Where’s the Money Going?

Where’s the Money Going?

Local pastor accuses ministries group of defrauding the public with its coin drops.

Members of a group conducting coin drops in Sterling to raise money for the needy have denied they are misleading the public. The solicitors say they represent a church with ties to Detroit and Tampa, Fla.

Ron Furgerson, Dulles Campus pastor of the New Life Christian Church, has accused the group of scamming Sterling drivers. "They are pretending to be from our church, and it’s just a misrepresentation," he said.

Elder Les, who spoke on behalf of the group, denied that motorists were told money was being collected on behalf of the New Life Christian Churches in Northern Virginia. He said Sunday that he represents a church of the same name in Detroit, Mich.

"We’re not out here to hustle people," said Les, 34, of Detroit. "We do good things with the money. We help people who don’t have anything, people who want to change their life to God."

Toting a gallon-size, white plastic bucket, he said he represented New Life Ministries outreach ministry, also known as New Life Christian Church. "Some of us was on drugs, crack and cocaine," he said. "We want to help people who helped us. A lot of people think it’s a cult. It isn’t a cult."

Les and two women, wearing ankle-length denim dresses, were at the intersection of Sterling Boulevard and Holly Avenue Sunday morning. Two deputy sheriffs advised them to discontinue the coin drop. Kraig Troxell, the Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said the group was violating a traffic code that prevented them from going into the road to approach the cars. "If they don’t make themselves a traffic hazard, if they stand in the median, that’s OK," he said.

A county ordinance exists regarding solicitation from house to house, but there is none applying to people asking for donations on the street, he added.

The Sheriff’s Office has not received any calls about fraud. "If someone complains about where the funds are going, that becomes a whole other issue. Then there is an investigation," Troxell said. "If he [Furgerson] believes that, then he needs to make a complaint."

FURGERSON RECENTLY wrote a letter to the Loudoun Connection, alerting the public to the situation. "New Life has not and will never engage in this or any other type of solicitation from the general public," he wrote. "It is suggested that persons who are approached by or contacted by persons posing as New Life solicitors contact their police and report the incident."

The pastor said he had not contacted police, because "I wasn’t the one that was directly approached."

The group, however, solicited some of his church members at the intersection of Sterling Boulevard and Route 28, he said. Furgerson said members of his congregation were surprised by the fabrication, because they do not participate in coin drops. "We don’t do stuff like that," he said. "We want people who are contributing their hard earned money to know where the money is going."

He said the New Life Christian Church and its ministries are funded solely by the contributions of its members and others associated with the church. He said his church has been serving Northern Virginia for the past 12 years, with campuses in Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William counties. "We’re a seeker, friendly independent Christian Church," he said. "We base our ministry on the teachings of the Bible."

IN AN INTERVIEW Sunday, after deputies advised the group to move on, Les said he and his peers have been conducting coin drops in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. The money is deposited in the Bank of America, transferred to the church in Michigan, and then dispersed to needy people in Virginia, he said. "We’re everywhere."

He provided a cell phone number for his pastor, Manuel Gonzalez, of the Detroit church. Gonzalez said the money is used to provide shelter and food for needy people in 38 churches throughout the United States, but it does not directly help Virginians. He said the church bought a building to use as shelter for the needy in Virginia, but it needs renovations. He also could not remember which town had the building in it. "We’re planning on opening 16 more churches this year," he said.

Les said Sunday was the first time the group had conducted a coin drive in Sterling. When it was pointed out that the women had in fact been at Sterling intersections several times, he said they might have.

Gonzalez verified the church had members conducting coin drops in the region. "That was the first time we were down there," he said, in reference to Sterling. When questioned about the accuracy of that statement, he revised his answer: "I don’t remember exactly when. I think we’ve been there three or four times."

He said the group always asks law enforcement authorities for permission before starting a coin drop. Troxell said people do not have to get a permit to conduct coin drops, so there would be no record as to whether the members had contacted the Sheriff’s Office.

Gonzalez said he could not specify how many people belong to New Life Church. "I bet we got way over, I can’t even say," he said. "I don’t know, maybe about 10,000, all homeless people. … We teach them book, chapter and verse. That’s the Bible, you know."

Gonzalez said he became a pastor after passing a test at the New Life ministry school in Tampa, Fla., but it took him longer than the traditional two years to complete his studies. The New Life Church was founded by Melvin Jefferson, a self-proclaimed bishop, in Tampa, and is a 501(3)c non-profit organization, he said.

Furgerson said ministers usually receive a minimum of four years seminary instruction before they become ordained. In his case, however, he was ordained by the church after being an active volunteer for 11 years. He was a special agent with the FBI for 24 years before retiring in 1993. "He could be legitimate, even without going to seminary," the pastor said of Gonzalez.

JEFFERSON’S TAMPA CHURCH has confronted many complaints about its operations. Craig Clendinen, who served as state’s attorney in Tampa until four years ago, said Tuesday he prosecuted the church and five of its leaders. They were convicted of food stamp fraud and receiving stolen property in 1999. "It is one of a few churches I know of, being a convicted felon," he said.

He said Jefferson called his house of worship the Deeper Life Church of Tampa, and later took on another name, the House of David Help Center. The church lost $30,000 to $40,000 in revenue when the food stamp fraud was discovered, and more money when the state shut down its meat shops, he said.

Clendinen, who is now in private practice with Bales & Weinstein in Tampa, said the church expanded the panhandling nationwide to replace the lost revenue. "They have buses, and they move them around," he said. "Some states make it illegal without proper registration."

Cleninden said the church earned a positive reputation when it first opened and started to help rehabilitate drug addicts. It owned car companies, meat stores and other businesses. But they had their members apply for food stamps and use them at the meat stores. "They weren’t buying food. They were just cashing them," he said. Police also caught them buying stolen meat, he added.

Cleninden said he does not have an answer as to whether the coin collection donations are used to help the needy. "The answer is, "Yes" and "No."

"Is some of it being used? The question is, ‘What percentage is being used?’ That’s the issue," he said. "Is it a Godly and wise use of your money to support a convicted felon?"

A receptionist at Deeper Life Church said the church serves as an umbrella for a lot of churches and it would be difficult to identify all of them. She said someone with authority would need to answer questions. A return call was not received in time for the Connection deadline.

Gonzalez described the church as a refuge for "castaways."

"We take in drug addicts, prostitutes and homosexuals," he said.

He said he was on crack and cocaine for 18 years. "I’ve been off it for nine years, going on 10," he said. "My wife was a prostitute. She has been clean for the past seven years."

His church has 38 apartments for the homeless at the church’s 6611 Maxwell Street address, he said. Donations from the coin drops help to pay for the mortgage and food and hotel rooms for the members involved in coin drops. "They don’t have homes there," he said. "I give them an allowance."

Both Les and Gonzalez denied using the money for any other purpose. "It’s not like we make thousands of dollars," Gonzalez said. "And we do get permission from the police station."

Furgerson cautioned motorists to question the bucket-toting solicitors. He said people have the right to expect organizations to be accountable.

Les said he only had one statement to make to Furgerson. "We love you anyway," he said.