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It's the Saturday before Easter, and minister Johnny Jeremiah, otherwise known as former crack dealer Johnny Binder, is doing the Lord's work in a big, loud way. Everything about Binder -- his bald black head, his two gold teeth, and especially the small diamond mounted between those front teeth -- seems to glisten under a bright midday sun on this cool spring day. He appears less a man of the cloth and more of a game-show host as he hands out flyers promoting an AIDS awareness march to anyone who passes by Joy Tabernacle Baptist Church.
Located on Griggs Road, Joy Tabernacle is situated in the heart of the area known as Sunnyside in southeast Houston. Sunnyside is a predominantly African-American, low-income neighborhood and, according to the city health department, has one of the fastest-growing rates of HIV infection in Houston. Binder's message, which he takes from church to church, is an important one; it is the bedrock message of his fledgling non-profit foundation. Unfortunately, it is somewhat obscured by Binder's long-cultivated, over-the-top style of calling attention to himself, while calling out other, more traditional ministers.
"We need to stop the Sunday mornin' disco and star shows, and the political centers and stop playin' games," says Binder. "Our people are dyin'. And I'm not comin' to play with none of them [other preachers]. Everybody's walkin' around thinkin' they're a player. They think they ballin'. No, they fallin'. They think they cool. No, they fools. We're puttin' our children in clubs. Puttin' them in front of the TV. Hell-a-vision. We need to be teachin' them prevention and intervention. Rubbers ain't safe. God's safe. Rubbers leak."
As he gives his impromptu sermon, Binder forces flyers on passing motorists on Griggs. He even boards a bus briefly, much to the displeasure of the Metro driver. He barks out orders to others preparing for the afternoon march. He conducts the funk band playing outside the church. He dances with a little girl. Flashing his infectious jeweled smile, he is simultaneously charming and obnoxious, engaging and overbearing. The routine is vintage Johnny Binder.
In 1987, Binder, along with co-defendant Martha Marie Preston, was indicted on federal drug kingpin charges, the end to what had been a flamboyant life. He had a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce and lots of expensive jewelry. He owned a nightclub and was often seen with his formidable entourage making a grand entrance into the Summit just prior to the tip-off of Houston Rockets games. Binder was acquitted of charges that would have sent him to prison for life, but a jury did find him guilty of selling cocaine and maintaining a dope house, and he was sentenced to 40 years in prison. He was paroled in September 1998 after serving ten years. During that decade behind bars, Binder says he found God, which may be so. But he never lost the flash that characterized the old Johnny.
"I'm like Moses," says Binder, revving back up in front of Joy Tabernacle. "I ain't going to plea bargain with them. I come with the rod in my hand. Y'all wanted me over here. So, now I'm over here. And we're going to shake up God's world. We're going to take it to the next level. We ain't going to play church. It's going to be a real church."
Binder founded his non-profit WBD, Save the Children's Lives shortly after his release from prison. The WBD, as Binder always explains, stands for "wonderful, beautiful and dedicated." The second part is, of course, very similar in name to the international organization, Save the Children. While Binder may have the best of intentions, he is also is prone to exaggeration and grandiosity. He also seems completely unqualified to achieve any of his organization's numerous goals -- such as opening a facility to house hundreds of AIDS patients. For example, when asked recently what the foundation's annual operating budget is, he replied, "I don't know," and seemed perplexed that anyone would bother -- or dare -- to ask such a question. The success of his organization, he says, depends on his ability to find a generous millionaire to bankroll the operation while he finds matching funds through some sort of federal grant.
"God is going to send me a millionaire to help save these children," he insists.
In the meantime, he hustles to come up with enough money to pay the rent for a suite of upscale offices near the Galleria -- far from the site of his AIDS awareness march -- but remains true to his trademark ostentatious nature by driving a fully loaded 1999 Lincoln Navigator.
But if Binder is getting over, then he is getting over on some of the city's most noted and powerful players. Among those whom Binder can count on for support are the Reverend William Lawson, one of the most respected clergymen in Houston and who, according to a spokesperson, believes the new Binder and his foundation are for real. Also in Binder's corner is U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who spoke at the conclusion of his pre-Easter AIDS walk. Binder, Jackson Lee told the two dozen or so marchers, "has a vision." Still, some of his staunchest supporters acknowledge that Binder can't so easily put his criminal past behind him; they also acknowledge that Binder's all-consuming need for attention may be an obstacle to realizing his personal and professional goals.