Longform

True Disbelievers

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.

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Jonathan Fox
Contact: Jonathan Fox