Holy Hustler

Pastor Spann will save Liberty City's soul one addict at a time — if he can stay out of jail.

If all of this client labor sounds like indentured servitude, you won't find Spann's colony complaining. They adore him with a filial reverence — and many credit the pastor with saving their lives. "When my old friends from the corner see me, they say, 'Is that you?' " says Mathis, the guy who once took an oak stick to a pal's head. Since wandering into Basic Training nine months ago, he has kicked crack and alcohol, his abscessed skin has cleared, and he has gained 30 pounds. "The pastor has showed me I don't need to open a can of Budweiser in the morning or go around the corner and get some dope. I tell him: 'If you want me to leave this place, you might have to call the police.' "

From tax-cheating Jim Bakker to cash-embezzling Richard Roberts to prostitute connoisseur Ted Haggard, there's no shortage of evangelists for whom the word of God and the rule of law don't mix. And in his odyssey from dishonorable discharge to addict apostle, Pastor Spann has earned his place as our more tepid entry into this tradition of holy scofflaws.

Pastor Vincent Spann sings to his congregation
Jacqueline Carini
Pastor Vincent Spann sings to his congregation
Jacqueline Carini

For starters, Spann at one point kept two wives. After a two-year marriage to Bernice ended in his second divorce in 1994, he headed to Trinidad for a brief "crusade" — preaching and healing at ramshackle churches. That's when a pastor there introduced him to Sherry, a docile 21-year-old Trinidadian in the market for a husband. "They told me this woman would make a terrific wife for me," Spann says.

Days later, Spann made the near-stranger his third bride. He soon returned to Miami, and she followed five months later. In 1995, Joshua was born. Elijah came three years later.

Meanwhile, Spann perfected the regimen of his rehab ministry while maintaining the principle that God's work should not be hampered by a light bill — a notion with a history of being unappreciated by the electric company.

In fact, he has been sued 11 times in Miami-Dade County. Associated Uniform Rentals filed litigation when he failed to pay for his soldiers' garb. A private waste company took him to court when he didn't pay for his church's garbage disposal. BellSouth Advertising chased him for not ponying up more than $14,000 for listing Spic & Spann in the Yellow Pages.

Spann is only vaguely apologetic. "If somebody says I screwed them, I probably did. I'm not proud of it. I've been sued, evicted. I've gone back on agreements I've had with people. It's been a struggle to survive."

In the late 1990s, Basic Training became an itinerant operation, bouncing between Overtown locations, with a brief stop in Opa-locka, as Spann clashed with the concept of paying rent. In March 1998, he faced eviction for failing to keep up with his $2,500 monthly rent at an Overtown warehouse he had converted into a church and living quarters.

That's when a faith-strengthening miracle hit: Rambo bailed him out. As his operation, by then called Basic Training, grew to house more than 90 recovering addicts, it had gained a small amount of local fame. Its impending doom made the pages of the Miami Herald and the Miami Times. Good Morning America seized on the heartstrings-tugging tale and ran a segment. Sylvester Stallone, who then lived in Miami and had a well-known interest in both the underdog and the military, caught wind of Basic Training's plight and felt compelled to help. He bought the rights to Spann's life story for $20,000. Apparently it was more of a gift than a purchase. Stallone has yet to put Spann's life on film.

But the pastor, who never met Stallone, reached new heights of obstinacy when he didn't pay the back rent. In February 1999, Basic Training was evicted.

The ministry survived. Spann made a fan of Arthur Teele, the unhinged commissioner who would later commit suicide in the Herald's lobby. As the Stallone story circulated through the media, Teele pushed forward a grant that could potentially give Basic Training $230,000 in community development cash.

Spann mangled the deal. He ignored the city's requests for paperwork, leaving it unclear how he would spend the money. And officials bristled at the news that Spann was passing bad checks to pay rent. "This is a bad idea," City Manager Donald Warshaw ruminated as the grant fell apart. "We would be throwing good money after bad."

The pastor impatiently lashed out at what he now saw as the city's interference, calling Miami's leaders racist. "They're all a bunch of crooked politicians," he declared to the Herald. "I really don't want the city's money anymore."

Meanwhile, Spann's personal life entered the realm of the bizarre. In 1998, Spann wed another woman, Diane, while he was still married to Sherry. For two years, he "lived two lives," he says, splitting time between his two wives. "People will say, 'Pastor Spann's a bad man' when they find this out, but I don't care what they think. I was confused."

The pressure was intense. At one point, he quit the church and fled to Georgia to live alone with Diane. But in 2001, the weirdness came to an end when he divorced her. He had finally realized that bigamy is "dead wrong."

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