude inside the overhauled high school auditorium, none of that well-will-you-look-at-who-dragged-their-sorry-ass-in-here-this-week-ism. Fordham never even sat down, because the choir and six-piece band were kicking out such a monstrous gospel jam that the wooden seats buzzed and the blue-haired grannies hollered Yes, Lawd like teenagers at a concert.
Up on the raised stage, the Rev. Victor Curry was preaching from the Book of John. He wore a puffy purple robe trimmed with an African scarf and looked about as dreamy as an angel. As he spoke, his long hands fluttered over the lectern like birds, coming to rest on his Bible verses. His tone was deep and smooth, like the bottom of an ocean, and he told the story of John the Baptist as a fairy tale.
Every now and again his voice would bubble up from the depths and howl like a tempest, and Panchanita would look down to find her stomach tingling. "If John wanted to ego trip, he had an opportunity," Curry was saying, "because they came to him and said, 'Are you the Messiah? Are you the anointed one?' But John said, 'No. I ain't taking His glory. I'm just a voice. I'm just a voice crying in the wilderness. I'm just pointing.' And it ain't about Curry, either. I'm just pointing. Curry got no saving power. But I can point you to Jesus. Curry ain't got no healing power, but I can point you to Jesus. See, we're like flashlights. Jesus A He's the floodlight."
Here Curry stopped, looked out at the 1400 people hanging on his words, and decided to take them deeper. "Now, you don't need no light in a place that's already lit up, do you? No. No. No. We got enough light in here. We got to get somewhere where it's dark. Where's it dark, New Birth? It's dark in the crackhouse," Curry blared, and Panchanita bolted upright. "It's dark on Biscayne Boulevard. It's dark in some of them alleys where young men are in the corners sniffing and snorting and smoking. It's dark."
"See, Jesus made the victims and the sinners of the world his priority. It was the religious folk who got mad with Jesus when He sat down and ate with the publicans and sinners: 'Jesus came to his own people and they received Him not.' The truth of the matter is that church is filled with self-righteous folk who get mad with God for forgiving a prostitute. That's the reason folks pay dues instead of tithes, because we've made God's church a club. And not only a club, but a private club." Curry stepped away from the pulpit and imitated a snooty lady primping at a charity ball. "In order to get in the club, you got to dress like me, look like me, walk like me, talk like me, say it like I say it. God says, 'What's wrong with you? My church ain't no club!' It ain't even an org-an-iz-a-tion. It's an organism. It's alive and the mandate is: Whosoever will, let him come! He may not talk like you. He may not walk like you, but let him come. This is a spiritual hospital. The reason people hide behind these masks of superficiality and psuedo pi-os-i-ty is because they're scared to come to church and say, 'I'm hurting.'"
Curry was singing now, each phrase leaping out, his body weaving like a serpent. The deacons behind him kept rushing up to fan him off, in tribute to his prowess. A keyboard had started up and was trying to keep pace with his cadence.
In the balcony behind Panchanita, a man was shouting, "Well, well," every time Curry paused. "Preeeeech, son!" Down below she could see a half-dozen women catching the spirit, their bodies buffeted by the Word.
"I'm glad that Jesus is my doctor," Curry breathed into the microphone. "I'm glad I tell Him everything in my heart. If we give Him glory, drug addicts can be delivered, because He lives. He lives. He lives. He lives."
As Curry closed his sermon, Panchanita figured out what the tingle was. The keyboard settled to a low ping, and an afterglow, nearly sexual, filled the room. Curry's pillow talk was impeccable. His words came softly. "God came to see about man and the Word was made flesh. Christmas isn't about gifts, but The Gift: for God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son." He began the call to discipleship. "I can feel that someone out there wants to accept Christ as savior," Curry purred. "Come on. Come on. You come to the Lord and the angels go absolutely crazy. You're the guest of honor!"
And that's exactly what Panchanita felt like on her long march up the aisle.
A few blocks away, in a tiny church of chipped white brick, Rosa Leland sat on a red-padded pew, mesmerized by the Word as spoken through Richard Dunn. Unlike Curry's service A a grand affair with printed programs and a stand out front for videocassette sales A Dunn's sermon took on humbler tones. Gray-haired deacons and deaconesses filled benches on either side of the raised pulpit. Choir members were squeezed onto a stage above. A sign to the pastor's left admonished, "Please do not chew gum in church."
Leland, an English teacher and grandmother, came to New Mt. Moriah for a little of the spirit that was missing from her last church, a gaping, impersonal place. She liked to watch the old men of Mt. Moriah bow together at the front of church and sing creaky spirituals. Dunn himself looked too big for the building. When he stamped and roared A which was often A chips of plaster fell from the saggy roof.
Today he was reciting from the Book of Matthew, telling how Jesus stormed into the temple and tipped the tables of the money changers. "Some people say Jesus don't get mad. But Jesus do get mad. I don't know about you, but there been times I didn't walk in the light, when I didn't do what the Lord told me to do, and He turned over some tables in my life!"
Dunn squinched his green eyes and broke into a rasping tenor. "Jesus said: 'My house is a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.' He didn't say Rev. Dunn's house. Didn't say the deacon's house. Didn't say the trustee's house. He said God's house. If Jesus came here today, would He be satisfied? Would He find us locked up in tradition so much that we can't see the Word? Would He find us trying to feed the weak, clothe the nekkid? Would He find in us a willingness to roll up our sleeves and go under the bridge? Would He find this a house of prayer?"
Now Dunn began chanting the words, drawing honking breaths from the microphone like a drowning man and waving his arms. The devotees in the front pews were rooting him on, cooling themselves with cardboard fans. "Everybody needs a little more prayer. He'll lead ya with prayer! He'll lead ya. He'll lead ya. I was weak and He led me. When they tried to scandalize my name, somebody prayed for me. When ya pray right, the dumb will talk. The deaf will hear. The blind will see. The crippled will walk."
And the plain tuckered out, Rosa Leland decided right then and there, might just walk a little taller.
Richard Dunn is wedged into a booth at Liberty City's Kingfish Restaurant on NW Seventh Avenue, describing the miracle of political espionage over twice-blessed cornbread. "God touched somebody's heart and I got this stuff," Dunn says, referring to a nasty letter that was sent to a group of union officials urging them not to support Dunn in last fall's school board race. "I wasn't supposed to get my hands on this, but He made sure I did." He says grace over his cornbread a third time, digs into his stewed beef, and lets loose a reverberating guffaw.
Dunn is in good spirits for a man recently dragged through the mud of what perhaps was the most rancorous electoral runoff in Dade school board history. But to him the tactics employed last year by his opponent, black school principal Frederica Wilson, only serve to reaffirm his own enduring stature. "The broader community thought I was dead because of all this nonsense in the past. Then they looked in the paper and saw I won the primary by 6000 votes. Those guys in the establishment said, 'Oh my God! We got to get this boy out!' So they jumped me, man. No two ways about it. They jumped me."
The assault on his good name began with a paid political advertisement that described Dunn as a "religious fundamentalist who STOLE MONEY from his church's DAY CARE FUND." The ad, as well as the distribution of the Herald's 1991 articles about Dunn's alleged misdeeds, was the handiwork of Wilson's political consultant, Bob Levy. It was also Levy who lobbied members of the Dade County Teacher's Union to rescind their endorsement of Dunn. In a batch of private letters, Levy described the pastor as "a plain bad guy."
"We didn't have the money to really adequately sell Frederica," Levy admits now. "So we had to tell people who Dunn was. We had to say, 'This is a guy who doesn't belong in public office.' When you're running on nuts and bolts, you use everything you got."
Another element of Wilson's strategy was to allege that Dunn was trying to confuse the electorate. At a press conference just a week before the October 1 election, she claimed that voters in white areas had confused Richard Dunn with Marvin Dunn, a Florida International University professor who has run for office before. Dunn countered by accusing Wilson of dirty campaigning. But the "Principal with Principles" A as Levy billed her A had crippled his momentum. She won the runoff by 7000 votes, a stunning reversal.
Wilson remains uncontrite about the tenor of her campaign. "This whole thing started when Dunn implied I was addicted to prescription drugs on a radio forum where we both appeared," she asserts. "From that point on, I was frankly afraid of the man. I never went anyplace he was going to be. I got threats on my answering machine. I was a nervous wreck."
Dunn likewise exhibits less-than-Christian forgiveness. "I had enough dirt on that woman to blow her to Washington, D.C., and never come back," he says, stabbing at a collard green. "People came to me and said, 'Here, you can use this!' I can't tell you I wasn't tempted. But that just isn't Christ-like."
Dunn blesses the waitress for bringing him a Sweet 'N Low and shovels another piece of cornbread into his mouth. "I had a lot of fun during that campaign," he announces without a trace of irony. "But it cost me something in the congregation. I've almost got to start over and reorientate people back to the vision. I've got to pastor now. Visit the sick. Clothe the nekkid. Spend time with the widows."
As of last week, however, Dunn said he was probably going to run for a seat on the Dade County Commission in District 3, one of three freshly drawn black districts that he and other minority activists fought to establish. "I got to pray it through and touch base with the people who can help me get elected," he says. "But I'm looking at numbers, and so far I like what I see. It's looking good. Very good." He has even gone so far as to open a campaign account.
If he does announce for the March 16 election, Dunn will be in familiar company. Victor Curry announced last week that he will run in District 2, which includes much of his Liberty City stomping grounds. The decision came as something of a jolt to black religious and political players, many of whom anticipated Curry would focus on building his popular church.
"I got to the point where I started listening to some friends, people I respect," Curry explains. "They said it was time to serve my community on another level. Actually, people have been asking me to run for a long time." He says one phone call in particular proved pivotal. At the bidding of mutual friends, newly elected U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings A a hero to both Dunn and Curry for his ability to overcome public infamy A called from Washington. His message was to the point: "Duty calls, buddy."
Duty may be the most apt word. Perched restlessly behind a desk in his rented Miami Shores office, Curry radiates a palpable disdain for the muck of papers that clog his chaotic schedule. He plainly regards press interviews as yet another drab mandate. "I don't want my community left out any more when the pie is being divided," he says, mouthing what has become a standard line.
With an impatience that borders contempt, he shrugs off concerns about a potential time crunch. "Ever since I've been preaching, that's been my label, that I'm spreading myself too thin. But I've only got one gear and that's go. If it ever gets to the point where it's more of a conflict to do my job here at New Birth than to do my job there, then I'll resign from there."
Curry's impatient eyes begin to drift. On the wall opposite him, he has mounted a shrine to Martin Luther King, Jr. "Our histories kind of parallel," he explains. "Not that I'm any Martin Luther King. But we both came to the pulpit young. He came out of an Ebenezer Baptist church. So did I. And my aunt and uncle are members of his church in Atlanta." Curry notes one other obvious similarity: Both he and King have been assailed as philanderers. What he leaves unstated is the bald fact that King never subjected himself to this sort of interview A because King never run for public office.
Curry, who has served on various city and county boards but never ran for office, insists he's prepared for the rough and tumble world of politics. "I'm not naive," he says. "I know that in some cases people will do whatever it takes to assassinate your character. I've made up my mind I'm not gonna sling mud. I may volley, but I'm not going to initiate anything. I'm going to run on the issues: economic development and jobs."
Whatever the issues, both Dunn and Curry shape up as daunting candidates. With the huge grassroots influence of their church network, they should make tough opponents for any of the more seasoned pros running. Dunn and Curry also could prove valuable assets to one another on the campaign trail. Though they no longer are the tight friends they were during the Issue for the Day era, the pastors remain chummy, and could potentially run as an informal slate. Curry's last call before deciding to announce his candidancy, in fact, was to Dunn: "I called to make sure he wasn't running in District 2."
Curry takes off his Miami Heat cap, rubs his neatly trimmed skull. He is growing distracted, again. "One more question and that's it," he snaps.
But even Curry can't help cracking a grin at the delicious irony of the Dynamic Duo reunited, ready to raise Cain on the Dade County Commission.
There is one place where Victor Curry never gets distracted. "God called me to preach sermons," he'll tell his flock. "I don't get tired. I just quit for y'all's sake."
Indeed, on the pulpit Dunn and Curry enjoy an amnesty absent in the secular world. They can plead eloquently for worshippers to cough up money (because God loveth a cheerful giver). They can float promises over which they have no sway (because God cares for all His children). They can admit to, even revel in, their own sin (because God, unlike the media, will forgive them).
What would appear hypocrisy in the cruel light of the outside world A the way in which they pump their own egos by preaching humility, for instance A passes for prophetism on the pulpit. No matter what the result of their forays into politics, the preachers flaunt a power of persuasion no one can take away. Like the slave pastors of the past, who defied chains with the Word, Dunn and Curry use the pulpit to exorcise the ugly truths and contradictions of their world.
But don't believe that simply because it's written. Believe Brenda Stephens. For two years the Carol City mail carrier has worshipped with Curry. "I don't know the man," she whispers. "But it's like he knows me inside."
Rail thin and buck-toothed, Stephens watches awestruck as Curry reels off one of his Sunday barn-burners. "Only when a man or woman comes to recognize who they are can God start working in their lives. Jesus came to save the lossssst," he hisses. "Y'all remember how the Pharisees dragged a prostitute in front of Jesus. They said, 'Now the Old Testament says the punishment for adultery is stoning. What say you?' And He said A now catch this, New Birth, don't go to sleep on me A He said, 'Let he among you who has not sinned cast the first stone.'"
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His shadow dances on the pale curtain behind the choir. "Y'all know the Pharisees, don't you? You ought to!" Curry roars. "They come to church every Sunday. See, church ain't about 'I can outholy you.' Grace doesn't read us the riot act. Grace comes to us in the darkness and accepts us in our sin A can I get a witness? Grace stoops to where we are, and lifts us up to where we ought to be.
"I don't know if you can see it," he coos. "But there's a sign above my head that says: 'God At Work.'"
Brenda Stephens leans closer, as if she might just witness the apparition. Her three kids, her dreary job, the hopelessness of this world, all recede like a distant continent. "I'll tell you one more thing," she says quietly, and her eyes are big and wet. "When he speaks, it's not him. It's Christ within. That's what it is.
"Curry going somewhere," she says, and though she isn't entirely sure where, she knows that's enough for her.