TAMPA – In a dilapidated neighborhood in Tampa’s inner city, in a century-old church, a religious empire is quietly growing.
Led by a Pentecostal charismatic, it now spans half the United States, holds millions of dollars in property and possessions, and rakes in millions more in donations.
Its patriarch is Melvin B. Jefferson, who came to Tampa from Texas more than 20 years ago with a tent revival. He moved it to his living room, then to a former adult bookstore. It now is an operation with global aspirations.
Jefferson, 54, calls himself a bishop. He has no theological training, was ordained through the mail and won’t identify those who consecrated him as a bishop.
Yet, he seems at home on stage in front of more than 1,000 people at Deeper Life Christian Church.
His flock – which includes hundreds living in shabby housing provided by the church and hundreds more who drive weekly to Sunday and evening services – doesn’t question his credentials.
Jefferson is as quick with a quip about his childhood as he is a snippet of Scripture meant to elicit fear of damnation. He takes the stage weekly, picking apart and praising his congregation, drubbing sins and drumming up dollars. It’s all part of a master plan he says he had when he started the church.
That plan, he is fond of telling his congregation, involved taking in the city’s downtrodden – the homeless, the poor, those who are alcoholics or addled by drugs – and rehabilitating them through Bible teachings and tough love.
But a three-month investigation by The Tampa Tribune in a partnership with WFLA, News Channel 8 has found that Deeper Life houses a deeper purpose – as an elaborate money-making machine that generates revenue three ways.
Jefferson and his wife, Brenda, draw hundreds to services at the mother church, on Nebraska Avenue in a neighborhood rife with crime, drugs and poverty. The congregation is pressured to give heartily or risk eternal damnation.
Members are discouraged from challenging or resisting this message. At a recent Wednesday night prayer service, for example, a visiting evangelist warned that the bishop and his wife are sacred angels. Do not provoke or criticize them, he said.
Satellite churches, established in five states outside Florida and served by pastors hand-picked by Jefferson, send the bulk of their proceeds to the Tampa church, where it is counted and banked by Jefferson’s family.
And people seeking shelter and food are put to work, sent across the United States on excursions that can last weeks to solicit donations. They stand at busy intersections for hours at a time asking motorists for money to help the poor.
Claims And Questions
At least three such fundraising trips since 1998 have proved fatal. The most recent occurred in June, when 14-year-old Solomon Bostick was crushed to death beneath a van carrying church members that overturned near Fort Pierce. Bostick’s mother has claimed in a paternity suit, later dropped voluntarily, that Bostick was Jefferson’s illegitimate son.
Two people died in June 1998 when a van carrying church members flipped over on Interstate 95 near St. Augustine. The tread on a rear tire had separated, throwing the van into a spin, Florida Highway Patrol records show. Another man died a year later when a van carrying church members overturned on Interstate 75 near Ocala.
In addition to church finances, the Tribune has found several other areas where Jefferson himself, through his lifestyle and his methodology, invites question:
* Despite his avowed mission to rehabilitate the down and out, Jefferson acknowledges the church has no licensed counselors helping anyone.
* Jefferson claims to be capable of exorcising demons, illness and bad traits with the touch of a hand. Videotaped sermons show his wife, Brenda, telling church members that through Deeper Life, God has healed many people of cancer, AIDS and other life- threatening illnesses. Followers are instructed to toss away medications.
* He calls himself a bridge-builder, uniting hundreds of couples in marriages to keep them from living in sin. But his own marital history and that of his family, even the validity of marriages within his congregation, contradicts the strict standard to which he says his flock adheres. Jefferson was married to two women at the same time from 1996 to 1998, records show, and has been sued for paternity by two other women, including Solomon Bostick’s mother.
In one case, DNA tests showed Jefferson was not the father. In Bostick’s case, three suits were dropped either voluntarily or because Jefferson could not be found by process servers.
* Jefferson drives luxury automobiles, lives in a sprawling estate behind a 6-foot wall, and wears expensive tailor-made clothes.
`I Handle The Scriptures Part’
In contrast, hundreds of church members walk because they can’t afford vehicles, live in substandard housing owned by the church, subsist on a diet of chicken necks, rice and beans, and are restricted from having contact with the outside world – including getting jobs.
“When I was bringing money in for them, they loved me. I was like their son,” said Keith Dixon, a former Deeper Life pastor in charge of a street solicitation crew until Jefferson kicked him out of the church this year.
“When I decided to go out and get a job so I could pay off some legal problems, I was nothing to them. They wanted me out of there.”
The bishop denies knowledge of many aspects of church operations, including the fundraising trips. He says he can’t talk about church finances because he isn’t involved with the money.
He also refuses to address questions about his marital history and denies he has been sued for paternity although the suits are public record.
He rejects responsibility for controversial moments in the history of the church, among them a fraud case that enveloped it in 1997.
His family, a network of blood relatives and children from his second wife Brenda’s first marriage, handle much of the money. They also constitute a committee being established to determine how much compensation Jefferson should receive for his duties.
“I handle the Scriptures part of the church house,” Jefferson said during an Aug. 19 interview with the Tribune and WFLA.
There is no denying his grasp of the Scriptures, former members say.
“He can teach you a lot about that Bible. It’s what he uses it for that’s the difference,” Dixon said. “He taught me how to use the Bible to control people.”
Melvin Jefferson’s Story
Melvin Jefferson is not a polished speaker. He prefers slang and conversational speech to convey his message. Words like “y’all” and “ain’t” are staples.
He says his command of Bible verses comes from his “photostatic memory.” And he even has a catchy shout- out – “Hello? Hello somebody!” – that seems custom-made for television. Over the years he has bought time to air his sermons on a nationwide network of mostly Christian television stations.
But he is a natural storyteller, capable of spinning something as routine as buying a steak into a 15-minute block of a Sunday sermon showing the power of God.
Born and raised in Texas, Jefferson can also spellbind with stories about a childhood mired in poverty.
But he has trouble with the details.
In the course of a single conversation, he told two tales about how he didn’t own a pair of shoes until he was 12 years old. In the first version, God directed him to $20. In the second, told minutes later, his mother bought him shoes.
He says he is a bishop, but won’t name the people who consecrated him.
“A congregation of bishops, they anointed me, out of different places, two or three different places,” he said during the interview in August. “They came down and said that God had told them I was a bishop and they anointed me.”
Jefferson says he was drafted into the U.S. Army at 18, saw combat in Vietnam and left the service at 21. He says he received an honorable discharge, followed years later by a medical discharge. However, his lawyer, Dennis G. Brewer Sr. of Dallas, said Jefferson left the military because of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Even the story of his personal salvation varies widely in his sermons. When asked about it in August, Jefferson gave a winding account that seemed to blend elements from stories told in videotaped sermons and church pamphlets.
One version has God telling him to bend a steel pipe as a child. Another involves him dying in a hospital after an allergic reaction to a drug at 25, then being revived. A third has God speaking to him as a grown man as he is smoking marijuana and drinking Champale.
Troubles From The Past
Much has happened to Jefferson that he does not like to discuss outside his sanctuary.
He doesn’t like to talk about an incident in the late 1990s in which he, his wife, Brenda, and five other church members were arrested and charged in a food stamp fraud scheme.
Charges against Jefferson and his wife were dropped in exchange for the church pleading guilty to one count of food stamp fraud. The church was put on probation and fined $5,000. The other five pleaded guilty and received probation.
But he freely talks about the scandal with his congregation, many of whom arrived years after the episode.
“When they tried this [before], we had one church. If they had let us alone, we wouldn’t be here,” he said during a sermon in August in which he complained about a recent television news story on the church. “When they bothered us, they scattered us.”
In the five years since the food stamp scheme, Deeper Life has spread across the Southeast. It claims to have opened churches in at least 38 locations stretching from Virginia to Texas and northward to Michigan.
Former Deeper Life pastors say some of these churches are thriving and active, serving many who seek God. Other churches, they say, operate more as storefronts for donations, and lack significant memberships.
The bishop says he is adding new ministries in Mexico and Africa.
Jefferson also refuses to discuss two unsolved crimes several weeks apart that rocked the church less than a year ago.
Three masked, armed men stormed Jefferson’s Brandon home just before midnight Nov. 10. They tied up nine adults in the house and demanded that Jefferson’s children help them find hidden stashes of cash. They made off with at least $12,600 in cash and a 6 1/2-carat diamond bracelet. Melvin Jefferson was out of town that night, which appeared to surprise the robbers.
Nancy Brown, who was visiting that night from New Orleans with her husband, a church pastor, said the leader of the gang told them he expected the bishop to be there and wanted to shoot him.
“He said he was waiting on my dad to get back [so] he can kill him,” Ninkia Jefferson told investigators.
Suspicion focused on Jefferson’s nephew, Edward Don Jefferson. One of the masked men was about his size and seemed to know everyone’s name, even the correct pronunciation of Ninkia Jefferson’s. But there was no physical evidence and the victims couldn’t positively identify anyone.
Investigators drafted an arrest affidavit, but prosecutors said there wasn’t enough evidence to bring charges. The case is closed.
During a later holdup, on Jan. 3, a robber shot and killed 47-year-old church pastor Willie P. Bryant Jr. at DLC Tire, a church-owned business a few blocks north of Deeper Life.
Bryant, the father of seven, worked at the tire shop and cooperated fully with the robber, police said.
The Bishop’s Wives
One of Jefferson’s favorite sermon topics is adultery. He even wrote about it in a pamphlet sold by the church titled “Lust Free,” which was edited by his wife, Brenda.
He is tight-lipped about his own marriage, however. Brenda appears as Brenda Jefferson in a 1992 church document filed with the state, but it’s not clear whether they considered themselves married then. She appears again as Brenda Lanier in a 1994 church document filed with the state.
When interviewed, Jefferson would say little more than he met Brenda in Quincy, that he “fell in love with her” at first sight, and that he kissed her almost immediately after meeting her. Deeper Life’s lawyer blocked questions about anything else involving their relationship.
The bishop did talk about marriage once – in 1998 – with the St. Petersburg Times: “I’m not a whoremonger,” he said then. “I believe in one wife at a time.”
At the time, he had two wives, public records show.
He married Brenda, then using her maiden name Houston, on Jan. 29, 1996, marriage records in Las Vegas show. Each claimed under oath that the marriage was their first.
It was – to each other.
But neither had divorced their original spouses: Melvin Jefferson had married Tracy Thomas in 1968 and Brenda Houston had married Calvin Lanier in 1973, records show.
Jefferson and Brenda Lanier began divorce proceedings more than two years later, filing the paperwork simultaneously on June 2, 1998, in Fulton County, Ga. The advertisements notifying Tracie Jefferson and Calvin Lanier of the divorce action ran atop each other in a Fulton County newspaper.
Each claimed to be a Georgia resident. At the time they had Florida driver’s licenses, lived in Brandon and were facing prosecution in Hillsborough County for food stamp fraud.
The newspaper ads were taken out, Melvin Jefferson and Brenda Lanier said, because their spouses had abandoned them and couldn’t be found. That seems unlikely.
As the divorces were being prepared, a detective interviewed Tracy Thomas Jefferson on Jan. 14, 1998, at her home in Tampa, where she had lived since about 1995, records show.
The divorces became final Aug. 6, 1998. Melvin Jefferson and Brenda Lanier married each other again in Las Vegas on Aug. 12. Two days later, on Aug. 14, Tracy signed paperwork as Tracy Thomas Jefferson, church president, transferring the deed for a church-owned house in Tampa in part to Melvin Jefferson.
Tracy Jefferson could not be reached for comment. Nor could Brenda Lanier’s first husband, Calvin Lanier.
Study Partners To Spouses
The issue of marriage is pervasive at Deeper Life. Jefferson speaks approvingly of it often during sermons. Deeper Life will even purchase marriage licenses for members who can’t afford them, Jefferson told the newspaper and WFLA.
And many former residents say church leaders promise newcomers they will find a partner at Deeper Life.
Jefferson says the marriages aren’t arranged.
“They choose who they want to choose,” he said.
But there is considerable pressure to marry, former members say.
Sex outside of marriage is unacceptable, Jefferson tells them. So couples must exchange vows first, leading to many marriages built solely on loneliness or lust, former members say.
Most courtships begin when the bishop gives his blessing to a couple who wish to become Bible study partners, former church members say.
“Maybe two, three months, you’re together this way,” said Abdoulaye Diakhate, the driver of the van carrying church members that crashed in June. “That’s not really enough time to really get to know someone. Before long, you’re married off. And after a few weeks, you realize you really didn’t even love this person.”
Diakhate married Cheryl Rich in January. Previously, she had been married to Darrin Rich, a former Deeper Life pastor who, like Dixon, would eventually leave Deeper Life. But the Diakhate marriage is now in question because the Deeper Life minister who performed the ceremony didn’t send their signed marriage license to the county to be recorded.
There is no way of determining whether that has happened in other cases.
Divorce In The Family
If marriage is a common practice at Deeper Life, so is divorce.
Jefferson frequently preaches on 1 Corinthians 7:9 – “But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn with lust” – as his justification for promoting marriage.
But he seldom mentions the next two verses, which warn sternly against divorce.
“That’s the way it is at Deeper Life,” says Darrin Rich. “The bishop sees things one way, and that’s the way he wants everybody to see things. And if you don’t agree, you’re out the door.”
Jefferson, when interviewed, denied knowing church members often use the process he employed – claiming one spouse can’t find another – to secure a divorce.
But Hillsborough County court records show some of his relatives also have used the technique, including:
* Calvin Lanier Jr., Brenda Jefferson’s son, who divorced his stepsister Kenya Jefferson in January.
* Ninkia Lanier Jefferson, Brenda Jefferson’s daughter, who divorced stepbrother Russell Jefferson in May 2002.
* Jimmy Lanier, Brenda Jefferson’s son, who divorced Melvin Jefferson’s niece, Gabrielle Nicole Arrington, in 2000, and then divorced Raquel Molina in 2002.
The Media’s Barbs
It’s a sun-filled Sunday morning in August, and people are walking down Nebraska Avenue toward the Deeper Life church.
They take their seats, some watching large television monitors that show an unobstructed view of the pulpit. Jefferson steps to the stage.
He begins by talking about John the Baptist, a prominent figure in the New Testament of the Bible who endured the slings and barbs of a skeptical world.
The story turns into a tirade as the bishop shouts out that the news media are once again questioning his good deeds.
“To talk about me ain’t gonna stop nothing!” he yells. “Go out and ask those folks talking about Bishop Jefferson to give you a piece of bread!”
For more than an hour he fumes, pacing the stage, until he gets to his final story – a long narrative about chickens and eagles.
Some of his members are chickens, he says, because they run away and lie if asked about the work he does. He urges them to be more noble; in a word, eagles.
He doesn’t need to answer his critics, he says. And no, he’s not worried.
“A person who don’t trust God tries to defend himself,” he says. “I don’t care what they say about me.”
Researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this story.