Saturday, April 25, 1998
Jim Bakker preaching a new version of the gospel
By Ken Garfield / Knight Ridder Newspapers
LOS ANGELES -- Jim Bakker is preaching a new version of the
gospel nine years after the old version landed him in jail.
Thirty pounds heavier, grayer, somewhat but not completely
repentant, the evangelist who built and destroyed the PTL empire
in Fort Mill, S.C., is beginning to regain the spotlight he once
commanded like few others in American religion.
Some Christian watchdogs doubt that Bakker has changed because
he won't admit he committed any crimes. But he insists his message
is different from the one that once captivated millions.
One day he's in his new home in Los Angeles, showing off the
sprawling inner-city ministry where he lives in a dorm room with
his son, Jamie, 22. The next he's back in Charlotte, N.C., his
old hometown, predicting the end of the world in a rambling sermon
in a nondescript office park.
He said he's volunteering with six ministries in all, including
talking with Green Bay Packers football star Reggie White about
establishing a program in Milwaukee.
In between speaking gigs from Nashville to Singapore to Australia,
Bakker is writing a second book, "Prosperity and the Coming
Apocalypse." His first, "I Was Wrong," sold more
than 100,000 copies. That was him on NBC's "Today" show
in November, helping hype a law professor's book about how Bakker
was railroaded by the media and criminal justice system. He preached
to the NFL's Packers before they pummeled the Carolina Panthers
last December in Charlotte.
PTL, once the Walt Disney World of Christianity, closed for
good on a drizzly Sunday in November. Tammy Faye Messner, his
ex-wife and TV sidekick, is reduced to making cameo appearances
on sitcoms and daytime TV talk shows. Jessica Hahn, with whom
he had a 15-minute extramarital encounter that helped bring it
all crashing down in 1987, has largely dropped from public view
after several years on cable TV and wise-guy morning radio shows.
And the guy who spent five years in jail for defrauding 116,000
PTL followers out of $158 million? The guy whose smiling face
and infamous saga transcended religion to become part of the American
pop culture? The guy who symbolizes the greed that drove televangelism
He's preaching, teaching, traveling and dreaming of touching
as many lives as he can. He's condemning one of the philosophies
he promoted at PTL -- that God wants you to amass material wealth.
He is back trying to show people through his own roller-coaster
life that God loves you no matter what.
Above all, he believes God wants him climbing that stage again.
"The only reason I'm back is the hand of God," Bakker,
58, said in his first interview with The Charlotte Observer in
more than a decade. "God forgives."
God may forgive. But the head of a group that monitors ministries
said the fate of Bakker's comeback rests with the public, not
with a higher power.
"Everyone has to decipher the difference between being
forgiving and gullible," said Paul Nelson of the Evangelical
Council for Financial Accountability in suburban Washington. "It
will be up to the public to make the judgment whether to receive
him or not."
Bakker laid low after his 1994 release from federal prison,
living in a rented farmhouse outside Hendersonville, 105 miles
west of Charlotte. His main foray into public view was to promote
his 1996 autobiography -- and even then it was more to autograph
copies than to rebuild a following.
In the past several months, though, he has been eager to spread
the key message of his new ministry: God's love can heal hurting
people. To hammer home the point in sermons, he constantly points
to himself as an example.
He says "Look at me" to amplify the second major
theme of his resurrected ministry: God doesn't care about how
much wealth a person accumulates.
An anti-prosperity gospel also jibes with the third major plank
of his new platform: This frantic, immoral world is in the last
days before Jesus returns. "Stuff isn't going to satisfy
in the days to come," he preached one recent Wednesday night
"If I had a desire," Bakker told The Charlotte Observer,
"it would be that I'm someone who is known for loving Jesus
Christ more than anything else. That I was able to take whatever
was thrown and come up with a gospel that was pure.
"I just wish I could be someone who encourages hurting
Bakker is having some success at making his wish come true.
He's treated like a hero at L.A. International Dream Center,
where he has volunteered to help transform an abandoned 1,600-room
hospital complex into a Christian center for addicts, gang members
and the poor. At a recent Sunday service, pastor Matthew Barnett
introduced Bakker to 900 worshipers as "an icon of encouragement
to this generation."
It doesn't hurt the fund-raising effort to have a celebrity
on board. The center, which typically ministers to more than 15,000
people a week -- through meals, Bible study and counseling --
needs at least $1 million to upgrade decaying buildings or the
city might shut it down. "He's even been on Larry King and
talked about it," gushed Barnett, 24.
Inside the church, the multiracial crowd cheered Bakker at
his place of honor in the front row. Outside, in the tough Echo
Park neighborhood, Eric Robinson reminisced about watching Jim
and Tammy on TV. At their peak, the Bakkers were seen in 13-1/2
million homes each day.
"I think the Lord's forgiven him for what he's done wrong,"
said Robinson, 44, a disabled man trying to quit living on the
streets. "We've all had failures. There's no need to hang
a cloud over him."
The same affection is echoed at MorningStar Fellowship in Charlotte,
where Bakker has preached several times to the Pentecostal charismatic
ministry. MorningStar includes a church, seminary and religious
Before relocating to Los Angeles -- he's getting a California
driver's license -- Bakker lived rent-free in a log cabin supplied
by MorningStar leader Rick Joyner. The MorningStar catalog lists
audio and video tapes of Bakker's sermons for $25 and $45. A video
of Bakker's New Year's Eve sermon, heard live by 1,500, goes for
One recent Wednesday night at MorningStar, Bakker began preaching
at 7:30 and didn't quit until after 10. The only time he stopped
was to show a one-hour film, "Fire From the Sky," on
how a giant asteroid may soon destroy the Earth. The Bakkers ran
a smooth, snappy TV show. On this night, it took 15 minutes to
get the movie going.
"Does anyone know where the light switches are in this
building?" he asked.
Bakker, though, didn't let anything slow him down -- not the
technical problems nor some 50 worshipers walking out. He preached
on and on in a blue denim work shirt and baggy brown pants --
from praising Jesus to musing about how the Chicago fire of 1871
might have been caused by a comet and not by Mrs. O'Leary's cow
kicking over a lantern.
He asked the congregation to yell out the names of false gods
that some people worship. Back came David Koresh, Jim Jones and
He said experts think the economy may crash by October. "What
will we do when a can of beans is worth more than a Rolls-Royce?"
he said. "It's going to happen."
He spoke of Jesus returning to pierce the darkness: "Heaven
will need no light. Jesus will be the light. The whole world is
going to see the coming of Jesus Christ."
He talked more about the second coming bringing peace to a
divided world: "We're about to be in a 1,000-year honeymoon
where the lion lies down with the lamb."
"Oh there's so much I want to tell you," he said
sometime around 10 p.m.
"Preach it," came a voice from a congregation that
had dwindled from 150 to less than 100.
For all his admirers' talk about Bakker being a changed man,
there remains some of the braggadocio that America remembers.
He still has big dreams. He still plans grand ventures. He's still
confident about all he can do for Christ.
You get the feeling over seven hours of conversation that he
still believes he can flash that smile, unleash that smooth patter
and will his way to most anything he wants.
Bakker won't rule out a return to TV preaching -- he said several
small Christian TV stations have made job offers, though he declined
to name names. He still feels he has the gift for TV: "I
helped pioneer Christian television."
If someone asks, he believes he could resurrect PTL, the 2,300-acre
religious complex that went out of business in November. The Bakkers
attracted 6 million visitors the last year they ran it, 1986.
The guy who developed the PTL water park, Heritage Grand Hotel
and Christmas lights display is sure he can make it work again,
as a full-service Christian retreat.
"I know the formula that made it a success before,"
MorningStar's Joyner said he and others have tried to talk
Bakker into helping buy back PTL from the Malaysian conglomerate.
Bakker said he'd only do it if people in Charlotte welcomed him.
"I'm not going anywhere where I'll be beat up again,"
he said. "There'd have to be peace for me to go back. If
God spoke to my heart and said, 'You need to help people, stand
with people, be a part of something,' I would pray about it."
Even while living at the abandoned Los Angeles hospital that
appears ready to crumble, Bakker still sees beyond the moment.
On a tour of the 10th floor, a visitor looked around and saw
cracked walls. Bakker looked around and envisioned a place that,
when renovated, will house preachers who need a place to rest.
He plans to call it The Restoration Floor. He'll live there and
run it. And though he said he's no longer interested in building
things, moments later he boasted of the transformation he intends
to make happen.
"Nobody in their right mind would want to take up a building
like this, in the shape that it's in," Bakker said. "God's
people, working together. It's an awesome thing. ... I'm a pretty
The thought of Bakker making a comeback frightens those who
wonder whether he has reformed.
The Trinity Foundation in Dallas, which investigates televangelists'
fund raising, is keeping its eye on Bakker, in part because of
some of his financial doings after prison. In April 1995, New
Covenant Fellowship -- the ministry Bakker and his daughter operate
-- offered for $100 a videotape of Bakker's eulogy for PTL colleague
Henry Harrison. The fund-raiser was stopped when Harrison's widow
Trinity co-founder Ole Anthony said his group is watching for
another reason: While Bakker rejects the opulent lifestyle that
was part of what got him in trouble, he won't admit to any crime.
Bakker made several promotional appearances with law professor
James Albert. The Albert book, "Jim Bakker: Miscarriage of
Justice" (Open Court, $17.95), blames a biased judge and
newspaper -- Robert Potter and The Charlotte Observer -- for the
conviction. While saying he gave up defense of himself in prison,
Bakker also said he never intended to sell more PTL time-shares
than were available.
"I never intended to defraud anyone in my life,"
Bakker said. "I never conspired to defraud anyone. ... I
never embezzled in my life. I would not embezzle. This case was
so, I think, confusing not only to the public but to the press."
Jim Bakker is one happy evangelist these days.
He's free of federal supervision. He is not required by the
criminal or civil courts to make restitution to any of his 116,000
He lost his Assemblies of God ordination in 1987. He said he
is now ordained by a smaller denomination he declined to name.
He lives and ministers alongside his son, Jamie, who calls
this the greatest time in his life, though he thinks often about
the life they led at PTL: "It was like your dad was the king
Their small two-room suite resembles a college dorm -- cramped
and messy. It used to be living quarters for the nuns who staffed
the hospital. He said they often stay up deep into the night,
reading the Bible together.
Bakker also works with his other child, Tammy Sue Chapman,
27, who kept the family's New Covenant Fellowship going while
he was in jail. Now she sings at some of his church meetings.
He lives on the $4,000 check he draws each month from New Covenant.
Honoraria from churches where he preaches go to the family ministry.
He said proceeds from book sales go to the lawyers and Internal
Revenue Service for taxes.
He drives a leased 1997 Jeep, leans toward baggy corduroy pants
and returns to PTL only to visit his elderly, ailing parents.
Jamie Bakker said it's not unusual for him and his dad to walk
down a street in Los Angeles and have someone come up and say
they remember watching him on TV with Barbara Walters.
Every once in a while, some TV show will revisit the Bakkers
and PTL. That was Jim and Tammy on "Entertainment Tonight"
not long ago, talking about what they did together a decade ago.
What he'll do from here on out, well, there's just no telling.
"I have a friend who calls me Rocky," Bakker said.
"He says I always come back."
(c) 1998, The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.).
Visit The Charlotte Observer on the World Wide Web at http://www.charlotte.com/
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