Tampa -- Pastor Joseph Bush is thankful for his life. After moving to Tampa from New Orleans more than 2 1/2 years ago, he's married now and has a 10-month-old son.
"I've been through it all,'' said Bush, dressed in a bright blue suit coat. "I've lived the life of Riley, and I've lived homeless. But I've never lived free until I found God.
"Now, I know how to live as a godly man.''
Bush credits that to the Tampa- based Deeper Life Christian Church Inc.
The church, also known as Deeper Life Ministries, held its "5th Sunday Extravaganza'' at the Tampa Convention Center on Sunday. The event drew thousands of members and pastors from the ministry's 38 churches in Florida; Detroit; Memphis, Tenn.; Fort Worth, Texas; Louisiana; New Mexico; and elsewhere.
Of African, European, Hispanic and Asian descent, they filled a convention center ballroom, singing holy Scripture, shouting praises to God, reconnecting with old friends and family, and seeking prayer and healing for more than three hours.
Men in red, orange and silver zoot-suitlike outfits and women in flowing dresses, some in hats and others in skirt-suits, also praised the work of Melvin B. Jefferson, who founded Deeper Life in 1980.
"You're going to be powerful people when you leave here today,'' Jefferson told the throng. "You're not that old man on crack cocaine. You're not that old woman who worked on the street.''
But the church has its own dark history.
Jefferson, five other pastors and Deeper Life Ministries, as a corporation, were charged in a $20,000-a-month food stamp fraud case in 1997 and 1998.
Charges against Jefferson, known to his followers as "The Bishop," and one of his pastors were dropped. The other pastors pleaded guilty and were placed on probation.
The church was convicted of a felony arising from the scheme and was ordered to pay $28,000 in fines and investigative costs.
In November, armed robbers broke into Jefferson's 8,400-square-foot Brandon home while he was away. The robbers tied up nine adults and fled with cash and jewelry. No arrests have been made.
Earlier this year, a robber entered a Nebraska Avenue tire shop owned by Deeper Life Ministries and shot and killed Willie Bryant Jr., a 20-year church member and father of seven.
And in June, church member Solomon Bostick, 14, died when a church van flipped returning from Fort Lauderdale. The church has denied that the 15 people packed into the van and its driver, Abdoulaye Diakhate, were on one of Deeper Life's many fundraising outings.
Jefferson later ordered Diakhate out of Deeper Life Ministries for disagreeing with the church about the incident, telling Diakhate he had "joined the devil.''
On Sunday, Jefferson, as light splashed off a large ring and his watch, invoked the devil again, urging parishioners to not allow the devil to keep them from parting with their cash during the service's second offering.
"Don't let the devil trick you,'' he said. "Let God bless you.''
After asking for a $100 sacrificial offering from everyone, $50, $25, then $5, Jefferson said God told him someone should give $1,000.
"It's going to take everything you've got, but God is going to bless you because it's a sacrifice,'' he said. "It's going to wipe you out, but that's the way God wants you.''
The church directs its efforts at "the outcast'' of our society, Bush said. The homeless and poor. The drug-addicted and prostitutes. The church is about changing lives, he said.
"Stop letting your mind kill you,'' Jefferson implored his vast congregation Sunday. "Hold up your Bibles. That Bible in your hand is your new mind.''
The throng erupted in applause, stomping, amens and hallelujahs.