Victory Life's discipline methods, fundraising criticized by former members
"A Hunt County-based Christian ministry aimed at helping drug addicts, alcoholics and the homeless turn their lives around has come under criticism from many former members, who say the organization’s punishment methods are excessive and their fund-raising methods are suspect.
But the center’s leadership and supporters counter that such methods are necessary when providing spiritual guidance to addicts.
Victory Life Ministry of Hunt County is run by Pastor Raymond Zifer, a self-proclaimed former drug addict himself who went through a similar program in Dallas, Victory Life Ministry of Dallas, run by Pastor Anthony Anderson.
“We have a nine month faith-based discipleship home,” Zifer said. “We bring in men and women struggling with alcohol or drug addiction or homeless and help them develop a personal, intimate relationship with the Lord and learn how to live a victorious Christian life.”
Zifer said this is accomplished through prayer and worship times, Bible Studies and discipleship program. But the facility does not employ the healthcare officials or trained counselors typically found in residential treatment programs.
Greenville resident Danny Draude is a former member of Victory Life. He eventually left the program and, like a dozen other former members, found help from the Greenville Salvation Army. Draude now has a full-time job and residence in Greenville after graduating from the Salvation Army’s shelter program.
“It’s like fishing,” Draude said of his experience at Victory Life. “You have the bait, the fish wants the bait, but the fish doesn’t know there’s a hook in the bait.”
The bait Draude is referring to is a roof over your head, three square meals a day and Christian instruction from Victory Life, according to Draude.
“It’s just a money-making scheme,” he said. “At first they are helping, providing a place and providing food, but at the same time they’re financially [benefiting], and they’re not giving back. When I went there, I didn’t have anything. I needed a place to go. After two years of helping them, and them helping me, I didn’t have [anything].”
Danny’s criticisms of Victory Life are common among the program’s ex-members. Complaints range from bizarre punishments for breaking strict program rules to a lack of an effective plan for graduating members from the program.
Banana Nut Bread
Victory Life is funded primarily by sending male members of the program to communities outside of Hunt County to share their testimonies and ask for donations. Small loaves of banana nut bread, which are baked in an industrial oven in Zifer’s house by members of the program, are given in return for a $5 donation. Members are given a quota each day, driven to locations outside of Hunt County and dropped off to raise money.
The pre-packaged bread does not contain information regarding ingredients, and the individuals preparing the bread do not have food-handler’s licenses, as they are not required to by Texas law. Zifer said his organization does not have a solicitation license, and equated the fund-raising program to a bake sale. He said the members raise money outside of Hunt County because many of them come to the program from outside of the county. But former member Johnny Mullins, who now works with the Salvation Army after having a fallout with Zifer, countered that Victory Life goes outside of Hunt County to maintain a low profile. He said members of the program selling banana nut bread have been “chased away” from areas in Greenville, Quinlan and Rockwall for solicitation.
“It’s effective for us in regards to teaching a guy to be trusted and to be able to be confident with sharing his testimony about what God has done in his life and spreading the word of Jesus Christ,” Zifer said.
However, rather than the elaborate bake sale described by Zifer, former Victory Life members described a complex operation that brought in hundreds of dollars a day in cash for the ministry that they claim is not completely distributed back into the ministry. Matthew Dollar, who was a member of Victory Life on several occasions, described a routine of baking hundreds of loaves of bread during the night, and sometimes fund-raising the next morning. He said the loaves cost between $0.50 and $0.75 a piece to make, and that Victory Life regularly raised between $500 and $1,000 a day.
Dollar described a trip to Shreveport with 700 loaves that he and a group of men from the program used to fund-raise more than $3,500. Mullins recounted a trip where he and several other men went to the Canton trade days and made $2,600 in three hours despite refusing to pay for a booth or vendor’s license.
“I hate it for them when the tax people come around,” Dollar said, adding that the ministry also draws food stamps. On the 990 form that Victory Life submits as a non-profit, the ministry claims to make less than $50,000 a year. Dollar estimated they take in hundreds of thousands per year.
The punishment, or “discipline” as its referred to at Victory Life, for breaking any of the rules varies from repeatedly writing down the same Bible verse to accomplishing menial tasks.
“When drug addicts come off the streets, they’re not going to want to follow the rules,” Danny said. “But the way they discipline is extreme in some areas. The last time, I was forced to be outside for three days, not able to shower. Food was brought to me, and I wasn’t allowed to come in [the building] or have contact with any people. I slept on the ground.”
Mullins talked about having to wash cars with toothbrushes and picking weeds from dawn to dusk for days on end.
“I’ve never seen the mental degradation and spiritual abuse that I saw with Raymond,” he said.
Other former members said they were disciplined for not selling their quota of bread.
“They put you on discipline for not meeting the quota of selling bread,” Bennie Burrow, who stayed at the facility three months, said. “You had to pick weeds for 12 hours and dig a six-foot hole for 12 hours straight. You had to scrub floors with a toothbrush.”
Burrow added when they finished digging the hole, they were told to fill it back in for the next person who was to be “disciplined.”
Although Zifer said he had no knowledge of people having to pick weeds for 12 hours, he did not deny some of the other disciplinary actions people said they were put through.
“There is discipline. There is going to be some sort of consequence,” he said, comparing Victory Life’s discipline process to when someone breaks the law. “It depends on the situation. We don’t go around abusing people.”
Some graduates of the program countered that the tough love is necessary to break the cycle of addiction. West Tawakoni resident Ted Snowden said he is a graduate of the program from August of 2013 to May of 2014. Although Victory Life was tough, Snowden said he needed the discipline in order to conquer his addiction.
“It wasn’t the easiest thing in my life, but I didn’t need easy,” he said, adding his punishments for disobedience varied depending on the situation. “I had to pick weeds before because I got out of line. I was out there a couple hours.”
Snowden said most of the time he just wrote scriptures as punishment, including Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, four to five times as punishment.
After graduating the program, Snowden said he began his own business and lives in West Tawakoni.
But while there are success stories, and while even disgruntled former members recount positive experiences at Victory Life, the program’s lack of professional instruction for its members, poor exit strategy and questionable fund-raising practices are topics consistently mentioned by almost all of the former members who spoke with the Herald-Banner. Many former members were quickly able to better their lives after leaving the program, many through help at the Salvation Army, demonstrates that many of these people are willing and capable of transforming their lives outside of Victory Life.
The men and women in the program are housed at separate locations in Hunt County. The program has run in to opposition from individuals living near to their locations, particularly one in West Tawakoni.
Zifer moved into a house on Holly Lake Drive in West Tawakoni in 2010 and his neighbors said he told them he was simply renovating the house. Zifer said he informed a former West Tawakoni Code Enforcement Officer of his plans to use the house as a multiple person dwelling, but did not elaborate on his intentions. He said he was told to “pack them in as deep as you can.”
Current West Tawakoni Code Enforcement Officer Dwayne Hall said that while the city does not have an ordinance on the books that specifies how many individuals can live in a building, the subdivision where Zifer’s house is located does have a rule against operating a business.
West Tawakoni Police Chief Brandon Kilpatrick conducted an investigation into Victory Life in 2011. He concluded that Zifer was running a business out of his property in West Tawakoni, located on Holly Lake Drive.
Jerry and Judy Nunnenkamp live across the street from Zifer, who recently built a three-story addition to the house. They said men, women and children have lived at the house over the past four years, and that they’ve seen as many as 15-20 at a time. They were worried the program might be housing sex offenders, drug addicts and alcoholics, and they requested a list of the inhabitants from Zifer in order to run background checks on the program members, but they said Zifer refused to give them one.
“They use those people for labor,” Judy said, indicating that at times the members chant loudly and stomp. “They are operating like a cult.”
Victory Life has a second building, which they use for their women’s ministry, in the Easy Living subdivision outside of Quinlan. A couple of years ago, they began leasing a church building on the I-30 frontage road near Jungle Burger, although their lease is up soon and has not been renewed. The men’s ministry was moved to that location. Greenville Fire Marshal Greg McDonald said he did sign off on a certificate of occupancy for the building recently.
A fourth property, called “The Farm,” is located somewhere near Canton, according to multiple former members. They say the program plans on moving to the Farm sometime in the near future.
Hunt County does not have a fire code, so it defaults to Texas regulations, according to Hunt County Building Inspector David Jones. The Hunt County Office of Homeland Security, where Jones works, inspects such buildings, but only on a complaint basis, due to its small staff size. In 2011, Jones inspected the Holly Drive facility, and noted that it lacked several attributes required of a residential building, namely exit doors that swung out for evacuation, panic hardware for the doors and a hard-wired smoke alarm system. Jones filed a report saying that within 60 days, Zifer installed the necessary items and the building was brought up to code, but for no more than six residents."