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Televangelist Jim Bakker’s Road to Redemption

By Hanna Rosin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 11, 1999; Page C1


Jim Bakker with his well-read bible. (Liaison)
You can hardly spot them on the massive church stage in Upper Marlboro – he a subdued middle-aged man in a drab olive suit, she a pouf of blond hair balanced on spike heels. If they stand out at all, it is because they are the only white people on the program this night at Jericho City of Praise.

The church deacons make a few announcements, the choir sings, a gospel diva belts to perfection. Then the man in the olive suit waves, just waves his right hand to the crowd from his seat, and the rest is reduced to prologue.

Hardly does an announcer claim the "privilege to welcome Pastor Jim Bakker and his fine wife, a precious sister" before the crowd drowns him out with hoots and whistles and stomps, 1,000 screaming voices echoing off each other.

Within minutes, the people in the front rows – then middle – then back – spring to their feet. A tall, lanky woman keeps herself at the brink of fainting – jumping jerkily in the small space between seats, gripping her fists and rattling them around her head, then stopping every few seconds to lay a calming hand on her heart.

Another man bangs his briefcase against the seat and looks as if he might cry from excitement. A third lifts his frightened daughter in the air, over and over, till it looks as if she might cry, too.

There was a time when a scene like this would be common, when being in the presence of the Rev. Jim Bakker "was like being around a king," as his son recently put it. That was the glory time, before the five years in prison, before the sojourn in the desert.

Now here in Prince George's County, some semblance of that glory time has cycled back. Restored by those thousand amens, Bakker springs up and begins pacing the stage with the manic energy of the recently unshackled. His mere wordless, nervous presence so stirs the crowd that he skips the formalities, qualifiers, explanations and, as soon as they let him speak, jumps straight to the point.

"I feel like I've come home," he tells them. "For the first time in a decade, I feel like I've finally come home."

"Hallelujah," they say.

"O, Lord."

"We love you!"

"I've come back from the dead. They said you'd never hear from Jim Bakker again, that Jim Bakker was in the grave. That Jim Bakker was facing 45 years in prison. Well, tonight I'm back from prison, and I've got a message for this church burning in my heart."

And hundreds say "Amen!"


Jim Bakker, that televangelist fraud, is back? How can that be? Only five years out of prison and he's already peddling his apologies, dreaming of a return to fame and power, a sinner redeemed by the adoring crowd. Act 2, same as Act 1.

Yet that bit of easy punditry describes the end without the means. Most of America's famously disgraced, like Dick Morris or Marv Albert, have to self-start their own redemption, one small-market TV studio at a time. But Bakker, 59, toppled by a sex-and-money scandal in the late '80s, is being shepherded back to respectable society with plenty of help and support.

In his heyday, Bakker's following was a multiracial sampling of America. By the millions, whites and blacks, mostly Southerners, tuned in to his television show or flocked to his theme park in North Carolina. But in his revival, Bakker is focusing almost exclusively on black America.

In his tour of African American houses of worship across the country, from inner-city storefronts to glorious suburban mega-churches like Jericho City of Praise, Bakker's redemption over the last year counts as a phenomenon as authentic as it is bewildering.

And yet familiar. Bill Clinton, even George Wallace late in his life, benefited from the African American religious community's willingness to forgive. It is a cultural phenomenon perfectly portrayed in the movie "The Apostle," in which a Pentecostal preacher, played by Robert Duvall, with "wandering eyes and wicked, wicked ways" finds redemption in the moist eyes of a churchgoing black woman. She intuits the sin without mentioning it, then whispers comfortingly, "That's all right."

And the details of Bakker's renewal could easily fit that script. The events uncovered on March 19, 1986, gave this preacher much to be sorry for. That day he resigned from PTL (Praise the Lord, or People That Love) after admitting a seedy motel tryst with church secretary Jessica Hahn.

Within a month, everything he built would slip from his control: the $129 million nationwide TV ministry with tens of millions of viewers and Heritage USA in North Carolina, which was then the third most popular theme park in America.

Three years later Bakker landed in jail on 24 counts of fraud for bilking followers out of the $158‚million they spent on oversold time-share apartments at Heritage USA. As of yet, he hasn't paid any restitution.

From the first of his five years in prison, Bakker was indirectly involved in a kind of urgent, weepy fund-raising by mail, as his daughter sent letters updating supporters on Daddy's life in jail.

When he was released from a federal prison in Jesup, Ga., Bakker stayed at a rented farmhouse in Hendersonville, N.C., to write his autobiography. As soon as the book was finished and he was released from federal parole in October 1997, Bakker moved to the Los Angeles International Dream Center, a Christian home for addicts and gang members.

There he lived in a cramped and crumbling room with his son Jamie, 22, and received visiting reporters eager to chronicle his recovery. All the glowing articles about the new Jim Bakker mentioned his rough life in "the ghetto," including the cramped room.

That room served as a base for a national book tour, mostly in black churches. By last year, he had sold 100,000 copies of his autobiography. After a year and a half of Los Angeles penance, he returned this past June to North Carolina, the place where the empire started.

Now the story circles back on itself, as his new life takes on the trappings of his old one before the scandal. He has taken over New Covenant ministry from his daughter, using its letterhead to raise money, announce speaking engagements and publicize his second book and his work in prison ministry.

He's living a simple life in a "little log cabin," he announces coyly during the Jericho City sermon, by which he means a 17,000-square-foot home lent to him by a friend. He shares it with a new wife of less than a year who is the spitting image of his ex, Tammy Faye, except she is 17 years younger. ("I love you, honey," he coos from the stage.)

His future path, as he sees it, leads directly back to the glorious past. "I'll tell you a secret, but don't tell anybody," he says to the crowd. "My dear friend Reggie White" – a star defensive end for the Green Bay Packers and a Christian activist – "has offered to purchase Heritage USA and asked me to be a part of it."

The Mighty and the Fallen

And yet there is this other reality that blots out these cynical details. It is long after midnight, and the book-signing line snakes through the grand marble entryway of Jericho City. Still waiting are a group of older women, a Baltimore businessman, a defrocked preacher and about 30 others. Some remember "Reverend Jim" from his original TV show, while others know him from his recent preaching. All are African American.

One of them is his former cellmate at Jesup, Nathaniel Mathis, 32, now working at a telephone company, who showed up to wish his friend well. "I can relate so much to him – how he was stripped of everything," Mathis says. "Like Jim, I lost everything – 110 percent. But the Lord works in the lowest valleys."

Lawrence Drew and his friends are black men in their twenties, just out of prison on drug-related or similar charges. In four hours, they have to show up at a janitorial job for Manpower for Jesus, their halfway-house alternative. All are hopeful that their lives will soon change, and they look to Bakker for inspiration.

"Oh, sure. All of us can relate to him," says Drew, who has just paid $25 for Bakker's book and is waiting patiently to have it signed. "He's the underdog, and that's what we are – underdogs. He's real. He's very real. And now" – by which he means after the prison term – "I think he can be more powerful than he ever was."

Driven From the Garden

Before Jessica Hahn, before the Heritage scandal, there was Jim and Tammy Faye – he of the hangdog cheeks and cheesy smile, she of the gloppy mascara – chirping to millions of loyal viewers on the "PTL Show": "You can make it!"

Now those same cheeks sag beneath newly wizened eyes on the cover of his book, titled, in big block letters, "I WAS WRONG." The book contains a few tabloid shockers – his horror when Tammy Faye asked for a divorce after 33 years of marriage to wed his best friend, his memory of childhood abuse by a family friend. But mostly he wants to convey a spiritual message.

Bakker learned "more in prison than in Bible college," he says. He learned above all that the meek shall inherit the Earth, that his 40-room mansion and air-conditioned doghouse and 12 cars were part of an ungodly "arrogant lifestyle" – a realization he came to a few months after he was initially denied parole.

"I believed, the Bible said, above all, God wants you to prosper. Well, when I went to prison, I began to study the Bible and realize Jesus Christ didn't have anything good to say about money," he says in his sermon. "He called money 'the deceitfulness of riches.' He said, 'Woe unto the rich.'"

Bakker studied John 3 and discovered that "prosper" is made up of two Greek words meaning "good" and "road." John simply wished you a good road in life, not riches. "You can't serve both God and money," Bakker concludes.

In his Jericho City sermon he describes the exact moment of his epiphany, a story he calls his day in the pit of Hell. Speaking as if in a fugue state, he recalls vague and spooky details: a door opened, a madman singing la la la la la. At some point he looked down into possessed eyes and the door locked behind him. He was either in the insane asylum or in solitary confinement.

A man was dying in the next cell, a toilet was overflowing. "I had lost the will to live," he tells the crowd. "I had slipped into a corner of Hell. As I was going insane, a voice cried out at the split second I was leaving the world, it cried, 'Jim. I love you.'" At first he saw no one. Then a vision appeared at the door – a man with brown skin and brown eyes.

"I didn't know angels are black," he says. "I didn't know."

The Prodigal Husband

He had learned his lesson, he says, but after prison felt too timid and alone to spread it. Then at the Dream Center he met youth counselor Lori Beth Graham, a 41-year-old "angel" with a gift for ministry and a hard-times story of her own (abusive husband, five abortions). Together they began touring the country, spreading their soothing gospel: "God's love can heal hurting people." They were married last September.

A repentant sinner packaged for the confessional culture of the '90s, tan, fit and face-lifted, Bakker proudly waited his turn backstage on a recent "Geraldo" after a segment on the Tommy Lee-Pamela Anderson sex video and Patricia Masten ("Accuses Marv Albert of Biting Her").

Bakker hasn't quite mastered the '90s lingo, though. During his Jericho City sermon in April, he calls the founder of Microsoft "Jim Gates." When he remembers, he says "inner city." But most of the time he forgets and calls it "the ghetto," as in: "I found healing in the ghetto. Those people love me so much." Or as his wife puts it: "This is probably not PC. But out of all the races – white, Hispanic, Afro-American – the people of black race have been by far the kindest to Jim."

His words may seem dated, but Bakker has managed to make his journey thoroughly modern – the story of an American casualty, one man dragged through the system and beaten along the way.

In a self-help age, white churches have also perfected a sliding conception of sin. But in black churches that kind of forgiveness has developed an edge of defiance. The individual sin shrinks before the greater sin of a bloodthirsty world, and the community erects a wall of protection.

"When you see a person being done in by society, there is an unconscious tendency to say, 'Aha – society's done to him what they do to African Americans,'" says Larry Murphy, a professor of black religious history at Northwestern University in Illinois.

"You're making common cause against a common enemy, and in that sense there's a defiance. The thought is: 'They turned you out, but we're not going to turn you out.'"

This formulation works best when Bakker and his supporters ignore the fact that at the time of his crime, he was part of the system – a famous wealthy white man. Otherwise it requires some moral dexterity to explain why "society" turned on one of its own.

Many black churchgoers also support Bakker for nostalgic reasons. When African Americans migrated north, many left behind a favorite fire-and-brimstone Pentecostal minister. If their own minister didn't have the gift, they could hear it on TV and radio, from the mouths of people like Bakker. Many of the suburbanites who come to see him at places like Jericho City remember his voice from childhood.

David Cast, a Baltimore businessman, spent summers in North Carolina with his grandmother. She was a great fan of Bakker's because he reminded her of her old pastor. When Cast read in his church bulletin that Bakker was coming to town, he drove his wife, daughter and mother-in-law to Jericho City of Praise right after work for the experience. Cast lives a contented, comfortable life, yet Bakker's message still resonates.

"If a man is trying to drag himself out of the mud, no sense trying to push him back, is there?" he says.

Angels Dancing

That kind of endorsement confirms to Bakker that he is not guilty, at least not in the technical sense. When he says, "I was wrong," Bakker is confessing to those diffuse sins we are all guilty of – greed and gluttony, for instance – not the specific ones that landed him in prison.

"I take full responsibility for my moral failure and the fall of PTL, but I did not commit the crimes I have been accused of and am in prison for," he wrote while in jail to a high school friend who'd corresponded to say he had disappointed her. The letter "deeply hurt," Bakker writes in his book. "I had already apologized to the Christian community. . . . I honestly felt the only thing that would have satisfied some people that justice has been done would have been for me to die a horrible death or to commit suicide."

Now, Bakker mostly declines to defend himself in public, saying he promised God and his family he would never speak in his own defense.

If you press him, he gets cold and says he won't get into the facts. Or he might say that he admits he committed a sexual sin and the sin of "lifestyle," but "I never intended to defraud anyone in my life." Most likely he'll point to a book written by law professor James Albert called "Miscarriage of Justice" that claims Bakker was the victim of a biased judge and a jury of nonbelievers.

If the audience is really warm to him, he'll say, as he did at Jericho City: "I don't have to lift a finger."

Then, yelling:

"Vengeance is God's! Vengeance is God's! Vengeance is God's!"

The Trials of Jim

Physically, Bakker has returned to North Carolina. And now he is also going back spiritually and emotionally. He has surrounded himself with people who love him and believe passionately in his innocence. "Will you write this down?" pleads Lori Beth, waiting in the hallway of Jericho City for her husband to finish signing books.

"If there's one thing, and I mean this with all my heart: Jim Bakker is honest. He was never out to get any money. He was never out to make it big. He just wanted to build a place for people to fellowship.

"You know, you read things. You read, Jim Bakker the evangelist bilked people out of $150 million. Well, I'm so sick of that. Isn't there anything we can do to get that out? First of all, it's a lie. Second, that's not who he is. Nobody can judge a person except God. And Jim was put here for a reason. He's busy building a dream."

Her view is supported by Reggie White. "I don't believe God is going to allow Heritage to sit there dormant," he told a North Carolina paper. "That place was used to humiliate the body of Christ, and I think God is going to raise it back up to glorify Himself."

Tentative plans so far include a roller coaster ride through Heaven and Hell, a train through the Red Sea. White is negotiating with the Malaysian conglomerate that owns the site, and when the deal comes through he wants help from Bakker, whom he calls the "most sincere man I ever met in my life."

In the meantime, Bakker is re-creating his old extended family by mail, through the New Covenant Fellowship. Every month he updates supporters on the details of life in recovery, from the first post-divorce Christmas to the first time the grandkids saw "PawPaw Jim" after he got out of jail.

"I have been doing radio shows about the book almost daily," he wrote in his June letter, then reported that God recently told him 31 things about to happen on Earth. A card at the end offered 8-by-10 color prints of "Dad's Feathered Friends" – his favorite Canada geese – as well as prints called "Feed My Sheep" and "Momma." You could get all the prints for a special gift of $1,000.

Bakker's redemption narrative hangs on a striking analogy, perhaps two. When he is feeling modest, Bakker will compare his journey through the valley of Hell and back with that of one humble biblical character. He'll merely remind that crowd that his middle name is Orson. James Orson Bakker: JOB.

But if he's feeling bold, Bakker will summon the name of another man who was stripped of everything, held up to ridicule and ultimately redeemed.

"Christ had no reputation. He made Himself," Bakker says as he prepares, six hours after arriving, to close down the book signing at Jericho City. "I can go anywhere now. I'll leave it up to God to lead me."

Staff writer Hamil Harris contributed to this report.


© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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