BLUE EYE, Mo. €” Forgive them for gawking. They were not expecting this.
“It’s a little like Disneyland,” one stunned visitor said.
“A miracle,” said another. “It is God’s work.”
They stood surrounded by a surreal indoor streetscape of Italianate store facades and condo balconies. A grand chapel sat at one end and a portico at the other, the entire scene playing out under a ceiling painted like a cloudless blue sky. It looked so real one woman decided to keep her coat on.
This was even more than Jim Bakker promised them. For months they had heard Bakker on his TV show touting his impending move here. Bakker, the disgraced TV minister of PTL-and-Tammy-Faye fame, said the day was coming when he would no longer broadcast his bare-bones show from inside a converted restaurant in nearby Branson, as he had for five years. He talked about moving to a sprawling complex being built for him as the new headquarters for his TV ministry, the heart of a 600-acre development named Morningside.
Now, on a chilly morning in late January, that day arrived. The debut of “The Jim Bakker Show” from Morningside was one hour away. Visitors poured in. Construction dust floated in the air. Backstage, Bakker waited. His shot at redemption approached.
It’s a stunning reversal of fortune for a man who fell so spectacularly in the late 1980s, when his $129 million-a-year religious empire crumbled; prison time and personal shame followed. A return to the airwaves seemed impossible.
Yet no one here tries hiding Bakker’s past. They acknowledge the striking similarities between Morningside and Heritage USA, a Christian theme park and resort in South Carolina that was the linchpin of the PTL empire. Bakker designed both, giving them the feel of dense European villages. Real estate, again, is part of the mission.
But this time will be different, Bakker’s supporters say. He has changed. Morningside will prove it. And inside these walls, at least, the doubters are few.
Visitors streamed in, and Darylene Howard eagerly greeted them.
“Welcome to Heritage!” she called out. She realized her mistake and laughed. “Oh my, I mean Morningside!”
Howard has been a fan of Bakker’s since his glory days with the Praise The Lord ministry. And she, like many people here, lost money when the PTL collapsed. She and her husband each paid $1,000 for “lifetime partnerships” granting them limited free lodging at Heritage USA. Bakker spent almost five years in prison for diverting millions in partner fees for personal use and promising more free lodging than the PTL ever could have provided.
Supporters remain loyal
But Howard dismissed Bakker’s conviction as “a miscarriage of justice.” And when a court settlement granted each of the 165,000 lifetime partners a check for a paltry $6.54, she and hundreds of others signed those checks over to Bakker in a show of support.
“There’s a lot of love left for Jim Bakker,” Howard said between greetings. “There is.”
Bakker could not have gotten this far without these supporters. They have forgiven him €” or argue his prosecution was unfair. Bakker has admitted that he made mistakes while heading the PTL Club, which at its peak claimed 13 million viewers on 180 television stations and 1,300 cable outlets across the nation. He even wrote a book titled, “I Was Wrong.” He has renounced the “prosperity gospel” he once preached. He proclaims a change of heart.
Beyond the front door, a woman sampled the pink Spikenard Magdalena hand cream being sold to support the ministry. Rubbing her hands, she remarked how excited she was to be here. But her husband was cautious.
“We invested our money with them and lost everything,” he grumbled.
“Oh, don’t say that!” she said.
“Well, we did.”
“I don’t feel that we lost anything,” she responded, walking ahead to find a table.
“Norma is head over heels on this thing,” he whispered as he followed behind. “I tell her, Tread easy.’ ”
More than 150 people sat at tables scattered in front of the show’s stage as Bakker bounded from behind the portico’s doors with his wife and children.
“Whoa!” Bakker shouted, laughing. “Hello, everybody!”
“Hello, everybody!” Lori Bakker said.
“Whoa! Thank you. What a great crowd!”
“Wow,” she said.
“What a moment!”
“This is awesome,” she said. “Awesome.”
“Wow,” he said, scanning the crowd. “Welcome to Morningside!”
Bakker is 69 now. He looks fit. His large head is smooth with TV pancake makeup. He is partially bald, the graying hair along the sides dyed brown. He sports small gold, rectangular eyeglasses. He wears blue jeans and a black T-shirt under a khaki blazer. He bears the informality popular with evangelical preachers today. The PTL suit and tie are long gone.
Lori Bakker plays his sidekick, a role once held by Jim Bakker’s first wife, Tammy Faye, whose heavy mascara and self-deprecating humor made her a pop culture icon before her death from cancer last year. Tammy Faye Bakker divorced Jim Bakker in 1992. Six years later he married Lori.
On stage, Lori seems to take her stylistic cues from Tammy Faye, with a leopard-print blazer, black pants and blouse with a strand of pearls dangling.
But fans of the show see differences between the two.
“This lady he’s got now, she’s not like Tammy,” said Dave Shaffer of Girard, Pa., a longtime fan who watched the PTL in the mid-1980s and drove to the taping with his wife. “I know Tammy loved the Lord and all, but she was €” what do you call it? €” flamboyant.”
A few minutes into the show, Lori Bakker turned to her husband.
“This is your dream,” she said. “You never stopped dreaming, and I want to thank you for not giving up on your dream. It would’ve been so easy to give up.”
They hug. The audience applauds. The show plugs along with a variety-show mixture of singers, guests and religion-flavored banter.
In the coming weeks, this episode will be beamed out across two satellite networks and 36 stations across the nation, plus one in Canada.
No claim of ownership
Bakker is too busy for interviews, his staff says. But in his debut show, Bakker acknowledged the interest in his return to the limelight.
“I don’t own this,” he said, gesturing to the building. “Don’t let anybody say I own this. There are reporters here, I understand. Don’t you say I own this.”
Almost nothing is held in his name these days. He has no registered ownership interest in Morningside. Bakker’s name is nowhere to be found on his church and TV show nonprofit registrations with the state. (They were registered by Lori Bakker’s mother, Charlene Graham.) The Bakkers rent a house in Branson. Public records show the Bakkers own two vehicles: a 2006 Dodge Durango and a 2006 Chrysler 300.
Bakker still owes the IRS more than $6.1 million, accumulated income taxes and penalties after his PTL ministry was stripped of its tax-exempt status, according to court records. He completed his federal parole in 1997, so there are no restrictions on his activities. The financial details of his church, including how much he earns, are not public record. His staff declined to provide that information.
Ole Anthony, founder of the Dallas-based nonprofit Trinity Foundation, which monitors TV ministers, said he is surprised to hear Bakker had been set up with a project such as Morningside. “All those people giving him money again,” Anthony said with wonder. “I hope they don’t get taken.”
Longtime backer behind it
The man behind Morningside is Jerry Crawford. Crawford credits a PTL seminar he attended in the 1980s with saving his marriage. He has supported Bakker ever since.
In 1987, after Bakker resigned as PTL chairman because of an affair with a church secretary, the ministry auctioned off the outlandish items accumulated under Bakker’s term, such as gold-plated bathroom fixtures. Crawford, a housing contractor then living in California, bid $4,500 for one of the most notorious items: the Bakkers’ air-conditioned doghouse. Crawford then donated it back to be resold.
Crawford kept tabs on Bakker for years, finally meeting him at a revival in Branson, where Crawford had moved. The Bakkers were living in Florida at the time, trying to develop property there. That deal fell apart. Crawford suggested they do something together. In 2003, Crawford bought a restaurant in Branson and bankrolled Bakker’s return to TV. They began talking about doing a bigger project together.
Crawford is a large man who cuts a gentleman cowboy figure, favoring cowboy boots, blue jeans, a blazer with leather shoulders and a Cadillac Escalade pickup. He says he is foremost a businessman. He brushes off any suggestion he is being suckered by Bakker. In fact, he said, he is using Bakker by making him Morningside’s main attraction.
Crawford estimated he has invested $25 million in the project. The development has its own sewer and water treatment plants. The main building, with the domed sky, is 200,000 square feet of mixed retail and housing. It holds 115 condos, going for $80,000 to $350,000. About 40 condos already have sold, Crawford said. He also is building single-family homes and small apartment buildings nearby; many are near completion. He hopes to have 2,000 families living here one day.
Crawford said the parallels between Morningside and Heritage USA are no accident. “It was modeled a whole lot on that. That model worked.”
Bakker is expected to move into a 2,500-square foot, three-bedroom condo just behind the portico. Crawford plans to sell it to Bakker at cost: about $250,000. Crawford said he wants the ministry to be supported by donations, paying its own rent on its 40,000 square feet inside the Morningside complex.
Harriette Hursh, a retired nursing director from Wisconsin, purchased a three-bedroom home at Morningside for $300,000. Hursh, 71, was attracted by the chance to live in a Christian community. She has faith things will work out.
“A lot of people said, Oh, you’re going to lose your money,'” she recalled. “I’ll trust God with that.”
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