Nashville minister, former country singer, tries to rebuild life after arrest

Posted: Friday, September 27, 2002

BRENTWOOD, Tenn. (AP) -- David Slater found success in two careers. 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 admiration.

But these days the 39-year-old Slater is trying to rebuild his life. Snowed under by debt, he was caught stealing cash and credit cards from unlocked cars at a YMCA in this Nashville suburb.

''I succumbed to a weakness,'' said Slater, whose father published church songbooks. ''I crossed a line I never really thought I could cross.''

Slater has been a performer since childhood: at age 9 his mother even 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 went to college in Nashville and, at 23, put together a band. His career soon blossomed with a couple of country 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 decided to move out of music and into ministry.

He took graduate courses on 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. To all outward appearances, Slater was successful in his calling.

But then came the day in July 2001 when Slater's wife, Melony, saw police officers walking up the driveway while the couple's two young children ate lunch.

The police delivered their news: Slater was in jail for stealing and using other people's credit cards to buy food and gasoline. ''Tell me this isn't true,'' Melony said, grabbing one officer's shoulders.

Prosecutor Derek Smith said Slater had been burglarizing vehicles for months. ''Once he was caught, he was fairly forthcoming,'' Smith said.

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 last April to 25 charges, including auto burglary, theft and forgery, and received a four-year sentence. Under the terms of his plea agreement, Slater's sentence was suspended after he served 90 days, which he completed in July (fellow inmates called him ''preacher man''). He remains on probation for five years.

Even after a year of counseling and his jail time, Slater still finds it hard to explain why he was stealing.

''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,'' he said.

This much is known: The Slaters were wrestling with $100,000 in debt, much of which stemmed from music industry ventures. Slater made what he called a respectable salary, but said -- in retrospect -- his family 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.

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 Slater forgave her husband and hopes they can counsel other couples in trouble.

Slater now works with Beam's Brentwood-based ministry, which trains couples nationwide to lead marriage enrichment courses. Beam lost a preaching job in 1983 because of alcoholism, and 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 Slater said he has no illusions about what he has to do. ''Every day, I need to get up and say, 'Lord, help me today to be your man.'''

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