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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 into disgrace?

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 in Charlotte.

"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 people."

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 publishing company.

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 about $15.

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 Louis Farrakhan.

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," he said.

 

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 good wallpaper-hangar."

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 objected publicly.

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 victims.

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 or president."

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/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

 

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