Self-proclaimed Bishop Melvin B. Jefferson of Deeper Life Christian Church says his ministry is devoted to helping the poor, the addicted and those fresh from jail who need structure and God in their lives if they are to change.
But after a three-month examinaton led by Tribune investigative reporters John W. Allman and Michael Fechter and religion reporter Michelle Bearden, in partnership with WFLA, News Channel 8, their series, “The Price of Redemption,” raises both ethical and legal questions about the church’s practices.
Jefferson and his second wife, Brenda, use a mixture of Scripture and tough love to indoctrinate Deeper Life’s membership. The poor the church takes in live in scattered and dilapidated church- owned housing near the Nebraska Avenue sanctuary. They feed on chicken necks and rice and beans, and they attend daily services where they are told they can pay for salvation.
If church members break the rules, they are judged – and fined. The money comes primarily from government- issued checks or savings built upon their $10-a-day pay for roadside solicitations.
Apparently some of the bishop’s followers do indeed kick their addictions, but those who have left the church say that freedom comes with a price: their independence.
Instead of helping their flock to stand on their own and encouraging them to seek work, the Jeffersons send out those who are presentable, including young children, to solicit donations. These solicitors sign waivers to release the church from liability if something happens. Since its founding in 1992, four people have died in crashes of vans occupied by church members.
Those missions work. It appears they have brought in millions collected from donations to the 38 churches affiliated with Deeper Life that now exist from Virginia west to Texas and north to Michigan.
Yet while their followers live in poverty and beg for donations from those who would “help feed needy women and children,” the Jeffersons live in a 10,000-square-foot home in Brandon. Bishop Jefferson drives a Bentley Arnage, worth as much as $150,000. The couple wear tailor-made clothing and travel in a private jet.
Moreover, records show the bishop has bought a substantial amount of land for the church, spending $2 million on properties in Hillsborough County since 1992. Yet the church has a history of leaving debts unpaid.
Bishop Jefferson claims to know little about money or how it comes into the church, even though much of his preaching centers on collections. His wife also preaches giving. In one videotape she is shown belittling and berating church members for failing to give enough. God’s salvation isn’t cheap, she says. Give – or risk eternal damnation.
Jefferson and his wife push marriage as part of the indoctrination process. They say it is to keep members from living in sin. But their former followers say their marriage teachings are just another method of control.
Here the couple can be accused of hypocrisy. They refused to talk about marriages to reporters, but records show the couple married the first time when both were married to other people. And Jefferson has been sued repeatedly for paternity by two other women.
Their children – a daughter and son each from their first marriages, stepbrothers and stepsisters – married and divorced each other.
Into this confusing mix add a felony conviction. The church and five of its members pleaded guilty in 1999 to one count of food stamp fraud.
According to some former members, the fraud continues.
“If I have a bucket that says, `Help feed needy women and children’ and I take the money and go buy a Rolls Royce, that’s fraud,” said Keith Dixon, a former church pastor in San Antonio, Texas, who kept detailed records of the church’s operations.
Another former pastor, Darrin Rich, says he raised between $4 million and $5 million during his seven years with the church. Both men say they sent substantial sums to the home church in Tampa.
So where did the money go? The church’s books are secret, and as a church, it is not required to make disclosures, nor is it subject to any sort of regulation.
The IRS May Have Some Thoughts
One explanation is that Deeper Life church is the channel through which the Jeffersons and their family have benefited, which is surely not what donors expected. A church can lose its tax-exempt status if the Internal Revenue Service makes such a determination.
Moreover, there are questions about certain gifts made to Bishop Jefferson. Rich says some of the money he sent to Tampa was put toward such things as Jefferson’s birthday, but the bishop has refused to say whether he reported such gifts on his income tax returns.
If Bishop Jefferson devotes any time in his sermons to truthfulness, certainly a Christian virtue, there is nothing in his evasive answers or secretive life to suggest it.
What is clear is that in Deeper Life is the nucleus of a ministry that talks poor but lives rich on the generosity of charitable donors and the dependency of its flock.