'An Emotional Imprisonment'

Tampa Tribune/September 23, 2003
By Michelle Bearden, John W. Allman and Michael Fechter

Tampa -- All that stood between Iree Bradley and his dead daughter was $119, the cost of a round-trip bus ticket. Bradley thought it was a small request to make, asking for help to see his daughter one last time at her funeral. The daughter had died in New Orleans of liver disease in June.

So he took his need to higher-ups at Deeper Life Christian Church, the inner-city ministry where he had lived and worked for nearly a year.

Church officials already knew of the death. They had received the call Thursday, although they didn't tell Bradley until Friday.

"I asked them to buy me a plane ticket or a bus ticket, anything to get to my daughter's funeral on Saturday,'' he said.

He was told to wait while church leaders prayed.

The 16 hours needed to travel by bus from Tampa to New Orleans ticked away without an answer.

Finally, at 10:30 Friday night, after a worship service more than two hours long, Bradley was told no. Church leaders, documented on videotape time and again raising thousands of dollars and pressuring followers to give more, said they couldn't afford the bus ticket.

"They told me they didn't make enough in collections,'' he said. "They said it wasn't God's will that I go.''

Bradley quit Deeper Life within days.

His story is one of many that have emerged during a three- month investigation by The Tampa Tribune, in partnership with WFLA, News Channel 8, revealing sharp conflicts between what Deeper Life says it is and what it does.

Deeper Life's founder, Bishop Melvin B. Jefferson, calls the church a refuge where the down and out - former drug and alcohol addicts, petty criminals, the homeless - can come to find salvation and a new beginning.

That, say many who have left the church, is at the core of the sharpest conflict of all. They find not a new beginning, they say, but an indoctrination program that borders on brainwashing, a relentless focus on the almighty dollar and repeated threats of eternal damnation.

Living In Squalor

While Jefferson lives with his wife and other family members on a sprawling estate behind a 6-foot-high wall in Brandon - their house has 10 bedrooms, three dining rooms and an indoor swimming pool - the poor his church takes in live in squalor.

They are crowded into church-owned housing scattered through one of Tampa's oldest neighborhoods, off Nebraska Avenue, between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Palm Avenue.

Jefferson estimates they number 500 to 600.

Their service to the church begins with 30 days of intense training during which they must, among other requirements, memorize 50 Bible verses. All must sign agreements releasing the church from any liability in case something happens to them.

Those deemed presentable enough then go on the road to raise money.

The crews usually travel in vans on cross-country excursions that can last weeks. They fan out at busy intersections to drum up donations from motorists waiting at red lights.

Often they are accompanied by children, some as young as 4. Except for a lunch break, they sometimes work an intersection for 12 hours straight, said nearly two dozen former members interviewed by the Tribune. Then they're usually jammed into motel rooms. Sometimes up to a dozen share beds and floor space.

For this, they earn $10 a day. Some crew chiefs require team members to pay for their meals from that sum.

At home in Tampa, they get no help with job training or placement, no training in skills such as balancing a checkbook or running a household, no help from licensed mental health counselors.

Instead, they return to a regimen of daily Bible study. They are expected to attend lengthy Sunday and evening services. Videotaped sermons show Jefferson and his wife belittling and threatening congregants with eternal damnation for not putting enough into the collection basket.

Then they go back on the road.

Former pastors say they have raised millions of dollars for Deeper Life this way.

From Day One, former members say, they are discouraged from having contact with the outside world, including relatives. Many are locked in at night, former members say.

"If I stay in your house, eat your food, become dependent on you, then I end up being controlled,'' said Darrin Rich, a former Deeper Life pastor and fundraising crew chief.

"I was brainwashed at one time.''

When he began questioning Jefferson, "he told people I was a renegade,'' Rich said. Rich soon left Deeper Life.

Others speak of being encouraged to marry fellow church members, which the former church members regard as a form of control.

Unless the resident members have the means to buy their own food, they subsist on a church-provided diet of chicken necks and rice and beans, former members say. The houses they live in sometimes lack working plumbing. As many as 20 to 30 people may share a single bathroom.

Several of the houses have been cited for code violations that endanger health and safety, records show. They also show the church has made no attempt to pay outstanding fines. As of Thursday, one property had fines and penalties totaling $39,200.

Sickness is common, particularly diarrhea. The ill frequently seek treatment in the emergency room at Tampa General Hospital.

It is not what they expected.

'I Slept On The Floor'

Heavy traffic, run-down motels and boarded-up buildings dominate the gritty urban landscape along Nebraska Avenue into which Deeper Life moved in 1992.

With hookers, drug pushers and the homeless jockeying for space on the cracked sidewalks, Deeper Life has raised few eyebrows among its neighbors.

Jefferson often is seen at the church but rarely approached, former members say. He frequently is preceded to the pulpit by others who call him an angel, a man God speaks to and through. And, they say, he's a man who can save, heal and purify with the touch of a hand.

Recruits are brought in by members dressed in donated suits and dresses who spread through the neighborhood and gather up people sleeping on park benches or beneath bridges. They are promised a hot meal, a bed and God's word to set them straight.

When Cynthia Bragg arrived at the church in September 2001 with her 4-year-old son, Jeremiah, she thought she had been blessed. She was pregnant with twins.

Her first night, she said, should have been a warning.

"They put me in a four-bedroom house with about 30 other women,'' she said. "The first night I slept on the floor because there was just one bed left for my son. And there were mice running all over me.''

Bragg, 43, said the house had no air conditioning or heating. It was roach-infested and the bathroom sink had no running water. Twice, the electricity was shut off for three days because utility bills weren't paid. The food residents had bought with food stamps and put in the refrigerator spoiled.

John Price said his experience at Deeper Life was just as grim. He lasted two months.

Price, 52, of New Port Richey, came to the ministry in mid-June after losing his job and his house. He signed the liability waiver and moved into a church property holding about 45 men, he said. Later he moved to a second house, living with about 18 other people.

For the first month, he said, the doors were locked at midnight to enforce the curfew. Had there been a fire, few could have gotten out, he said.

By his second month, Price was inventing excuses to leave the grounds so he could attend a class at Erwin Technical Center and go to the library to search for employment on the Internet.

"I'm not the kind of person they want around there because I want to get back on my feet and move on,'' he said a few days before he left Tampa for a job in Texas.

Tight Restrictions

For those in church housing, almost every facet of life is strictly controlled, former members say.

Men and women are in separate dormitories.

Housing for couples who meet and marry within the church is limited. Many are put on a waiting list and required to live separately until shared living quarters become available.

Visits by outside family members often are restricted and monitored.

Gary Martin of Tampa learned this when a female relative accepted the ministry's help and lived at Deeper Life for eight months about two years ago.

Martin said his relative was emotionally damaged by her experience and doesn't want to be identified. She now is enrolled in school, has a job and lives with another family member.

"She had some problems; that's how she ended up there. But I can tell you she only got worse,'' he said.

Martin said he was allowed to visit her once a week and could bring her only $5 worth of quarters for spending money.

When he visited the church grounds, Martin said, he was disturbed by the number of men wearing what appeared to be two- way radios with earpieces and lapel-attached microphones. He took the men to be security guards, he said, because they appeared to shadow new recruits.

The men also are visible at the church during Sunday and weeknight services.

The church doesn't use gates or physical restraints, Martin said, but "there's an emotional imprisonment.''

Two months after his relative arrived at Deeper Life, she was "married off, just like that,'' to a man who was practically a stranger, Martin said.

Hillsborough County court records confirm the marriage. Martin said she now is seeking a divorce.

Quick marriages are common at Deeper Life, former members say. Relationships typically begin when men and women are paired off for Bible study. Jefferson blesses such arrangements, former members say, and many couples marry within months.

Bradley, who wanted help to attend his daughter's funeral, is a former addict. He met and married his wife, Janice, also an addict, at the church.

Even though they have since left the church, they credit its spiritual guidance and discipline for helping them stay clean.

Bragg, who remembers the mice from her first night in member housing, also met her husband, Lawrence Decker, at Deeper Life. Theirs was a less typical union.

She and Decker, a two- year resident, went to the courthouse on their own a few months after meeting and were married.

"We didn't need anyone's permission to be together,'' Bragg said.

Passing Their Judgment

Such independence can cause problems for church residents, former members say.

At Deeper Life, punishment for breaking church rules or for other falls from grace is meted out by Jefferson and his wife, pastor Brenda Jefferson. The two hold court - or "judgments'' - in the church basement meeting hall, called the Rose Room, or in Jefferson's office.

Former residents say judgments often lead to fines: $50 for a cell phone ringing during a class, $100 for smoking a cigarette. The wrongdoers pay with money from their government- issued checks or savings from the $10 a day they are paid for collecting donations.

Jefferson says the judgments are welcome.

"If you go out and do crack cocaine, then we give you 30 days on the grounds or a few days in the kitchen or something. It's no spanking on the hand,'' he told the Tribune and WFLA during an interview in August.

Residents "enjoy it,'' he said. "People that really want to do right, when you chastise them, they feel better about it, you know?''

Judgments can be accompanied by severe tongue-lashings, former members say. Transgressors are told they have joined the devil. Jefferson, they say, demands they repent or be damned to hell.

Decker, 38, once felt the bishop's wrath. He received a judgment for spending $200 when he took his stepson on the boy's first trip to the mall.

Decker had given the majority of his monthly $545 Social Security check to the church, he said. When his "tithe'' came up short, Decker said, Jefferson berated him.

Decker and his wife, Bragg, left the church in February 2002. He entered a Salvation Army program, and she moved to Metropolitan Ministries, where she received help with child care. Today, the family lives in a three-bedroom town house in north Tampa. They both have full-time jobs, which they say Deeper Life discouraged. And they haven't abandoned God and joined the devil, as Jefferson warned would happen if they left.

"People are brainwashed, to a certain extent,'' Decker said. "They're more afraid of the bishop than they are of God.''

Lacking In Oversight

Deeper Life is a good - and bad - example of religious freedom in the United States, says Paul Nelson of the Virginia-based Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.

"The good news is that anyone can set up a church, say whatever they want and pass the hat,'' he said. "The bad news is ... anyone can set up a church, say whatever they want and pass the hat.''

Founded in 1979 by the Rev. Billy Graham, the council helps nonprofit organizations such as churches and charities practice sound fundraising and accountability.

It includes 1,100 independent churches as well as charitable and educational organizations across the United States. Lacking the oversight of large, denominational associations, the churches adhere to the council's standards to ensure confidence among their supporters.

Deeper Life is not a member.

No board oversees how Deeper Life raises or spends money, unlike practices in more mainstream churches.

The law doesn't require such oversight.

Deeper Life's fast growth, accumulation of wealth and charismatic leader are ingredients known to be "corrupting'' to a church, Nelson said.

"If you're giving the money in a check in an offering plate that comes across the pew, and that church is meeting your needs, and you see what happens, you generally don't question finances,'' Nelson said.

Such is not the case when Deeper Life fundraising crews gather money from strangers.

Only 'Nice Houses' Bought

Though hundreds of people come and go from Deeper Life daily, it manages to keep a low profile in the neighborhood.

Few residents seem to know much about it. Even fewer are members. Many have never seen Jefferson.

"I've hardly ever seen anybody around here go to that church,'' said Irene Gonzalez, who has lived for five years nearby on 26th Avenue. "Usually, if there's a church on your corner, the pastor will visit you, but I've never seen their pastor.''

Neighbors say there is no mistaking the church- owned housing. It's crowded, run-down, and often church vehicles are parked nearby.

They blame Deeper Life and its tenants for the condition of the properties. They question why more isn't done to repair them.

"It's just horrible,'' said Carrol Marshall, president of the V.M. Ybor Neighborhood Association and Crime Watch. "They're not holding the people who live there accountable.''

Jefferson says the problems aren't his fault. The church buys only "nice houses,'' he said.

"It's the people we deal with. They are something else,'' he told the Tribune and WFLA. "They tear the houses up, and then we have to constantly go in and redo the houses. When you take people from the street, they have no type of morals, and they'll just tear those houses up.''

Homeless advocates worry about what would happen if Deeper Life closed its doors. No one knows where the members would go.

The region's homeless population is rising by as much as 11 percent annually, said Metropolitan Ministries President Morris Hintzman, and funding for services continues to be cut. In a depressed economy, more families lose their homes and seek aid from agencies such as his.

But there also is concern about Deeper Life's use of its members to keep the money coming in.

"It is unconscionable,'' said Rayme Nuckles, chief executive officer of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County. "They're making it so these people become totally reliant upon the church, and it's robbing them of any chance to become self- sufficient.''

The same issue troubles Hintzman.

"The goal ultimately has to be to help your clients find their talents and help them get on their feet again, be it through vocational training or classes,'' he said. "You have to teach them how to balance a checkbook, write a resume, dress for a job interview. The spiritual aspect is well and good, but it won't carry them through daily living.''

Bradley learned that lesson firsthand.

He and his wife now live in Metropolitan Ministries' Family Care Center. They have a clean room and healthy meals.

The staff is helping them achieve goals: jobs, an apartment, a car. They attend classes about addictions, budget management and self-esteem.

Their time at Deeper Life is but a memory - a bad one, Bradley said.

He didn't make it to his daughter's funeral. Friends bought him a plane ticket so he could pay his respects at her grave a week later.

"I can tell you what that church is all about: manipulation, domination and intimidation,'' he said, still bitter three months later. "They may have started out with good intentions, but now it's all about greed and money.''

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