His was a face that popped up, timidly, among the swirl of events nearly two decades ago that sunk the televangelism empire of Jim and Tammy Bakker, splitting their marriage and sending the father to jail.
For young Jay Bakker, the only son of the infamous couple, the collapse was more than frightening.
“It was terrifying,” he says. “We had to move out of our houses. We had to leave. My friends weren’t allowed to play with me anymore because usually their parents had worked for my parents.
And the people who had taken over my dad’s church said, “You can’t be seen with the Bakkers. You can’t be around them or anything.”
All the people who had glommed onto “The PTL Club” “to get their 15 minutes on the couch with my dad – I thought they were all these loving, great people – all of a sudden didn’t want to have anything to do with us either,” he says.
So Jay Bakker moved all over the country for a couple of years, only to cope with more pain – his father was sentenced to prison in 1989; his parents divorced in 1992. But notoriety followed him.
“Different schools, different things,” he recalls. “I would get in fights in school because I remember one guy asked me how my dad likes getting raped in prison.”
How did he get through it all?
“Well, lots of booze got me through it for a little while,” he says sardonically.
More recently, he started his own church called Revolution, which met in an Atlanta barroom with its own attitude. It’s the subject of a new documentary series, “One Punk Under God,” subtitled “The Prodigal Son of Jim and Tammy Faye,” starting Wednesday on the Sundance Channel.
Starting a church may be the last thing expected of Bakker, who was profoundly disillusioned by what happened to his parents.
“For a while, I thought God hated me, and the church hated me, seeing everything that my parents went through and going through prison,” Bakker says. “I left the ministry completely and didn’t want anything to do with Christianity or the church because I just felt judged all the time. I didn’t feel comfortable with God in my life.”
Eventually, he “started realizing that there’s so much more in the Bible about love and hope than there is about condemning and judging,” Bakker says. “It drove me to want to make a difference. ”
From the beginning, he knew he wanted to do something different from the traditional Christianity he had known.
“I think a lot of people hear `Christianity,’ and they think abortion, gays and Republicans,” Bakker says. “That’s not my brand of Christianity.”
His aim is “hanging out with people who might feel like they’re outcast,” he says, “and loving people where they’re at and trying to make a little bit of a difference in this world, trying to make people aware of what loving your neighbor is.”
And that might be as simple as “not buying sneakers made in a sweat shop,” he says. Or “trying to help Third World countries and looking at things where people are really suffering rather than these little hot-button issues.”
One dramatic arc in the six-part series has him alienating some of his financial backers by supporting gay marriage.
Reaction from his famous parents to his religion – and the documentary series – has been mixed. “My mom’s been all about it,” says Bakker. “She loves cameras.”
She has, after all, previously worked with the production team of World of Wonder before – first on the 2000 feature “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” then on the series last year that followed her initial diagnosis of cancer, “Tammy Faye: Death Defying.”
But, Bakker says, “my dad was a little stand-offish.”
In the series, young Bakker is seen leaving multiple messages to his father, who has remarried and has a new religious TV show broadcasting from a restaurant in Branson, Mo. Eventually, the two get together, but their emotional reunion is saved for TV cameras serving double duty: a very special episode of “The New Jim Bakker Show” and a turning point for “One Punk Under God.”
“He was a little worried,” the young Bakker says of his dad. “He was like, `You know, the church might not accept you.’ And I’m like, `Well, they really never have, Dad.'”
For one thing, the young Bakker, in his tattoos and piercings, looked more like a punk rock musician than any kind of pastor.
But what may scare away the traditional televangelism crowd tends to attract his own congregation of younger people looking for some spirituality and truth without the conventional trappings and prejudices of the traditional church.
None of his young congregants seems put off by the fall of “PTL” and the scandals of his family.
“A lot of the kids and the people I work with are too young to even remember my parents.” Bakker says. “You’ve got to remember, I was 11 years old when all that happened, and I’m 30 now. So, you know, I think the media really focuses more on that than anything.”
Indeed, one scene in the series, involving a radio interview with Bakker, shifts almost entirely toward the sins of the father.
For his own broadcasting plans, the prodigal son may try radio or podcasts. But mostly he will avoid the methods of his parents. Says Bakker: “I don’t ever see televangelism being in my future.”
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