'Church' not such a charitable group

The Alligator, University of Florida at Gainesville/April 16, 2007
By Patrick Barret

A few days ago, I pulled up to the intersection of Southwest 34th Street and Archer Road to a familiar sight. People were standing on all four sides of the intersection, carrying buckets that read, "New Life Church" and collecting money from drivers waiting at the stoplights.

I felt the same pang of conscience I always feel when I see someone collecting money for a cause I don't know much about. My gut feeling is not to give money to anyone when I'm not sure what it's for - but then again, I've raised money a time or two, and I depended on people's trust and goodwill.

As I pondered this and tried to avoid eye contact with the collectors, I saw something I hadn't seen before. A couple of people walked up to a beat-up van in the nearby CVS parking lot - a van with a Texas license plate.

So the plot thickens. These people drove all the way from Texas just to collect money in Gainesville. That pang of conscience quickly faded.

But it's not just in Gainesville. According to The Florida Times-Union, since 2005 at least 23 people from what is called either "New Life Church" or "New Life Ministries" have been arrested for soliciting without permits in Clay County. St. Johns County authorities cited three more men associated with New Life who violated traffic statutes while collecting, although one gave an address for Deeper Life Christian Church. New Life was cited in St. Johns County after deputies saw solicitors waving their arms at drivers and demanding donations.

In October 2006, police in Yorkville, Ill., responded to a dozen complaints about New Life solicitors knocking on car windows or jumping in front of cars to stop drivers and demand money.

According to the Rick A. Ross Institute - a nonprofit organization devoted to studying destructive cults and controversial groups - Deeper Life changed its satellite branches' name to New Life Church to separate it from Deeper Life's legal problems.

New Life is known for sending its members on collection "missions." And it has been charged with food-stamp fraud.

It gets worse. New Life Church was founded by Melvin B. Jefferson as Deeper Life Christian Church. According to an investigation in September 2003 by The Tampa Tribune, Jefferson - who calls himself a bishop - has no theological training.

He pressures his congregation to give the church money for the less fortunate or be damned. But he drives luxury cars, wears tailor-made suits and lives in a massive estate in Brandon, Fla. behind a 6-foot wall.

Keith Dixon, a former pastor and head of a street solicitation crew for Deeper Life, said members of the organization are restricted from having jobs.

"When I was bringing in money for them, they loved me," he said. "I was like their son. 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."

Jefferson claims to be unaware of most of the church's operation, including its notorious fundraising trips. I wonder where he thinks his millions of dollars come from.

So keep your window up next time you see a New Life solicitor with a smile and a bucket collecting donations for "women and children." Melvin Jefferson has enough money.

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