Preacher Accused Of Preying On Faithful

Associated Press/September 23, 2003

Tampa -- The founder of the Deeper Life Christian Church lives a life of luxury that includes a walled estate and a Bentley while impoverished women and children are sent on dangerous collection trips nationwide, a newspaper and television station have found in a joint investigation of the church.

Melvin B. Jefferson, who founded the church in 1992, also was married to two different women at the same time in the late 1990s, the Tampa Tribune and WFLA television reported following a three-month investigation.

The church claims to have congregations in 38 locations, stretching from Tampa to Virginia to Texas and Michigan.

Jefferson has told his congregation that he doesn't need to answer his critics.

"A person who don't trust God tries to defend himself," he said in one recent sermon. "I don't care what they say about me."

The investigation by the Tribune and WFLA was sparked by the death of 14-year-old Solomon Bostick in June, who died when a church van being driven by an unlicensed driver overturned on Interstate 95 near Fort Pierce. The driver of the van has said the group was on a collection mission for the church, but Jefferson denies it was a Deeper Life function.

At least three such fund-raising trips since 1998 have had fatal accidents, the Tribune reported.

Groups of church members are sent out nationwide collecting spare change at intersections in buckets marked "Help Feed Needy Women and Children" and children in the church often work 10- to 12-hour days selling candy to raise money for Deeper Life, the Tribune reported in its Monday editions.

"It's a fraud," said Keith Dixon, a former Deeper Life pastor who said he raised millions of dollars for the church. "If I have a bucket that says `Help feed needy women and children' and I take the money and go buy a RollsRoyce, that's fraud."

Jefferson, 54, has no theological training but founded the church to take in the homeless, the poor and those addicted to alcohol and drugs. Members of his immediate family also hold highranking positions in the church and control its assets.

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