Roanoke police investigate church's activities

Homeless advocates worry about what they hear from five men who left church

Roanoke Times/January 7, 2001
By Kimberly O'Brien

Homeless advocates worry about what they hear from five men who left church. The men said they felt as if they were being brainwashed during their brief stay with Deeper Life Ministries.

To six homeless guys from Myrtle Beach, S.C., it sounded like a great deal. A warm place to stay, ample food. Fresh clothing, and showers to cleanse their grimy bodies. They'd need to work a few hours a day, but they would be taken care of. God would see to it.

It was a chance to turn their lives around, and it was all in Roanoke. At a fledgling church called Deeper Life Ministries, where a pastor was remodeling a building into a sanctuary to serve the downtrodden. To feed the hungry. To make a difference. It sounded good, so Joe, David, Jimmy, Juan, Charles and Keith went.

They soon found themselves in a life they didn't want - one that told them what to do, what to wear, what to say and how to act. So after only a week and half, five walked out. One stayed.

Now homeless advocates in Roanoke are worried that the man calling himself Pastor Vince is preying on the homeless, luring those looking for comfort into an organization that's been convicted of fraud, drawn scrutiny for its fund-raising methods and been called cultlike. Roanoke police are looking into what's already happened as possible fraud.

But Vincent Williams, who says he was a crack addict before he joined the church and became one of its many pastors, said his only goal is to help people turn their lives around. That's why, he said, he asked the six men to join him in the first place. Even though his Northwest Roanoke church was in the beginning stages of remodeling, he said, he wanted to help the men.

"I found them living in the woods, under a tarp," Williams said. "My job was to get them off the streets, put them in the house of God, and teach them God's word. There's no trick in this. It's about wanting to live right. It's about changing their lives."

To Ronnie Carter, a shelter manager at Roanoke Area Ministries, the tale the men told him sounded exactly like a trick. It upset Carter so much he contacted Roanoke police, who talked to the men before launching an investigation. "This guy's got a flim-flam scene going on," Carter said. "He was using them for slave labor. He wouldn't let them smoke. He let them sleep on the concrete floor. And the public is gullible enough to give to them."

Deeper Life Christian Church prides itself on turning society's losers into evangelists. It reaches out to the homeless, the prostitutes, the drug addicts - those no one else wants, according to Pastor David Austin, who works at the church's Tampa, Fla., headquarters.

"We specialize in bringing in people who are outcasts," Austin said in a telephone interview. "We deal with people that society doesn't want to deal with. We'll bring people off the streets into the ministry. We try to show them a better life through the way of God."

That was exactly what Williams said he offered the six men when he encountered them outside a Food Lion in Myrtle Beach. One of the men took him to the group's hangout in the woods, and Williams told them of his new church in Roanoke and offered to take them with him.

The men agreed, and off they went in a van Dec. 13. With Williams was his wife, Lois, and four other women - church members who would stand on street corners to solicit donations in large white buckets in the cities where they stopped. That's part of the ministry's House of David program, and the way the 26-year-old church stays alive.

What the men didn't know is that the church has been in trouble for fraud. In 1999, four of the church's pastors as well as the church itself were convicted of receiving stolen goods and laundering almost $20,000 a month in food stamps. Church members were encouraged to put food stamps in collection plates and trade food stamps for clothing. Deeper Life funneled the stamps through church-owned delis.

Meanwhile, the church has been accused of pressure tactics and psychological coercion in many of the places it has turned up in the South. Its founder, Melvin B. Jefferson, listed in city records as the owner of the Roanoke church, is believed by church members to be a prophet. Pastors call him "God's man."

One former member, homeless before she entered the church, told the Dallas Observer last year that the church wants complete control of people's minds and bodies. She described being urged to stop her anti-depressant medication because God would heal her, to shed her jeans for a long dress and to apply for disability assistance and pay a tithe from it to the church.

"It was like Jonestown," Tina Howard told the paper. "The only thing missing was the Kool-Aid."

During their brief stay with Williams, the Myrtle Beach men said they felt as if they were being brainwashed. They couldn't smoke, couldn't drink and couldn't joke around with one another. They were told to memorize verses from the Bible and recite them back to Williams on command.

"The first couple of days didn't bother us, but it started to get on us," said David Laws, a 42-year-old man originally from New York. He and his brother, Joseph, 39, came to Roanoke together.

Deeper Life bought its Roanoke location, a two-story brick building at 601 11th St. N.W., in May from nearby Advanced Plumbing and Heating. According to the company's owner, John Catron, the inside of the building was in poor shape, although some work had been done to renovate three upstairs apartments.

Williams said his goal is to turn the first floor into a sanctuary, while the second floor will house church members. He has not yet obtained a building permit for the work, but plans to, he said.

At the beginning, Laws said, it seemed like a way for the men to turn their lives around and do a little handiwork besides. All of the men said they're skilled in construction, from laying carpet to electrical work, and they told Williams they'd be willing to help with the remodeling. "He told us we'd have to work a couple hours a day," Laws said. "We wouldn't have to worry about funds. We'd be taken care of. ... He said, 'I've got so much money, I'm rich. You don't have to worry about it.'"

Once in Roanoke, Williams bought them each a Bible, and gave them a list he called the "50 list" - Bible passages they were supposed to memorize. Each of the men was called "minister" - a church rule inspired by the New Testament verse, 2 Corinthians 6:4. They became Minister David, Minister Joseph, and so on.

But the men said they started to complain a few days into their stay with Williams. They said they weren't allowed a shower for more than a week. Juan Sauceda, 24, said he walked around with paint in his hair for several days. They were told to work into the wee hours of the morning, and wouldn't be fed until they were done.

"We wanted to shower. We wanted to clean up," said James Szekely, 44. Their beds consisted of file cabinets turned on their sides, in a room heated only by two kerosene heaters, they said. They sometimes had to go to the food bank. Other times, the women in the group would cook meals of pork and beans, or hot dogs. When they finally told Williams they wanted to leave, they said he tried to get them to stay by threatening them with what faced them outside.

"He said if we leave now, after being in the church, we're going to die," Laws said. The men also thought they would be paid, but they weren't. Williams said it was never part of the deal.

Five of the men, all except the man called Keith, walked out Christmas Eve, and wandered the streets before ending up at the Rescue Mission of Roanoke. The next day, they found themselves at RAM House, on Campbell Avenue. They've been in Roanoke ever since. They want to get home to Myrtle Beach. RAM wants to help them.

But now the Deeper Life pastors are saying it's their responsibility to get the men back to South Carolina. Yet Williams said that if he does, he's worried they'll revert to their old ways.

"I know what it's like to be on alcohol. I know how it feels to be on crack cocaine," he said. "It took more than two days to get strong. It takes more than a week. It takes more than 60 days."

Williams, a 41-year-old Philadelphia native and a cook before he entered Deeper Life, doesn't mince words when talking about the ministry. Sure, the rules are strict, he said, but so are those at a drug rehabilitation center. It's tough love.

For the first 30 days, no one may go anywhere without a chaperone. Women wear dresses; men, shirts and ties. If they were allowed to make money, that would just encourage them to go out and buy drugs and alcohol, Williams said. Deeper Life pastors instruct members in the Bible daily. They demand lifestyle changes: "Stop fagging out. Stop whoring around," Williams said.

The Myrtle Beach men said Keith has been sucked in. "The last time I saw Keith," said Charles Freyer, 50, "he was wearing a tie." But Williams insisted he never told the men they were required to work. And he said he was upfront with them about the church needing some work. At first, he said, there weren't any beds. But he managed to get 30 mattresses donated. They were delivered Tuesday - a fact backed up by Catron.

"When the guys came from Myrtle Beach, that was a surprise," Williams said by telephone Thursday after he went back to Florida to pick up his two youngest children. "We weren't going to bring in anyone in this early. But they had no place to go. I never told these guys we were all together. I never told them they had to work. They wanted to help us, because we helped them."

Williams said he was upset at the men "twisting the facts." He said he's just trying to do something positive in an area that needs it. But questions also have arisen about the soliciting on street corners in the Roanoke Valley. Roanoke police said the solicitors, usually women, have been spotted with their white buckets decorated with a picture of a child and the words, "Save the Children."

According to authorities at the Hillsborough (Fla.) Sheriff's Office, which launched the fraud investigation several years ago, there's no evidence that the money collected in the buckets goes to anything but Deeper Life church. Authorities have admitted, though, that the church did help blighted Tampa neighborhood. Court officials even started allowing defendants to perform community service with the church.

During the investigation, however, undercover detectives found that probationers sent to the church for court-ordered community service were given credit for giving up their food stamps.

Hillsborough authorities now frequently get calls from all over the country about the church and its practices. In Tampa, the church has toned down, police said, but its members seem to raise eyebrows wherever they go outside the state. Austin said there are now churches in Texas, Kentucky, Georgia,

South Carolina and in big cities like Detroit, New Orleans and Memphis, Tenn. "We've taken a lot of flak," Austin admitted. "We've been accused of different things. God has blessed us to stand the test of time." Williams, who plans to return to Roanoke within the week, expects to have his church finished by the summer with the help of Deeper Life work crews. He said he also hopes to open a soup kitchen. And he and the other "ministers" plan to be back on street corners soliciting donations.

As a church, Deeper Life doesn't have to have state permits to solicit, according to the state Office of Consumer Affairs. Locally, members just have to keep themselves off the road and out of traffic, police said.

But homeless advocates still worry that other homeless people will find themselves in a place they don't want to be. And the five men want to warn others. "It's good to know the Bible," Szekely said, "but not like that." Added Laws: "We got tricked. We should have known better. But being a preacher, we believed him."

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