When Questions Come, Church Stages A Spectacle

Tampa Tribune/September 23, 2003
By Michael Fechter and Michelle Bearden

Tampa -- Guests were coming and everyone needed to be at the afternoon Bible class on time, dressed well, and on their best behavior.

Anyone absent could wind up back on the street, church member John Price said he and other church housing residents were told.

They weren't told that reporters from The Tampa Tribune and WFLA, News Channel 8, were coming to interview their leader, Bishop Melvin B. Jefferson of Tampa's Deeper Life Christian Church, and that they had a role to play.

"If you weren't in the Rose Room at noon on Tuesday, you would be packed up and removed from the ministry,'' said Price, who left the church a few days later. A second church member, who asked not to be identified, gave an identical account.

Jefferson used the class to answer the reporters' questions he expected. He would give the interview afterward, but the class would be part of his statement.

"Are you happy here?'' he asked the 250 people gathered before him.

"Yes!'' they shouted back.

"Have I ever asked you for money?''

"Ain't got none,'' a voice from the back of the room called out, drawing laughs.

"How do y'all feel about me driving a fancy car?'' Jefferson asked. "We don't want to follow a poor king. I think people forget where I came from.''

People offered personal testimonies: years of drug abuse, usually crack cocaine, sexual promiscuity and sometimes homosexuality. All that changed when they found Deeper Life.

The Interview

When the interview began, Deeper Life's attorney, Dennis G. Brewer Sr. of Dallas, laid down the rules. No questions about marriages. Ask about that and the interview would be over.

"It's improper,'' he said. "It's none of your business.''

Questions had to be directed to Brewer. He would decide whether they would be answered.

When the conversation moved to a van accident June 8 in which 14-year-old church member Solomon Bostick was killed, Brewer brought in Cheryl Rich, a passenger married to the driver, Abdoulaye Diakhate, to dispute the driver's account of what happened. Brewer would not allow the reporters to question her.

"I've been doing this 50 years,'' he said. "I know how to interview a witness.''

He later ordered a Tribune reporter to remain silent after the reporter asked about a series of paternity suits Bostick's mother filed against Jefferson. The reporter sickened him, Brewer said. The News Channel 8 reporter also was ordered not to ask any more questions.

Brewer then launched into an emotion-charged defense of Deeper Life.

"They are helping people,'' he said. "And the idea that a newspaper in this city would do anything that would slow down or that would diminish or that would stop or that would besmirch something that you won't find anyplace else in this nation - a paper that would do that should not be permitted to operate. It ought to be boycotted.''

Brewer used similar tactics in 1993 when a Dallas Morning News columnist asked about the financial appeals and extravagant lifestyle of faith healer and televangelist W.V. Grant Jr.

"I don't want to discuss anything about their personal life,'' Brewer said then. "We're not going to go into cars or furniture or underclothing or whether their water spigots are made of iron or gold or brass.''

Grant was sentenced three years later to 16 months in prison for tax evasion.

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