When Johnie Hopkins walked into Deeper Life Christian Church, a Pentecostal storefront mission in East Oak Cliff that ministers to Dallas' homeless, he had nowhere else to turn. A former ironworker turned transient, Hopkins and his wife, Tina Howard, had been on the Dallas homeless circuit, from shelter to soup kitchen to low-rent motel, for nearly a year. The duo sold souvenirs on downtown streets to pay $30-a-night motel bills on nights the shelters were full, which was often.
But heavy rains had washed out the motley band of capitalist operators in the Dealey Plaza area. So when Hopkins' options dried up in October--at a time when he had temporarily separated from his wife--he was heartened one weekend to see Deeper Life's feeding van near City Hall in downtown's homeless zone, where shelters, street feeders, and ill-clothed vagabonds are numerous. "They said they've got a place where you can stay to get back on your feet," recalls Hopkins, a tall, gaunt man with shoulder-length gray hair. "At the time, I was pretty desperate."
Afterward, Hopkins contacted his estranged wife, a short woman with gray-blond hair and a weathered visage. In two days, she joined him at Deeper Life, also known as the House of David. At first, the two were happy arrivals at the church, whose membership comprises addicts, prostitutes, and otherwise seriously down-and-out characters. The shelter, showers, and regular meals were a relief for the couple, even if the ministry's pastors forbade them to leave for 30 days and required them to spend most of their time memorizing Bible passages and attending services. The church arranged for them to live with about 13 other members in a small ministry-owned house.
But Hopkins and Howard soon learned this was no ordinary homeless facility. Scripture-quoting pastors ordered Howard to shed her jeans for a long dress, while Hopkins was issued a tie and slacks, a dress code pegged to the biblical injunction to be "clean." In addition, they were informed that drugs, alcohol, and even smoking were banned.
That was just the beginning. After a week of easy living, Howard says, ministers demanded that they obey the church's other strict rules and rituals. They ordered her to cut long nails, remove purple nail polish, and get rid of her nose ring, while Hopkins was asked to cut his hair. (Both refused.) The pastors, Howard says, also urged her to stop using her anti-depressant medication, asking that she instead allow God to heal her. The prospect of stopping her pills alarmed Howard, who says she has bipolar disorder and turns aggressive without treatment. "It's a matter of life and death," she says.
Deeper Life officials, Howard says, sought to exploit her potential as a welfare case: They advised her to apply for disability assistance and pay a tithe from it to the church. In other ways, the church strayed into more worrisome territory. Howard says adherents are encouraged not to contact family members, a claim seconded by other critics. "Just forget about them," she remembers being told. "God will put them back into your life when you need them."
Eventually, Hopkins and Howard decided to leave. Church leaders were incensed, Tina Howard says, berating her in front of the congregation when Hopkins was absent--a "mental whipping" that she says was intended to change her mind. Then pastors made separate entreaties to them asking each to stay and leave the other behind, Howard says. Eventually, the church allowed them to depart.
Back on the streets, Hopkins and Howard have mixed feelings about their experience. Hopkins believes the church fleeces its members, but he nevertheless sees benefits for the most forlorn crack heads. "What they're doing at the ministry," he says, "is 100 percent better than what they were doing on the streets killing themselves." Howard has a harsher view. "They want complete control of your mind and body," she says angrily. "It was like Jonestown. The only thing missing was the Kool-Aid."
Hopkins and Howard are not alone in their complaints, which have followed the Deeper Life ministry across the nation. Little did they realize when they entered the church that they had stumbled on an operation that descended into notoriety three years ago in December 1997, when undercover investigators in Tampa, Florida, found a narcissist-led church rife with food-stamp fraud and a "cult-like" environment where dissent isn't tolerated.
Yet four convictions of church pastors and members, plus a first-of-its-kind conviction for Deeper Life's mother church in Tampa, didn't end odd dealings and divinity claims. It appears that what Tampa authorities drove underground has risen with missionary zeal throughout the South and Southeast, from Durham, North Carolina, to New Orleans and Dallas, as the church scrambles to re-establish revenue streams blocked by Tampa authorities.
With two beachheads in Dallas, the ministry has targeted people so unfortunate that many of them actually enjoy being taken advantage of--folks being told they must give their money to be cured of all that ails them, including terminal disease and sexual preference. Ex-members interviewed by the Dallas Observer report experiencing intense psychological coercion, pressure to cut ties with family members, and pressure to turn over some possessions and government checks by church leaders. The church itself, they assert, is nothing more than a moneymaking scam, complete with members carrying white buckets on Dallas street corners asking for donations. It's a front for a man, they say, who believes not only that his cause is righteous but that he himself is divine. In all, they assert, it's the perfect picture of a church as cult, taking advantage of those who have lost all hope.
Meanwhile, Dallas authorities have taken little notice of Deeper Life's two local churches, each of which counts about 30 or fewer members and one of which completely lacks building permits and may be operating as a homeless shelter illegally. "It's a con," says Clora Hogan, publisher of Endless Choices, a small paper for the homeless that first reported on the ministry locally. "We need more shelter for the homeless, but not if they're taking their money and brainwashing them."
Hogan is also infuriated by the lack of action by city officials. "I don't know whether it's inept employees or it's a general attitude that these are homeless people, so who cares," she says. "What they don't realize is, the city's being scammed."
Elginnina Mathis, pastor of Deeper Life's Oak Cliff mission, strongly denies the charges made against the church and that Hopkins and Howard were never separately pressured to stay. "We invited them in, fed them, and clothed them, but they did not like the rules," she says. "Their anger is without a cause, and I got 30 people who can testify the same thing."
Mathis' stance is indicative of the position taken by Deeper Life's current members--that the church simply offers tough religious love to those who need and want help. But Tonio Wilson, a 31-year-old homeless man with HIV, is another ex-member with a bitterly negative view of Deeper Life. He left an AIDS treatment program with high hopes after church pastors promised him free room and board--not to mention a God-given cure for his disease. Pastor Mathis confirms this, telling the Dallas Observer that Deeper Life's brand of faith healing cures AIDS and homosexuality and makes people with crippling conditions walk.
Wilson wanted desperately to believe that church pastors had cured him of AIDS. Now, Wilson resents the extravagant but empty promise the church made. "They told me I was cured, took my medicine, and threw it out," he says. "I got sick, and they told me it was God working on me. Well, I'm not cured, and I have less than 12 months to live."
The church also allegedly punishes members who fail to tithe as generously as higher-ups wish. (If this is true, the term "tithe"--to give 10 percent of one's earnings to the church--is obviously interpreted generously by Deeper Life.) After two months in the ministry, Wilson was kicked out during a trip to Deeper Life's Tampa church when he refused to fork over half of his $500 monthly Supplemental Security Income check. "They told me if I didn't give them half my money, they'd leave me in Florida," he says.
Worried about being stranded in unfamiliar territory, Wilson called the Dallas police to report his predicament. They ordered Deeper Life to drive him back to Dallas County. The church complied, but barely, leaving him at the county line without his possessions. These days, Wilson sees his two months as time served in a cult. "It's just like Jim Jones," he says. "[Church members] are penned up in there and never get to go nowhere." (Mathis responds, "The whole thing is a lie...straight from the pits of hell.")
Vikki Smith, a homeless woman who stayed only a week at Deeper Life, says she witnessed a better-off follower bequeathing her car and other possessions to the church, despite her husband's refusal to join up. "It's worse than Lew Sterrett [Justice Center]," says Smith, a crack addict who like other ex-members says her strong faith attracted her to the ministry. "You felt locked up, and you weren't allowed to walk out the front door."
The ministry has also drawn scrutiny for its fund-raising methods. For months, teams of 10 or more adherents a day have trolled for donations at Dallas' busiest intersections, becoming a familiar presence at the junctions of Oak Lawn and Lemmon, Preston and LBJ, Greenville and Lovers, and elsewhere. Dressed in ties or formless dresses and bearing large white buckets, they can rake in anywhere from $300 to $600 a person each day, according to Wilson, who helped work the streets after briefly earning church leaders' trust.
Dallas pastors admit that a significant amount of funds is wired to church headquarters. But there's a disturbing corollary to that: The cash is flowing to a church put on probation by a Florida court for rampant illegal activity. Tampa authorities prosecuted a massive fraud inquiry against Deeper Life's mother church, resulting in fraud and theft convictions of four church pastors and members--plus a first-of-its-kind Florida conviction of the church itself, which was put on five years' probation and ordered to pay $28,000 in fines.
Much of the controversy concerning Deeper Life centers on one man, church founder Bishop Melvin B. Jefferson. Pastors say they believe Jefferson is a prophet (they call him "God's man"), but several ex-members say Jefferson, a rehabilitated drug addict who for two decades has received veteran's benefits for schizophrenia, has actually claimed God-like status himself. "All of a sudden, everybody jumped out of their seats and said, 'He is Lord,'" says former member Vikki Smith.
Willie Williams, a 56-year-old homeless man, believes Jefferson and the church simply hoodwink people. He recalls having seen the same woman in a red dress miraculously shed her leg brace on two occasions--once on video and once in person--after Bishop Jefferson laid hands on her during a faith-healing session. "Boom, there it was, and I knew it was a fraud," he says. (Mathis confirms the video's existence.) He also objects to the ardent reverence devotees pay Jefferson. "They worship him as God," he says. "They praise him, they sing to him, they fall down to him."
Florida authorities began looking into church affairs when suburbanites reported a steady stream of cars and people wearing security ankle bracelets in transit to Jefferson's walled compound (or "stockade," as one officer called it). Jefferson's luxurious lifestyle led them to believe that more than Sunday worship was afoot, and a police sting was soon under way. First, workers at church-owned delis were caught on tape buying admittedly "stolen" sides of beef from undercover officers. Next, cops posing as offenders working off court-ordered community-service hours found church officials accepting food stamps as donations, credit for community-service hours, and payment in a church canteen.
The stamps were cashed at the Deeper Life-owned meat markets--a scam Tampa authorities say went on for two to three years and brought as much as $20,000 a month into church coffers. "It's a horrible thing," said Craig Clendinen, an assistant state attorney, of the stamps-for-service scheme. "Community service is an essential part of probation. It's a flat-out fraud on the court."
The revenue stream allowed Jefferson to live abundantly, with a fleet of vehicles in a fenced compound far from Deeper Life's hardscrabble neighborhood. On one occasion, Jefferson denied living lavishly; on another, he proclaimed that he was "God's man" and that "God's man is supposed to live good."
Sheriff's deputies also encountered the church's dictatorial side: One undercover cop was briefly detained against his will when he tried to leave the church for his normal life. He eventually talked his way out, but left certain that Deeper Life was no ordinary rehab joint. According to the Tampa Tribune, "Detectives painted a picture of a church that's run as a military installation...overseen by powerful leaders who forbid members from touching or even speaking to them without permission."
Deeper Life's rigid rules, one deputy said, might lead one "to believe it might be a cult." But they stopped short of branding Deeper Life as a cult--or even a church. "I don't think it's appropriate to say whether this is a real church or not," Clendinen said. "I can say there's criminal activity here. That's not normal church activity."
Ultimately, authorities lacked the means to prosecute such odd behavior, but they charged ahead with a fraud case. Under attack, Jefferson claimed a setup by authorities and unjust persecution. (Charges against him, but not his aides and church, were later dropped for lack of evidence.) "I took people off the street when no one else would take them," he thundered at a rally following his release. "I had judges backing me. I had city council backing me. But when I started doing a good job, they trumped these charges up on me."
The church's loss of illegal funding on its home turf seemed to inspire far-flung evangelism. Soon afterward, Deeper Life opened missions in Durham, North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; and elsewhere (Pastor Mathis counts 36 missions nationwide), spurring widespread complaints about roadway panhandling and other church-member behavior. One Durham newspaper columnist blasted Deeper Life with this headline: "No bleeding heart for these Florida hustlers."
Dallas' two churches are also generating controversy. Founded in August 1999, they've drawn angry complaints from Deeper Life dropouts ever since. So far, city officials have done little to question ministry workings. Homeless advocates worry about the treatment of homeless at the ministry, but another point of contention centers on Deeper Life's South Ervay Street location, a windowless structure possibly being used as a homeless shelter illegally because of a missed October deadline to meet city building codes. (Pastor Mariel Williams of the disputed location declined to speak with the Dallas Observer.)
The church's June 28 application for a permit was denied over questions of the building's use as a homeless shelter. "If they don't do anything in 120 days, we cancel the permits," explains Gene Akard, the city's code administrator. That window has expired, he admits; he says he's waiting for further word from his department's code compliance division.
In the heart of southern Dallas, in the back of a tired-looking shopping center on Lancaster Avenue, is Deeper Life Christian Church's East Oak Cliff mission. Nearly alone in a row of closed hairdressers and other vacant storefronts, the ministry sits amid a vast parking lot deteriorated nearly to rubble.
On an early-morning visit, a man introducing himself as a "minister" guides me into the church through a small foyer where a framed photo of Bishop Jefferson adorns the wall facing the door. (All adherents are called ministers here, a rule inspired by the New Testament verse 2 Corinthians 6:4--one of many precepts inspired by Bible passages.)
He guides me into the red-carpet-lined sanctuary. Inside, fewer than 10 adherents sit quietly in two rows comprising about 80 black plastic chairs, reading their Bibles. Large bouquets of flowers sit on pedestals adorning the altar, which appears to be covered with AstroTurf.
Gerald Anthony, a two-month church veteran wearing a navy blue tie, a light blue shirt, and white striped pants, walks back and forth in front of the altar reciting Bible verses, making periodic trips back to his chair to examine his Bible and study list. "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth," he says. Before reciting another verse, he announces its Bible location: "John, chapter 10, verses 17 and 18."
In the background a radio plays gospel music, and Anthony breaks into song as he paces energetically in front of the altar. "I want to say thank you," he sings softly as a female church member joins him.
After about 10 minutes, Pastor Elginnina Mathis, who leads the congregation with her husband, Charles, comes out of a back area. A short, 33-year-old woman from Tampa who claims to have followed Bishop Jefferson since she was 8, she walks slowly with the aid of crutches to a small desk in front of the altar. She says Jefferson's touch enabled her to walk again after an excruciating back injury; her husband is a former crack addict who joined the ministry and rehabilitated himself.
A Bible study class is scheduled for an hour. As the interview progresses, she turns it into a sermon, addressing the slowly growing congregation when answering questions. "What we're about," she says matter-of-factly, "is going out and reaching the outcasts of Israel."
The homeless need God's message the most, she says, because they are prisoners to drugs, prostitution, and alcohol. "We reach the lost souls that nobody else wants," she says with pride. "We go out and witness to them, and we let them know about God and God's word and how God don't want their life to be like that."
"You got a lot of churches," she continues, "that when the people come into their church, if they stink, they make them sit in the back of the church. When you come into Deeper Life church, you come in and sit in the front of the church."
Mathis takes pains to point out that her church (which meets city building codes) isn't a homeless shelter: Members are housed off-site in "Houses of David," small houses fixed up by the ministry. She believes Deeper Life does more than regular shelters to help people get back on their feet. "When you go to a homeless shelter," she says, "they're allowed to smoke there, they're allowed to drink there. Here you're not allowed to do any of those things. You're only allowed to live saved according to God's word."
Of course, there's the church's "book, chapter, and verse" focus on the Bible. But does Deeper Life cross the line from a helping hand to intimidation? Does it steal money from its members, and is the church in fact a cult? No, says Mathis. Citing scripture to buttress every action of her ministry, she defends taking money and possessions from new arrivals as needed measures to keep them from drugs. "How can you give someone who is killing themselves money in their hand?" she asks. "That's a loaded gun."
Does the church exploit the hopes of the sick and vulnerable by promising cures for AIDS? No, she's convinced Bishop Jefferson and pastors like herself can heal people "with full-blown AIDS" thanks to the power of the Gospels. Homosexuality is another church specialty. "We have lots of people who used to be fags," she says proudly, adding that the church has also cured many "bull-dykes." Even her husband used to "fag out," she says. (Admitting to past transgressions in front of the congregation is part of the regimen at Deeper Life.)
Asked why adherents cannot leave the building without another church member, she rattles off two Old Testament passages, Ecclesiastes 4:9 and 4:10, which read in part, "Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow." She swears she doesn't force members to hand over government checks, although tithing inspired by the deity is another matter. "I don't deal with food stamps," she says. "All that stuff is in the past."
What about pressuring adherents to cut ties with family? Usually, it's the relatives who have cut ties with Deeper Life members, she insists, simply because they're fed up with their hard-core addict kin. "The parents are mad when all the furniture is gone," she explains.
Finally, I ask Mathis why the church has generated so many questions compared with the average corner house of worship. With defiance and righteousness, she puts the blame squarely on a fallen angel. "Let me tell you something, and make sure you put this in there," she says hotly. "Ain't nobody mad but the devil." And Lucifer, she roars, doesn't want believers to spread the gospel and lift up the less fortunate.
The small congregation murmurs in approval as Mathis denounces Satan's hand and elaborates on this comparison. The drubbing Deeper Life has taken in Florida and elsewhere, she insists, is akin to the unjust jailing of Paul in the New Testament. "They're trying to stop the word of God," she says. "They tried to stone us for keeping people from breaking into houses. They tried to stone us because we ain't let the prostitute prostitute on the street no more."
With all eyes in the sanctuary focused on her, Elginnina Mathis waxes fervently about church founder and leader Bishop Melvin B. Jefferson. She says she has followed him for nearly three decades, since the days when he lacked his own church. "I've been with him since we didn't have anything," she says. "As a child I had to sit on the floor because we didn't have no pews."
Even then Jefferson, Mathis says, had a vision of a ministry for the destitute. "He's God's man," she says. "He does whatever God tells him to do. He's a prophet, an apostle, an evangelist, and a teacher." According to prosecutor Clendinen, he also has received full disability for schizophrenia for about two decades from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Mental illness didn't stop Jefferson from founding Deeper Life 18 years ago. Since the beginning, it has focused on turning society's losers into evangelists. According to a 1996 Tampa Tribune profile of the church written before the fraud investigation and convictions, it sits near an Interstate overpass on the corner of Nebraska Avenue and 25th Street, "an old brick church with broken stained-glass windows in the middle of one of Tampa's toughest neighborhoods."
The article, now ironic in light of Deeper Life's rap sheet, describes how Jefferson's followers sold nuts in front of grocery stores, repaired and sold used tires, and ran corner stores to keep their impoverished church open. "I've been asked many times how I do it," Jefferson said with pride. "Well, I don't do it. God does it. He finds a way to keep this place going."
It's improbable, however, that food-stamp fraud is divinely inspired. Nevertheless, Deeper Life has joined a long line of churches caught lining their pockets to the detriment of their congregations and enamored supporters. Despite pleas of poverty and a dilapidated church, authorities and neighbors reported, Jefferson lived in much grander fashion.
Neighbors recalled seeing truckloads of new furniture and two big-screen televisions being delivered to his walled home in suburban Brandon. They saw him chauffeured about in a stylish black Mercedes. They spotted a gray Dodge, blue Neon, white Ford Taurus, and Chevrolet van behind the compound walls. When questioned about his affluence by reporters, he retorted that he's "God's man" and that "God's man is supposed to live good." Later, he added: "I don't have a mansion. But after 25 years, I deserve something."
Do Jefferson's followers consider him a divine figure, as ex-members say? In enumerating Deeper Life's cult-like attributes, Lt. Jose Docobo of the Tampa sheriff's office pointed out that Jefferson was "quite clearly the power figure in the church...That was quite evident by attending the services. He sat there with an entourage and bodyguards. Members were prohibited from touching him."
Another Tampa Tribune article detailed the church's two-page list of rules, comparing it to regulations at a military boot camp. It commanded that all new converts must be on grounds for 30 days; after that, they must have escorts to leave the church, and only for appointments. Several rules pertained to Jefferson: Don't touch him "for any reason," don't approach him, don't call out to him or pass notes to him. And be sure to stay 8 feet away from the church gates when he's leaving.
Overall, the rules sternly disapproved of doing your own thing. "God honors obedience more than sacrifice," read one passage. "Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft."
The net effect: Members spend long hours panhandling on street corners for no pay. Family members report that their relatives at Deeper Life gradually isolate themselves until they become "more like strangers than kin," according to the Tribune. One mother said she didn't even know that Jefferson officiated at the marriage of her estranged daughter to another church member. Two daughters said their once loving mother would no longer speak to them because they disapproved of the church.
Despite all that, Jefferson, who didn't return calls for comment from the Dallas Observer, bristles mightily at the "cult" label. Asked at a jailhouse news conference on December 18, 1997, whether he held people against their will, he let a crowd of 120 followers answer the question. "No!" they shouted in unison.
Bishop Jefferson sought to portray an embattled church under siege from capricious authorities who were perhaps even hostile to his Christian message. "This is not about food stamps," he told cheering supporters in January 1998, at a rally after he was released on bond. "If they can get me, you all are next."
Arrested alongside Jefferson by Tampa authorities on charges of food-stamp fraud, Jefferson aide and church pastor Brenda Lanier went further, threatening the wrath of God during her perp walk. "Watch God! Watch God!" she exclaimed as sheriff's deputies led her away. "God's going to judge everybody who came against us, you watch."
But Deeper Life Christian Church in Tampa wasn't living on a prayer--nor was it immaculate as the Virgin Mary. From September to November of the previous year, the church brought in $43,000 in illegal food-stamp receipts, laundered through two ministry-owned Suncoast Meat and Deli stores. If the church brought in $15,000 to $20,000 a month through such fraudulent means for two to three years, that's anywhere from $360,000 to $720,000 in the church collection plates.
Three Deeper Life pastors, Cary Fulks, Calvin Lanier, and Kenneth Lee, pleaded guilty to food-stamp fraud and were sentenced to three years' probation. Deli worker Edward Don Jefferson pleaded guilty to one count of dealing in stolen property, also receiving three years' probation. The church pleaded guilty as an entity to food-stamp trafficking and accepting stolen property and was fined $28,000 plus the cost of the investigation. Still serving five years' probation, the church could lose its corporate status and suffer other sanctions if it doesn't abide by terms of the sanction.
Charges against Jefferson and Brenda Lanier were eventually dropped, much to the consternation of prosecutors and sheriff's officials. Local authorities in Tampa say they have received inquiries about Deeper Life from across the country as the ministry's reach has spread.
Just returned from a monthly roundup of Deeper Life churches held in Kentucky, Pastor Elginnina Mathis introduces me to her congregation, mostly newer recruits who have called Deeper Life home for anywhere from a few weeks to two months. About 15 congregants have arrived; with beatific expressions illuminating their gaunt faces, they recount similar tales of their journeys from ruin to restoration. All gathered have been promised that if they stay at Deeper Life, they will eventually get their own church.
Gerald Anthony, the 31-year-old man who earlier recited Bible passages aloud, touts Deeper Life as the best rehab place in town--better than Alcoholics Anonymous. "I lived under bridges, stole, went in and out of jail, and was disobedient. Once I got a check, I went to get the dope. I was lost in sin, but God had mercy" by guiding him here, he says.
Donald Lee, another "minister" and Army veteran who says he's kicked powerful heroin and crack addictions since arriving at Deeper Life a month earlier, says he's been cured of painful back problems by Bishop Jefferson. "I feel so much better, and I like waking up knowing I'm going to make it," he says. "The Bishop said I'm fit to be a preacher one of these days."
Other ministers extol the church's chapter-and-verse approach to behavior modification. "Each time I get upset, they teach you to go to your verses," says Thurston Bridges, a Detroit native who denies using hard drugs but admits addictions to marijuana and beer. To curb his anger when church rules get in the way of instincts, he immediately remembers Hebrews 13:1, which reads simply: "Let brotherly love continue."
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It works, he says: "That's what I need to keep saying in my brain to stay out of trouble."
Deeper Life's biggest critic doubts that the ministry does the incredible job of rehabilitation that it claims, pointing to a growing gaggle of disenchanted ex-members. "There are a lot of programs that can help you, and you don't have to sign over your assets," says Clora Hogan, the Endless Choices publisher and a volunteer at the Stewpot, a downtown soup kitchen run by First Presbyterian Church.
Some ex-members say Deeper Life members surreptitiously do drugs when higher-ups aren't paying attention. Sierra Johnson, a 49-year-old homeless woman who briefly lived at Deeper Life and recounts endless afternoons and nights devoted to Bible study, says many adherents don't like it there but lack the will to leave on their own. "They're stuck," she says.
Mathis will hear none of it. She can't help those who don't want to join the glorious kingdom. "We are operating through Jesus himself," she says with quiet, unshakable conviction. "Yes, sir, we are growing. By leaps and bounds."