In a dilapidated neighborhood in Tampa's inner city, in a century-old church, a religious empire is quietly growing.
Led by a Pentecostal charismatic, it now spans half the United States, holds millions of dollars in property and possessions, and rakes in millions more in donations.
Its patriarch is Melvin B. Jefferson, who came to Tampa from Texas more than 20 years ago with a tent revival. He moved it to his living room, then to a former adult bookstore. It now is an operation with global aspirations.
Jefferson, 54, calls himself a bishop. He has no theological training, was ordained through the mail and won't identify those who consecrated him as a bishop.
Yet, he seems at home on stage in front of more than 1,000 people at Deeper Life Christian Church.
His flock - which includes hundreds living in shabby housing provided by the church and hundreds more who drive weekly to Sunday and evening services - doesn't question his credentials.
Jefferson is as quick with a quip about his childhood as he is a snippet of Scripture meant to elicit fear of damnation. He takes the stage weekly, picking apart and praising his congregation, drubbing sins and drumming up dollars. It's all part of a master plan he says he had when he started the church.
That plan, he is fond of telling his congregation, involved taking in the city's downtrodden - the homeless, the poor, those who are alcoholics or addled by drugs - and rehabilitating them through Bible teachings and tough love.
But a three-month investigation by The Tampa Tribune in a partnership with WFLA, News Channel 8 has found that Deeper Life houses a deeper purpose - as an elaborate money-making machine that generates revenue three ways.
Money being raised by a bucket-toting brigade of orange-vested panhandlers at busy Nashville intersections is going to a Tampa, Fla., church that pleaded guilty to fraud last year, The Tennessean has learned.
The Deeper Life Christian Church, also known as House of David Help Center, has been collecting money illegally here, officials say, notably on Bell Road near Hickory Hollow Mall.
State and Metro officials say the church is not registered to solicit charitable donations, though church members say they are ''legitimate'' and flash official-looking, but homemade, identification cards at stopped motorists. Metro police say they are not allowed to walk in the streets at intersections collecting, as they do.
And while the group's white, gallon-size buckets claim the funds go to help children, church officials said they could not estimate how many children, because so many families seek its help.
The money is sent back to Tampa, where, authorities there say, it is used to operate a ''cult-like'' center for the homeless, many of them former drug abusers and prostitutes.
Tampa authorities said the church has sent its members on a cross-country panhandling campaign after officials shut down the church's illegal revenue sources there.
The church itself and five church officials were convicted last year of food-stamp fraud and receiving stolen goods.
The Deeper Life Christian Church lost its tax-exempt status in Florida after its criminal convictions.
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.
The Price of Their Redemption
, The Tampa Tribune, Sep. 21, 2003
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The Price of Redemption
Series of indepth reports, published by The Tampa Tribune.