Members of a Florida-based church that pleaded guilty to fraud in 1999 have been seeking donations regularly at a Germantown intersection, raising concern for some area residents.
Deeper Life Christian Church, headquartered in Tampa, Fla., has been sending representatives at least weekly to solicit money from commuters at Route 118 and Middlebrook Road, according to community members.
On Friday afternoon, about a half dozen church members -- neatly clothed in long dresses, dress shirts and ties -- carried white, plastic buckets car-to-car advertising their mission of providing food, clothing and shelter to the homeless.
However, in a deal with prosecutors in June 1999, the church, also known as the House of David Help Center, pleaded guilty in Hillsborough County, Fla., to one count each of trafficking in food stamps and dealing in stolen property, according to the St. Petersburg Times.
Five ministers also pleaded guilty in the case, according to the Times.
A judge sentenced the church to five years probation, fined it $5,000 and required it to pay $21,710 for the cost of the investigation, according to the Times.
However, church founder Melvin B. Jefferson Sr., who is black, said the criminal investigation resulted from racism, according to the Times.
The church's Tampa office did not return a phone call seeking comment on the guilty pleas.
Church member Larry Darnell Jackson of Dallas, who stood in Germantown seeking donations Friday, said he wanted people to know they were not running a scam.
"What we're doing is nothing that we made up," he said. "You find what we do is commanded by God himself."
Jackson said the donations fund the church, which provides food, clothing and shelter to the poor; takes people out of harmful environments and breaks them of their negative lifestyles.
Fellow church member Diane Hoston of Baltimore, a former prostitute and drug addict, said all of the people asking for donations have been homeless and aided by the church.
As a form of stewardship, church members volunteer to raise money while the church provides their cost of living, Jackson said.
"We all share that in common that we needed help," said Jackson, who once worked as a pimp and has spent time in prison.
Hoston said the money also goes toward building satellite churches.
The group fund-raises in Germantown although the nearest affiliated church is in Roanoke, Va., because it hopes to expand to the area, Hoston said.
The church seeks donations across the country, including Alaska and California, according to the church's Tampa office.
Deeper Life currently has about 15 satellite churches in the United States with plans to add 15 more by January, according to the office. One of the new churches will be in Delaware, drawing people from Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
However, some community members believe that the church members do more harm than good for the local area.
Groups like Deeper Life Christian Church hurt churches trying to do legitimate work, said Bruce Johnson, senior pastor of Seneca Creek Community Church in Germantown and treasurer of the Germantown Alliance.
Johnson said many people who donate to Deeper Life believe their money will go directly toward helping local homeless people. The group should be clear that the money goes to the church instead, he said.
"The reality is, 'We're taking the money to help what we do,'" Johnson said of Deeper Life.
"There's nothing on their buckets that said the money is to plant a church," he said. "There is a lack of integrity in this."
Johnson said his church does not solicit money outside the church for its own use.
"There are ways someone can go about raising funds that are good and healthy, and there are ways that are unhealthy," he said.
Deeper Life church members seeking donations have raised eyebrows in Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Iowa among other places, according to news reports.
Church members soliciting money also have been spotted in other parts of the county, including Rockville.
Johnson said "as a community having in essence panhandling at the main intersection of your city" also has been aggravating.
Safety issues are also a concern, he said.
Police spokeswoman Lucille Baur said the 5th District police station in Germantown has received about a half dozen complaints over the last three months by people concerned that vehicles might injure the solicitors who often step into the roadway and approach cars.
Police have not received complaints alleging fraud, she said.
State transportation law prohibits people from standing in the roadway to solicit a ride, employment, business or funds from an occupant of any vehicle, Baur said.
Those who violate the law can receive a $50 fine, she said. However, people can solicit funds as long as they stand on the median strip, Baur said.
"They do start out standing on the median but when the light turns red they have to step off and walk between the cars, so that really is illegal," she said.
Baur said police primarily are concerned for the safety of drivers and the solicitors. However, enforcing the state law is difficult, she said.
"It's not easily accomplished because our officers arrive in a cruiser and as soon as they are spotted, [the solicitors] stay where they belong on the median strip," Baur said.
Former County Councilwoman Nancy H. Dacek introduced a bill in July 2002 that would bar people from soliciting or selling items in a travel lane, roadway median or intersection, or approaching a motor vehicle in a travel lane.
The bill was put on hold after some community members voiced concern in a September 2002 public hearing about the bill's potential impact on the county firefighters' annual Fill the Boot campaign for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.