The Rev. Gaston Smith has done something very bad.
The pastor of historic Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in troubled Liberty City was convicted in three hours flat by a jury of six peers in Miami of third-degree grand theft for allegedly redirecting $10,000 in grant money that was meant for his community to himself.
Earlier in the trial, members of the jury appeared ready to hear Smith’s defense.
They asked to see proof that the $25,000 grant to his non-profit Friends of MLK from the Metro Miami Action Plan Trust (MMAP) – an agency that itself has come under fire for sloppy record-keeping – was indeed spent on the community.
They asked for evidence of a promised garden for seniors. They asked for records indicating that Smith secured additional funds from Burger King and ex-Major League Baseball player Mo Vaughn while Smith was on that infamous trip to Vegas. There, Friends of MLK funds were apparently withdrawn at the MGM Grand.
Receiving no such evidence from Smith’s lawyers, Michael Tein and Larry Handfield – who promised to deliver it and then failed to call a single witness – the jury had little choice but to convict.
Juries don’t acquit by faith alone.
It’s tempting to see the Smith trial as just another case of a “pimp in the pulpit,” enriching himself and living the good life while the community around him shatters. But the Smith conviction is just one in a long line of disappointments for Liberty City, a community that was already bending under the weight of poverty, record unemployment that’s higher than the national average, and high school graduation rates that are lower, long before the bottom dropped out of the American economy.
Beyond the Smith trial, and the accusations that have taken down other well-known South Florida leaders this year, there’s a deeper reality at work, and not just in Miami. It has to do with a general feeling that the institutions people have trusted all their lives have let them down.
The banks to whom we trust our money gambled it away. We bailed them out, and then they gave the money away in bonuses. The mighty engines of the federal government ground to a halt in 2007 and 2008, decimating an economy falsely buoyed by massive tax cuts and risky financial practices that stretched from Congress to the banks, to the workaday American buying houses they couldn’t afford.
“Ponzi scheme” has become a common part of the lexicon, as money-swindling scandals cut a swath from Palm Beach to Jamaica, leaving ruined families and business in their wake. Of course, the more common term for those scams is “confidence scheme” — because the crooks play on people who share their religion or ethnicity, and who deeply trust them.
This year, in the wake of Wall Street bailouts and healthcare reform that has caused insurance company stocks to soar to 52-week highs, some Democrats are even beginning to doubt the president they worked so hard to elect.
In that sense, the church was ahead of the curve. So many of us grew up in church. We were shaped by it, and were steeped in its values and traditions. Yet as adults, many African Americans find themselves drifting away.
It’s not just the scandals pinned to prominent religious leaders (how long has it been since Rev. Jesse Jackson’s love child?) It’s also the hyper-emphasis on money – from the pressure to tithe (which should be a good thing, done from the heart with a conviction that the money feeds the poor, clothes the naked, and tends to the sick) to the “lock the vestibule doors” sales pitch one often gets on Sunday.
Okay, it’s also the scandals. At the end of the day, it’s tough to take spiritual guidance from someone in whom the seeds of doubt have been sown.
Disillusion with the church is by no means a widespread phenomenon. As the recession has deepened, church attendance is holding steady, according to Pew and Gallup polls earlier this year. And South Florida is home to a number of churches, Friendship included, whose services are filled to the brim.
But a visit to many a black church these days will find it teeming with women and older folks, yet fewer and fewer men and younger adults.
A good friend of mine who is also a close friend of Rev. Smith mounted a spirited defense of him as we conversed about this column recently. The friend stood behind Smith as “no thief,” even if he is a poor financial record-keeper, and emphasized that we go to church to hear the word, not to scrutinize the word-giver.
That’s a great point. I’ll have to pray on it.
Joy-Ann Reid is a writer and media/political strategist who worked on President Barack Obama’s Florida campaign.