[Hpn] Deeper Life Ministries shelter residents' complaints spur police
investigation - Roanoke VA USA (fwd)
investigation - Roanoke VA USA (fwd)
Sun, 7 Jan 2001 05:14:47 -0800 (PST)
FWD Roanoke Times - Sunday, January 07, 2001
ROANOKE POLICE INVESTIGATE CHURCH'S ACTIVITIES
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.
By KIMBERLY O'BRIEN
The Roanoke Times
To six homeless guys from Myrtle Beach, S.C., it sounded like a great
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
"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
"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
"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
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,"
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,
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
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
"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."
[ News researcher Belinda Harris contributed to this report. ]
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