The bishop's new promotion
The controversial Melvin Jefferson aims to shape a different image in his new role.
By SHERRI DAY
Published September 2, 2006
TAMPA - As he presided over the first meeting of his new association of Pentecostal churches this week, it was hard to find a critic of Bishop Melvin B. Jefferson.
The accolades came from many corners, including area business leaders and Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio.
Sounding every bit the preacher himself, Tampa City Council member Kevin White lavished praise upon Jefferson, the polarizing founding pastor of Deeper Life Christian Church near Ybor City.
"You've been talked about, but people have a place to sleep," White said Thursday before hundreds of worshipers dressed in white at the Tampa Convention Center. "You've been talked about, but people are eating. You've been talked about, but people have jobs. ... Keep on talking about him. The more you talk, the more God is going to bless him."
The crowd roared, and Jefferson beamed.
The crowd had gathered for Bishop's Night at Jefferson's annual Answering the Call Conference.
Jefferson was living out Proverbs 27:2, a scripture that promotes modesty and the virtue of letting others praise one's good works. This, his handlers say, is the new Jefferson - media savvy, approachable and scandal free.
In the six months since Jefferson was inducted into the Joint College of Bishops, a collective of African-American clergy, he has set about trying to reshape his public image. It's an abrupt shift for Jefferson, 57, who has long shunned secular media attention, particularly after multiple scandals rocked his ministry in the late 1990s.
Just moments after his February consecration ceremony, Jefferson declared himself "media friendly." He was acting on the advice of Sean Howard, his new Chicago-based public relations specialist. The pair began promoting a list of good works by Jefferson and his flock. The bishop also began crisscrossing the country, planting churches from Utah to Chicago and visiting member ministries in his new association, the World Assemblies Fellowship International. It counts 70 churches in its fold.
"I don't try to advertise what we do," Jefferson said in an interview, explaining why his efforts have received scant positive attention in years past. "I believe that if you do something, it comes out. But I'm seeing now that you have to show folks what you do."
The bishop's publicity campaign has not gone unnoticed. Many people express pride and hope that they can trust him. But others, including former church members, remain skeptical that Jefferson and Deeper Life, both of which were dogged by allegations of food-stamp trafficking, dealing in stolen property and questionable fundraising tactics, have really changed.
In 1999, the church and five of its members were convicted of felonies. Jefferson and his wife and fellow pastor, Brenda, were not arrested, but the scandal tarnished their reputations.
"A lot of times people in the church believe that we should restore people and forgive them if there's evidence of repentance," said the Rev. Thomas Scott, a Hillsborough County commissioner and pastor of the 34th Street Church of God. "The question becomes, 'Has there been true repentance or true change?' "
Scott, who said he does not know Jefferson personally, said he cannot speak to whether or not the minister has had a change of heart.
To his critics, Jefferson cites John 7:24, a scripture that warns against passing judgement.
"Recognize, things can look one way and be altogether different," Jefferson said. "We haven't tried to hide anything. We are open to everybody. We're on television. We are all over the place. Anything brought against us, it's always, 'Not guilty.' "
Jefferson admits that some church members have not always been circumspect in their conduct. For those indiscretions, he says, he takes the blame as their leader. But he maintains his innocence.
Jefferson has been busy cleaning house. In January, he publicly denounced street corner fundraising. Several people died in car accidents while traveling around the country claiming to be collecting money on the church's behalf. Jefferson says he has never condoned the practice.
In late February, Jefferson and dozens of church members canvassed the church's neighborhood to rally against suspected arsonists. On Good Friday, the bishop led a march to protest crime, drugs and violence. A month later, Jefferson and his wife took an AIDS test from their pulpit to encourage their parishioners to get tested.
The bishop's campaign continued in June, when he hired someone from corporate America to manage the ministry's operations and finances. And, as in years past, he tapped several glitterati in the black church to stage this week's free conference, which featured classes during the day and church at night. Grammy-award winning gospel artist Kirk Franklin was among the featured speakers.
Iorio sent Fred Hearns, the city's director of community affairs, to the conference to welcome and congratulate the bishop.
The public events and internal housekeeping are seemingly all part of Jefferson's pledge to parishioners that he would not let them down in his new position.
This year "really presented a new way of doing ministry for our church, but also of letting our toughest critics know what a positive impact the ministry has had on the poor and less fortunate," said Howard, the church spokesman, who says Jefferson has long been involved in community work but didn't know how to promote his efforts.
To quiet the naysayers, some church watchers suggest Jefferson and his wife make their operations more transparent.
Rick Ross, who heads a New Jersey-based clearinghouse on controversial religious groups and movements, suggests the Jeffersons follow the example of evangelical leaders such as the Rev. Billy Graham and order an independent financial audit of their ministry. Once completed, they should make the results public, Ross said.
"It's something very solid and objective that they can point to and say, 'Look, we've never done this before, and we're doing it. We have changed, and here's the proof,' " said Ross, who has followed the church since 1999. "I think if you ask Melvin Jefferson about that you're going to hear a lot of different things, but you're not going to hear a date of publication."
Jefferson's handlers would not let him answer questions about the church's finances.
In the last year, Ross said he has logged several complaints and inquiries about Deeper Life. The most recent inquiry came in June, Ross said, when a police officer from Boston called to inquire about fundraising being done in the church's name.
A spokeswoman from the Boston Police Department said it had no record of a formal complaint or investigation of Deeper Life or its leaders.
Despite skepticism in some corners, Jefferson's popularity continues to grow nationally. Now that the new association has grown from 33 member churches to more than 70, Jefferson intends to start more churches. He also hopes to promote the national release of his wife's gospel music project and host a Thanksgiving feeding program and a Christmas toy giveaway.
These works impress Phillip Edward Stewart, who traveled from Indianapolis to support Jefferson's conference.
"Whatever the bishop does, I love to aspire to," said Stewart, a 62 year-old minister. "He has a strong word. That's the only thing that draws."
Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Sherri Day can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813-226-3405.