Deeper Life Church: Ministry or money machine?

The dirty, melon-colored stone building with white trim sits unmarked, wedged between side streets and dusty East Side houses, its opaque windows offering no hint of life within.

Few nonmembers ever see inside Deeper Life Church, not even the church’s primary financial source — drivers at busy intersections who drop spare change into white buckets held by Deeper Life members.

Even Child Protective Services workers had a tough time entering the San Antonio location, until they brought the San Antonio police along and threw open the door to show what was happening inside.

More than a small San Antonio church, the pastor and his congregation of formerly homeless people are part of a larger, troubled national ministry based in Tampa, Fla., that directs more than 38 churches.

“Deeper Life is one of the worst cases regarding the targeting of disadvantaged people,” said Rick Ross, founder of the Ross Institute, a church watchdog group in New Jersey.

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“And that’s one of the saddest things I’ve seen.”

Although it prefers to be called a fund-raising entity, according to an investigative series conducted by the Tampa Tribune in 2003, Deeper Life files with the Internal Revenue Service as a church.

State and federal law protects churches from disclosing their finances, in keeping with the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion. That freedom’s vulnerability makes it easy to claim to be a church and then be unaccountable financially.

Ole Anthony of the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, a church watchdog, said the public must be careful about spontaneous donations.

“It may feel good, but you really need to make sure it’s a credible ministry,” he said.

Trail of controversy

Deeper Life attorney Dennis G. Brewer Sr. said the church enlists mostly homeless crack or cocaine addicts “dependent upon the trash or state or federal government for their support.”

The church sends members out of town to solicit money with signs that say: “Help the women and children.” At least four members have died in van accidents on these trips.

Brewer said members are “involved in committing the word of God to memory 24 hours a day except when they are eating and sleeping.”

Women must wear dresses and must be chaperoned when leaving the building. Residents are required to take prayer and Bible classes.

“(Deeper Life leaders have) always emphasized that it’s a program, not a shelter. People have to accept their program to go there,” said SAMMinistries manager Marjorie Suggs, who has worked with former Deeper Life members from San Antonio.

One family was evicted when the parents refused to take their children out of school for the yearly pilgrimage to Florida required of all Deeper Life members, Suggs said.

Follow the money

Deeper Life founder Melvin B. Jefferson, born and raised in Texas, was ordained as a minister by mail and has no formal theological training, according to the Tribune series. But he trains pastors for Deeper Life churches, which stretch from Florida to Michigan to New Mexico.

Members have no idea what happens to the money they raise, Suggs said former members told her.

Former member Christopher Novian told the San Antonio Express-News that church leaders in San Antonio expected him to turn over his food stamps during his recent stay at Deeper Life Church.

While members live in rickety housing, Jefferson and his wife, Brenda, live in an 8,400-square-foot Brandon, Fla., home hidden behind a 6-foot wall, the Tribune reported. They fly in a private jet and have at least five cars, including a Bentley Arnage.

Besides the kindness of strangers, Deeper Life also has profited from food stamp fraud.

Four church officials and the corporation Deeper Life Ministries were charged in a $20,000-a-month food stamp fraud case in Florida in 1997 and 1998.

Church officials passed offering plates and accepted the food stamps placed there as donations. The stamps were then cashed at Deeper Life-owned meat markets.

The four church officials pleaded guilty and were placed on probation. The church was convicted of a felony, placed on five years’ probation and ordered to pay $28,000 in investigative costs and fines.

Lawrence Davis, pastor of Deeper Life Church in San Antonio, has been unavailable for interviews and did not return repeated phone calls from the Express-News.

Another closed door

According to Police Department reports, officers were called to San Antonio’s Deeper Life Church 54 times in 2003. Complaints ranged from assault, burglary and fire to overdose, rape and suicide. Some of the calls came from inside the church building at 803 S. Pine St.

The reports do not show any arrests being made.

Child Protective Services and police officers, acting on a verbal order from a state district judge, returned to the building Nov. 19. The police report cited several violations, including electrical hazards and a broken sewer line.

About 30 adults and children were living in the dilapidated, 2,424-square-foot building. The three children Child Protective Services came to collect were found in a back room, unsupervised, with their parents nowhere to be found, the report stated.

The children were removed because the caretakers assigned to them were “inappropriate,” said Mary Walker, spokeswoman for Child Protective Services.

“There was a registered sex offender at the location, and there also was a problem with someone in the day care part of the location who had a history with the CPS. It resulted in her parental rights being revoked,” Walker said.

Child Protective Services ended up removing six children, ages 12, 12, 4, 2, 10 months and 8 months. Three of the children were reunited with their mother last month, Walker said.

There have been four calls to the church building so far this year. On May 13, two more children were removed after a parent, who already had received one referral, left town again without the children, Walker said.

A new name?

Deeper Life has drawn up plans to make San Antonio and the other satellite locations independent of Tampa and to change their names to New Life Church.

“We keep getting these lawsuits,” Brewer wrote in a Jan. 7 letter to Calvin Jefferson, Melvin’s stepson and a Deeper Life pastor in Tampa. “We’re going to either need to do the network or take some action to separate Deeper Life of Tampa from all the other churches from a liability standpoint.”

Brewer said the ministry does more good than harm, and it’s the people who try to regulate Deeper Life who cause the most damage.

“When the city, county or state comes into Deeper Life and puts code violations on them or take the children away, or whatever, they are putting these people into the street where they came from before they came to Deeper Life,” Brewer said in an e-mail to the Express-News.

But SAMMinistries, which also shelters the homeless, has doubts.

After Deeper Life’s refusal to allow SAMMinistries representatives to inspect the church and because children have been removed there, the agency no longer refers clients to Deeper Life when its own beds are full.

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