Judgment Day

Six days a week, the curse follows Rick Stembridge. On any one of those days, he's liable to receive a nasty letter demanding payment or else. He may be compelled to appear at a hearing or sit for a deposition across a table from a snarling attorney. And one of these days, he's sure, he'll be hauled off to jail.

But the Sabbath is sacred. For one day, Stembridge, 54, feels blessed. On Sunday mornings, he makes the short drive from his Davie home to the Calvary Chapel campus in Plantation, where he gives a weekly sermon to children.

Stembridge, a slightly overweight man of medium height, with a typically cheerful demeanor, is an unpaid pastor at the campus, which is a satellite of the sprawling Calvary Chapel congregation. His task is to distill the Bible into easy-to-follow stories. Stembridge adds his own fist-pumping enthusiasm, aiming to make God mysterious and magical in ways that will make Harry Potter easy to forget.

On an October Sunday, the theme of Stembridge's sermon is "love your enemies." Here, he could speak from his own experience — surely no one in the room has enemies like Stembridge's — but instead, he folds the message into the story of King Saul, who finally reconciled with his mortal enemy, David, earning God's blessing for their people.

Around 10 a.m., Stembridge and a group of volunteers lead the children across the parking lot for the conclusion of the morning's Calvary Chapel service. There, the Rev. Bob Coy delivers a televised sermon that seems to speak directly to Stembridge:

"Lately, you've been thinking about quitting," begins the man known to his flock as Pastor Bob. "Not quitting your marriage. Not quitting your job. Not quitting school. Lately, you've been thinking about quitting at life."

Stembridge claims that over the past several years, he has learned a new empathy for the Bible's most tragic figures. In that time, it seems that God has been stingy with blessings. When Stembridge has trusted his fellow man, he's been betrayed. When he's trusted his own sense of righteousness, he's been assailed by friends. He alleges he's had his identity stolen and his credit destroyed. He's lost the business he built with his own hands; he labors just to pay a debt he insists he never incurred. And now that he's fallen behind on those debt payments, he faces incarceration. He feels cursed.

"When you came to Jesus Christ, what did you expect?" Coy preaches. "One of the parts that comes with this relationship is that the world will hate you. When you make friends with God, you make enemies out of another constituency."

Stembridge seems to have made enemies of the entire justice system. He's a man of "extremely strong faith," he says, but his faith does not run to the lawyers and judges who hold his future in their hands. Stembridge blames them for his misfortunes. They say he has only himself to blame.

"I believe God has gotten me into this," Stembridge says, with a patient, tranquil smile.

"There's something for me to learn in this," he says, his voice trailing off. Then he catches himself, perhaps pulling back from the verge of self-pity:

" 'As I walk into the valley of the shadow of death...' I have no fear."

Exactly what a biblical hero would say. But for all Stembridge's Christian good works, not everyone believes he's one of God's sympathetic creatures. Some who have done business with him, and nearly everyone who has encountered him in court, says that if Stembridge is cursed, he's brought it all on himself.

Rick Stembridge is a craftsman. He builds furniture; beds are his specialty. He ran a wholesale shop in Fort Lauderdale, National Furniture.

Around 2000, he and his wife, Nancy, considered a bold venture: a new store in Miami that would position them to seize a bigger share of South Florida's wholesale furniture market in a location where they could capitalize on cheap Latino labor. The couple bought a piece of property on NW 54th Street, in Miami's Sun-Tan Village. They just needed an energetic salesman who could market their products to big buyers like hotel chains, cruise ships, and nightclubs.

This is where a furniture salesman, Mark Greenberg, offered help. Greenberg's charm made it evident he could be a hit on the sales circuit, Stembridge says.

Greenberg lugged considerable baggage to his interview with Stembridge: He owed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the last manufacturing company he worked for. But he didn't try to conceal this, Stembridge says; rather, he explained how it was a misunderstanding, how the company had been trying to cheat him. "He wanted a new life," Stembridge remembers thinking. "He wanted to start over."

Greenberg clinched the job at a business dinner. "He did something very smart," Stembridge says. "He brought his wife of 37 years and his parents, who had been married for over 50 years. We talked about family values...

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Thomas Francis