PAHOKEE — The pianist at First United Methodist Church was as nervous as he'd ever been before a performance.
Music comes naturally to Chad Stoffel. So he wasn't worried what they would think of his playing. He was worried what they thought of him.
"Do they know about my past?" Had they seen the newspapers? The ones that showed his face and the words sex offender?
This was February 2012. For about seven months, Stoffel had been living 2 miles outside of town in a secluded neighborhood called Miracle Village. He was one of about 85 sex offenders who had quietly settled there under court order after finishing their prison sentences. It was a lonely exile but preferable to sleeping under bridges like so many other sex offenders around the state.
Now he was standing at the front of the congregation — on Ash Wednesday, no less — flanked by two other Miracle Village residents who were going to accompany him on the hymns.
Stoffel, 37, wanted to show the congregation that he was more than a criminal. He wore nice slacks and a dress shirt and tried to be, in his words, "perfect." Still, even Pastor Patti Aupperlee, who had invited the men to the service, couldn't reassure them.
"I don't know what's going to happen," she said.
Just before 7 p.m., a woman in her late 50s found her usual place seven rows back on the right. Lynda Moss, the church treasurer, had attended First United Methodist since she was little. She had harbored an aversion to sex offenders almost as long. It was the reason that she had once stormed into the pastor's office to tell her: "Those people will never change."
No one that day expected who would end up changing.
IN 2009, AN ACTIVIST PREACHER named Richard Witherow decided he needed to do something about the men he called "modern-day lepers."
In Florida, state law forbids sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school, park, designated bus stop, day care center or playground. Some local laws push the buffer to nearly half a mile.
Witherow saw the consequences of these regulations.
The town of San Antonio, north of Tampa, virtually banned sex offenders two years ago. In Miami, a few dozen lived for years under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. The Bradford County Sheriff's Office stakes big red warning signs in front of sex offenders' homes.
Witherow wanted a place for the men — a mix of sexual offenders and more serious sexual predators — where they wouldn't bother too many other people. In the middle of thousands of acres of bushy sugarcane, just east of Pahokee, he found Pelican Lake, a collection of squat yellow duplexes that had been built as a company town for sugar workers. He rented dozens of properties, and the landlord evicted several families with children. Witherow called it Miracle Village.
The few retired Jamaican sugar workers who remained said they didn't mind their new neighbors. The Jamaican retirees even said the neighborhood got safer after the men moved in; they patrolled the streets at night and did the landscaping.
"We all make mistakes, man," said Percy Val Miller, 67. "We all have sin. You know what I mean?"
Residents of Pahokee (population 6,000) weren't as understanding.
"There's just too many in one place," the mayor said. "It's very, very risky."
An irate aide to a local congressman told the newspaper, "Somebody evidently decided: 'Oh, the hell with it, Pahokee's a nothing community. We'll just dump it out there.' "
THE "NOTHING" COMMUNITY used to be a land of opportunity.
The first settlers of Pahokee fished all week in Lake Okeechobee and convened Sundays in a packing shed to read the Bible. That gathering became First United Methodist. The church grew as the town shifted from fishing to farming. In the late 1950s, the Hendrix family in Bassfield, Miss., heard Pahokee and the surrounding towns needed a hardware store, so they packed their things and headed south. Lynda Hendrix was 4 then. By 12 she was playing the piano at First United.
Sugarcane flourished in the fertile muck, and demand soared for American-grown sugar after Fidel Castro took over.
Lynda Hendrix married Donald Moss and had three children. They built a trucking company together. Except to attend college, she has never lived anywhere else.
Pahokee contracted as mechanized agriculture supplanted workers. The paper closed in 1985. The hospital closed in 1998. The mill closed in 2007. First United Methodist didn't die, it just stopped growing as white residents moved away. By 2010, on most Sundays, the pews were barely a quarter full.
THAT YEAR A NEW PASTOR named Patti Aupperlee brought her family from West Palm Beach. Short, with sandy hair, she dresses casually and says things like, "I believe God created you and didn't make a mistake."
She was 47 and would soon come to be seen as "radical" by a congregation nearly twice her age. Aupperlee sought to bridge racial divides, recruiting a young black pianist from a local Baptist church.
"I've been in this church a long time," Hugh Branch, 89, says. "And we've never had a pastor like her."
But few expected Aupperlee to open the church doors as wide as she did.
In the summer of 2011, Witherow, the pastor of Jacob's Destiny chapel in Miracle Village, offered to host an interdenominational service and invited Aupperlee to attend. Aupperlee knew something about Witherow. When she moved to town, he had given her his book, The Modern Day Leper. Even though she likes to relax on Sunday nights, she was still a newcomer to Pahokee and trying to build relationships. So Aupperlee, her husband and two daughters, ages 19 and 21, drove out Muck City Road to the sex offender village.
CHAD STOFFEL WATCHED from behind his keyboard.
"Who are these normal-looking people?" he thought as the Aupperlees walked in. And those two girls . . . "Will I get in trouble if I talk to them? Anytime you see someone who looks young you have to think that."
He had just spent a miserable year in jail. The last thing he wanted was to go back.
The Aupperlees picked seats in the back of the tiny blue chapel. The four of them brought the crowd to around 15. Stoffel sang Amazing Grace. It felt awkward. Worse, he was filled with that familiar dread: How much did they know?
BEFORE HE WAS ON THE SEX OFFENDER registry, Stoffel was a music teacher at a private school in West Palm Beach. The school choir had six students his first day. In five years, 130 were singing for Stoffel. The choir won awards and competed in national competitions.
"It was just an amazing time," he said.
In 2005, Stoffel joined a community theater production. "I got cast as Prince Charming in Cinderella." He met a boy there who "was just part of the play." The boy was 16. Stoffel was 29. The boy helped Stoffel with his lines. They got coffee. They talked on the phone for hours. They had sex.
One Sunday night, Stoffel was driving home from worship when his cellphone rang. It was the boy's father.
"If you don't quit your job," he said, "I'm going to the authorities."
"My life is over," Stoffel thought.
He finished the fall semester, but in December he resigned. Then he packed some belongings into a Ford Explorer and drove to Memphis, where he enrolled at Love In Action.
There, counselors preached that people aren't gay, that "there is only homosexual attraction and behavior; accordingly, there can be no change from a sexual identity that never existed in the first place." Stoffel desperately wanted to believe them.
Counselors urged him to confess. So he told them what he did. He didn't stop there. He told a sex abuse hotline what he did. Then he told a Palm Beach County sheriff's deputy what he did. Then he drove back to Palm Beach County and told them again.
It did not work. He was still gay. And he was in handcuffs.
THE SUNDAY EVENING SERVICE in Miracle Village was over. People mingled in the back of the chapel. Aupperlee was still struck by the music.
"When I saw Chad, he wasn't performing," she said. "He was worshiping."
She figured he was a sex offender, but she didn't ask. Instead she said: Do you play guitar?
Yes, he said.
You should come to our Thursday night service.
Stoffel was there four days later.
AUPPERLEE SAID SHE WAS just being pastoral when she invited Stoffel. Where others might have seen a sex offender, Aupperlee saw a talented singer who could add a male voice to her choir of sopranos. But realities quickly dawned: You can't just invite sex offenders to your church.
"I have three daughters. Was I concerned? Yes," Aupperlee said.
So she set some ground rules. No sex offender could be on the grounds without supervision. She made a list of every sex offender within a mile radius. She did background checks on the men who came to church. She plugged sheriff's deputies into her cellphone. She met with each man privately and asked their stories. Then she told them: "You hurt anybody in my church, I will be the first to take you down."
Despite the warning, the men of Miracle Village felt welcome — if only on the community's fringe — for the first time since their convictions.
Aupperlee, they learned, was an unlikely champion.
One night in late 2011, Stoffel and another Miracle Village resident shared dinner with Aupperlee's family at her house. They talked about their pasts. When it was Aupperlee's turn she told them what happened when she was 14. About her parents' best friend. How he would catch her alone and molest her. How she bottled the truth until years later when the man was on his deathbed.
Aupperlee says the sex offenders don't trigger flashbacks. "When I see someone who fits that age, that look, I see their heart," she said. "It's not projecting my past pain onto them."
But that wasn't how everyone felt.
One day in 2011, Lynda Moss' 22-year-old daughter mentioned that Stoffel, the new pianist on Thursday nights, was a sex offender; she had seen his name in a newspaper story. Moss was incensed. What about our children? What about our reputation?
Moss had her own history with sex offenders. When she was in her early 20s, her parents had an employee at Hendrix Hardware, a young man, who touched a little girl there among the hammers and paint cans. The girl told her father. In this small town, all three families — hers, the employee's and the girl's — were close. In the aftermath, the young man quit and left town. Moss' parents were devastated. They felt responsible.
Moss sat on her anger for a few days. She said a prayer. And then she marched into Aupperlee's office.
"What the hell are we doing?" she asked. "Aren't you concerned?"
"There's more to the story than you know," Aupperlee told her.
"Well then maybe you should consider telling the rest of us," Moss said.
"They'll tell their stories when they're ready," the pastor said.
Moss stormed out.
Months passed, and Moss cooled down. She learned more about sex offender laws. An 18-year-old, for example, who has sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend could be charged as a sex offender.
Then it was the end of February and Ash Wednesday, one of the most holy days of the Christian year. Moss found her place on a worn green pew cushion.
Up at the altar, below a stained glass image of Jesus in prayer, Aupperlee whispered to Stoffel. That's Lynda Moss, she said, the one who's really angry.
Seven rows back, Moss couldn't believe who was standing next to her pastor. Just when she was getting comfortable with sex offenders showing up, they seemed to be taking over.
"Why are these people leading this service?" she thought.
Nervous, Stoffel touched the keys, and music filled the crowded room. About 35 Methodists stood beside about a dozen sex offenders in the pews.
How great is our God, sing with me
Moss sang with him.
How great is our God, and all will see
How great, how great is our God
Aupperlee read from the Book of Joel: Return to the Lord your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. He is eager to relent and not punish.
Moss was still sizing them up. She couldn't look away. Stoffel looked boyish, with a shock of dyed blond hair across his forehead. He must have been the same age as her son.
He was singing again.
There is no one like our God
Greater things have yet to come
Then he sang Amazing Grace. Everyone else was singing too. The awkwardness he had felt in the Miracle Village chapel months before disappeared.
Moss' eyes moved from Stoffel to the other two sex offenders and back to Stoffel.
Just then something softened inside her. Later, she would call this moment a miracle, "a God thing."
"You could tell from the soul of their voice that they truly were changed people. And I didn't even know what their issues were," she said. "I guess I believe that if you kick a dog enough it'll stay down. If you're mean enough to a person, he'll stay down. And we're not called to do that. It may sound crazy, but I felt like they were little kids and they were told, 'No, no, no, no.' Well, let's tell them what they can do."
The Rev. Margaret Smart, a retired pastor, brought the ashes in on two ice cream dishes. She and Aupperlee marked each forehead with a sooty cross, the black remains of burned palm fronds. Two of the sex offenders cried as they received their ashes.
One by one everyone left the chapel. Stoffel and Aupperlee remained.
"Well, they haven't come to drag us off yet," Aupperlee remarked.
Suddenly the door swung back open, and there was Moss. She approached Stoffel.
"You guys need to sing in our cantata," she said. "It starts at 7 o'clock."
THE CHURCH'S NEW all-embracing attitude provokes some jeers around town, Aupperlee says. "Send them to the Methodist church. They'll take anybody."
Witherow, Miracle Village's spiritual leader, died in April 2012, but the community is still growing. The population now exceeds 100.
Sometimes there are problems. Most of the sex offenders desperately avoid children. One did not. Aupperlee confronted him, and he left the church.
On a recent Thursday evening, inside the fellowship hall, people ate dinner after the weekly praise service. Moss wasn't there, but Stoffel was. They're friends now. When Stoffel turned 37 in May, she threw him a party. He considers her his Pahokee mom, and they still sing together in the cantata.
After dinner, someone unveiled a tray of cannoli made by one of the men from Miracle Village. Sex offenders washed the dishes.
Then there's Smart, the 76-year-old retired pastor, widowed five years ago. In October, she ran some church errands with Harry Folger, a 70-year-old sexual predator convicted in 1999.
"I think it was God doing it because I said that I wasn't interested in finding anybody," she said. "So if God wanted it, he'd have to lay him at my feet. And that's practically what happened."
Folger asked her to join him that Friday night for dinner. They've been dating ever since.
Ben Wolford is a Miami-based freelance writer and staff reporter at the South Florida Sun Sentinel. He can be reached at [email protected] or (330) 858-7694.