FORT MILL, S.C., JUNE 11 -- As hundreds of largely adoring devotees sang hymns, shouted adoration and thrust gifts, a black Mercedes 450 sedan eased to a stop at the luxury Heritage Grand Hotel here today. One smoke-tinted window rolled down. A man's gold Rolex popped into view. Down came the other window. Long red fingernails appeared.
Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were back -- if only briefly -- to survey their lost kingdom occupied by rivals. Blowing kisses, waving to the crowd, they climbed from the back seat. "We love you!" shouted Jim Bakker.
It was a wild, festive homecoming to the sprawling, $129 million media ministry founded by the legendary defrocked televangelist and his well-coifed wife. And though it lasted but a moment, it brought a new level of drama to the Bakkers' bizarre saga of sex, sin and salvation, ending their six-month exile in Palm Springs, Calif., with a surprise visit here this afternoon.
"If Jerry Falwell lets us, we're going to come back, but otherwise, we are going to start a new ministry," said Jim Bakker, perched on the Mercedes as microphones jousted for his words and the mob moved in. He appeared relaxed in slacks and a blue pin-striped shirt, open at the collar. Tammy, in her orange silk blouse, seemed a bit nervous as some fans, rushing from the hotel, got stuck in the revolving doors.
"We wanted to say goodbye to it all," said Bakker, who early this morning had vowed to return, if not to the PTL pulpit, to another undisclosed TV ministry within 30 days. He would not be coming back here, he said today, "unless Reverend Jerry Falwell changes his mind."
Tonight, Bakkermania played on, as Tammy Faye appeared at an evening service inside the cavernous chapel called The Barn, on the grounds of Heritage USA, the Christian resort they founded here. Some worshipers protested the media invasion and urged that reporters be thrown out. But Warren Marcus, Falwell's new TV chief, instead was contemplating ejecting the object of so much attention. "The partners are upset," Marcus said.
Some enthusiasts likened Jim Bakker's return to Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode a donkey back into Jerusalem. "It's a miracle," said Shirley Kohner, pressing a small music box on the Bakkers.
Not everyone was bearing palm fronds. There was little enthusiasm from most PTL employes serving Falwell, the man Bakker asked to step in last March and whom he now accuses of having stolen his ministry -- a charge Falwell has ridiculed. To news that Bakker planned to resume his television ministry within 30 days, Falwell said Wednesday, "He must have plans. I hope things work out for him." And Falwell added, "It can't happen here."
Some PTL officials, who have accused the Bakkers of diverting millions of dollars in ministry funds to support an extravagant life style, today suggested that Jim Bakker was attempting another media coup, not unlike his defanging of Ted Koppel on ABC's "Nightline" two weeks ago. After tipping off loyalists of his imminent return last night, they said, he carefully staged today's drive-through for the cameras to inspire donations and sympathy for his TV rebirth.
"This is a guy who has learned how to use the media, how to stage things," said Jerry Nims, the new PTL chief executive officer. "That demonstration was not spontaneous. It was highly organized . . . to give himself a platform."
In his absence, some former loyalists had turned bitter. "There were mixed emotions," said Art Riggenhagen, 56, a hotel doorman in white uniform and epaulets. "I heard remarks like, 'I'll kill the so and so if I could get hold of him . . . I'll start with his fingers and work down to his legs.' "
He, too, was disappointed that Bakker gave him nary a nod. "There was not even a 'Hi, Art' or anything," he said shortly after the Mercedes drove away. "That kind of bugged me. At one time, I would have laid my life down for him."
But if nothing else, people here were amazed at Bakker's resilience. "This guy is like Rasputin," said one PTL employe who asked not to be identified. "He gets shot several times and his body is dumped in the river. Then he climbs back up and shows up at the banquet saying, 'What's for dinner?' "
The beaming evangelist and his misty-eyed wife flew into Charlotte, N.C., late Wednesday night, spoke to the press and roared off to their $400,000 parsonage on nearby Lake Wylie, where PTL under Bakker bought five lake-front homes. Their first known return to the empire they founded since Bakker stepped down came at a time when federal investigators were stepping up their probe of allegations of mail fraud, wire fraud and tax evasion during Bakker's reign at PTL, which stands for Praise the Lord and People That Love.
Only two weeks ago, they received an eviction notice from PTL's new management, directing them to clear out personal possessions within the next 20 days. Officials have said the home will be sold to help pay the ministry's debt, now estimated at about $70 million; the Bakkers insist the home is theirs -- a gift from the former board.
"They're here not to create a problem for PTL but to take care of their personal business," said Don Hardister, a PTL security man assigned to guard the Bakkers, outside the cedar-shingled home bought, say PTL officials, with charitable donations. Hardister stood in the shadow of rotating cameras and Chinese parapets, a walkie-talkie and a .38 on his hip.
Almost six months ago, the Bakkers left here for what was to have been a long weekend at their vacation home in Gatlinburg, Tenn. "It was some long weekend," said Hardister today. Then Tammy Faye's dependency on prescription drugs surfaced and she enrolled in the Betty Ford Center. Bakker resigned from his ministry after confessing the payment of $265,000 in hush money to silence Jessica Hahn, a former church secretary with whom he had had a sexual encounter in 1980, and the couple settled in their $600,000 Palm Springs home.
After Falwell took over, there were new disclosures: that the Bakkers had secretly collected $4.9 million in salaries and bonuses since 1984, bought Rolls-Royces and Mercedes with ministry funds. He was defrocked by the Assemblies of God, the church that ordained him, for his tryst with Hahn and for "alleged bisexual activities."
Except for a brief airport tussle when Tammy Bakker grabbed the microphone of a local TV reporter who posed questions about such matters, the past appeared to have been long since buried by the Bakkers. "I'm going to do something I said I was going to do when I got home," said Tammy Bakker early this morning as she dropped to her knees here and kissed the pavement outside their home -- a scene captured by photographers and TV cameras.
Bakker vowed to make his comeback as a minister. Asked how that was possible in light of his defrocking, Tammy broke in. "We don't need a denomination to be a minister," she said. "Ministry is in the heart."
"My supporters, my partners, know how we minister," Bakker told The Charlotte Observer Wednesday. "We preach prosperity. We preach abundant life. Christ wished above all things that we prosper."
Early this morning, Bakker's family assembled at the house for an emotional, festive reunion. Norm Bakker, his older brother who works as a greeter at the "PTL Club" television program, formerly "The Jim and Tammy Show," called it a "joyous" moment, filled with crying and laughing and prayer. Jim Bakker hugged his 17-year-old daughter, Tammy Sue, recently wed to a PTL lifeguard. He read from Scripture. There was no anger. "Jim has never been bitter," Norm Bakker said.
In the predawn darkness, their son, Jamie Charles, 11, rode his skateboard about the steep driveway that swoops down to the lake as friends and fans dropped by. "He's tickled to death to be home," said Hardister. "This is where all his little friends are. He's anxious to see his buddies."
Then it was off to bed and a sunrise that greeted the Bakkers with a throng of reporters and TV cameras behind barricades outside their home -- the stakeout had moved east. The Bakkers rose late, napped later and greeted friends who drove out. "If he's got all those millions they say he has, why don't they find them?" said close friend Howard (Happy) Goodman, 65, a 300-pound Grammy-winning gospel singer. "I dare 'em to find them."
Added his wife Vestal: "I went into Tammy's closet and said, 'Tammy Faye, where have you got those furs hid?' We laughed. 'They're not here.' "
Among the visitors today was William Thompson, a Greenville, S.C., businessman whose brother Jim owns four gospel TV stations. He wants the Bakkers to endorse a string of "total living centers" aimed at restoring fallen ministers and other lost souls to meaningful lives. The project, Thompson said, would require $10 million he hoped Jim Bakker might help raise to buy a condo-hotel development at Hilton Head, S.C., as a headquarters and get the ball rolling.
"We hope he'll have a hand in it," he said.
But Hardister said it was just one of many pitches he'd screened in recent weeks, then passed on to Bakker. "It's too early" for a decision, he said. "Bakker's a dreamer. He just has to hear how these things sound."
Their stay here could last "maybe three days, maybe three weeks, as long as it takes to settle what they've got to settle," Hardister said.
Suddenly, a TV crew's radio crackled: "They're on the dock. They're climbing into a boat . . ."
And the chase was on as a TV chopper followed the boat to a deserted cove, where the Bakkers climbed into a three-car caravan and roared down a two-lane blacktop. One car peeled off, taking a car filled with reporters on a wild goose chase, as the Bakkers headed home to survey their past domain.
"This was a very exciting moment," said Neil Eskelin, the official PTL spokesman who now serves new masters. "It's a free country . . . We've invited everyone to come visit. If I had given birth to Heritage USA, and been away six months, I'd want to come back and see it."
"This is like his baby," added Linda Ivey, Eskelin's deputy. "Would you have come all this way and not stopped in to see your children."