Nashville minister-turned-thief works to rebuild his life

September 14, 2002, Saturday, BC cycle
Nashville minister-turned-thief works to rebuild his life

BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., Associated Press Writer

SECTION: State and Regional

LENGTH: 1118 words

DATELINE: BRENTWOOD, Tenn.

For 38 years, David Slater starred in his own success story.

As a country music singer, he won $100,000 on “Star Search” and recorded two albums for Capitol Records. As a Church of Christ preacher, he gained fellow ministers’ respect and an affluent flock’s adoration.

In the script he wrote for himself, Slater could do no wrong.

But last year, the plot took a shocking twist when police in this Nashville suburb caught Slater stealing cash and credit cards from unlocked cars at a YMCA.

Now, “Preacher Man,” as fellow inmates dubbed him, works to rebuild his life and explain what went wrong for a man whose father published church songbooks and whose grandfather wrote the hymn “Walking Alone at Eve.”

“I succumbed to a weakness,” Slater said. “I crossed a line I never really thought I could cross.”

Slater’s first performance came at age 9 when his mother made him a sequined Elvis outfit. Later, at a Christian high school in Dallas, he developed a passion for singing and playing guitar.

“David learned as a child that the way he was loved was to be on stage,” said Joe Beam, a friend and mentor who leads Family Dynamics, an interdenominational marriage ministry.

Slater’s passion eventually took him to Lipscomb University in Nashville. “I didn’t know anybody,” he recalled. “I just had a dream of being a country music singer.”

After the 23-year-old put together a band, his career – not to mention his love life – blossomed.

While working at a restaurant, he waited on a young woman from Alabama, Melony Robinson, who had moved to Music City to attend an interior design school. Asked what attracted her to her future husband, she said, “When I heard him sing.”

The couple married in 1988. Soon, Slater had a tour bus and two Top 40 hits – “The Other Guy” and “I’m Still Your Fool.” He opened for Waylon Jennings and the Oak Ridge Boys; he spent a year as a backup singer for Mel Tillis in Branson, Mo.

But he grew weary of the music business and decided to pursue a higher calling.

He took graduate courses in the Bible and was hired as youth and family minister at a Montgomery, Ala., church. A few years later, he returned to Nashville as associate minister at the 3,000-member Madison Church of Christ.

In 1998, the 500-member West End Church of Christ in Nashville hired him as pulpit minister.

The Slaters’ children, Griffin, then 5, and Lily, 2, were eating lunch in July of last year when Melony saw police officers walking up the driveway.

“I guess my first thought was that something had happened to David, that he had been hurt or killed,” she said.

The actual news was just as jarring. Her husband was in jail for stealing and using other people’s credit cards to buy food and gasoline.

“Tell me this isn’t true,” Melony begged as she grabbed one officer’s shoulders.

But it was true. Slater had admitted the crimes.

“Once he was caught, he was fairly forthcoming,” said prosecutor Derek Smith. “That was after months of burglarizing vehicles.”

Undercover police had started watching the parking lot and arrested Slater after videotaping him taking items from unlocked cars.

“It felt so unreal to me,” Slater said. “But I think I wanted it to happen. The times I did my stealing, I did it in broad daylight in the same parking lot every time.”

He pleaded guilty in April to 25 charges, including auto burglary, theft and forgery, and received a four-year sentence. Under the terms of his plea agreement, his sentence was suspended after he served 90 days, which he completed in July. He remains on probation for five years.

After a year of counseling and contemplative jail time, the 39-year-old Slater still finds it hard to explain.

This much is known: The Slaters were wrestling with $100,000 in debt, much of which stemmed from music industry ventures. He made what he called a respectable salary but in retrospect said they lived in a house and drove cars they couldn’t afford.

At times, the couple used credit cards to pay utility bills or buy groceries. The stress weighed on Slater, who said his bank account was $800 in the hole and his gasoline tank on empty the day he stole for the first time.

“I knew there were things that David was going through personally that he wasn’t sharing,” Melony said.

But rather than deal with their financial problems, the Slaters ignored them. Slater refused to discuss his anxieties with anyone, including close friends. As long as the Slaters looked OK, they convinced themselves they were OK.

“It still sounds impossible that someone would do something not only so morally wrong but so stupid and opposite and backward of what you’d expect,” Slater said.

Scripture talks about a sinner’s thinking becoming futile.

“My thinking was messed up,” he said.

Fellow Nashville minister Rubel Shelly, the first person to visit Slater in jail, hugged him and looked past his orange jumpsuit. Shelly’s Woodmont Hills Church of Christ paid for psychiatric counseling for Slater, and marriage and financial counseling for the family.

The West End church, meanwhile, didn’t excuse David’s sin but supported the Slaters – financially and otherwise – paying his salary and health benefits for nine months after his arrest.

“I guess it never occurred to us to react in any other way,” church elder Winston Fish said. “That’s what we think Jesus would do.”

The Slaters remain members at the church, which has hired a new minister.

For her part, Melony forgave David and said she hopes God can use their experience to benefit others.

“Nothing would give me greater joy than to be the couple that gets the phone call in the middle of the night to say, ‘There’s a family that needs to talk to you,”‘ she said.

Slater now works with Beam’s Brentwood-based ministry, which trains couples nationwide to lead marriage enrichment courses.

Beam, who lost a preaching job in 1983 because of his alcoholism, said he hired Slater to give him the second chance that others gave him.

“My wife divorced me and I lived like a heathen for three years,” said Beam, 53. “I finally got my life back together, by the grace of God, and convinced my wife to remarry me.”

He said Slater once asked him, “Do you trust me?”

“I said, ‘Yes, but I’m going to watch every move you make.”‘

At a recent gospel meeting in Texas, Beam preached and Slater sang. Things seem right again.

“But what does the Bible say?” Slater said. ‘”If a man thinks he stands, let him take heed unless he falls.’

“Every day, I need to get up and say, ‘Lord, help me today to be your man.”‘