EVANGELIST JIM BAKKER | Disgraced TV preacher finds new life, ministry in Branson
Second act a revelation
With a second wife, a small studio and a few fans, the PTL founder and ex-convict is starting over. “I believe in second chances,” he says.
The Kansas City Star
BRANSON | The small band strikes up “Highway to Heaven” and the audience gathers around lunch tables for hot dogs and chili.
“Make sure you are smiling and clapping really loud,” an announcer says to the three dozen adults and children at the Studio City Cafe on a quiet Branson side road.
The group obliges as Jim Bakker — that Jim Bakker, the televangelist whose wealth and fame collapsed in scandal in the 1980s — steps onto the studio set for his daily television show. He’s tanned and balding, dressed in a casual shirt, blue jeans and sandals.
“Thank you for stopping by,” Bakker says, beaming. “This is always the nicest group of people.”
Bakker, who settled in Branson three years ago, has quietly rebuilt a following and his life.
He and his second wife, Lori Graham Bakker, are hosts of the hourlong “Jim Bakker Show” on about 50 stations nationwide, including Kansas City. It recently started showing on DirecTV. The show will move to a larger location south of Branson in about six months.
“It’s a miracle what’s happened here, it’s an absolute miracle,” Bakker told his audience. “I said I never planned on going back on television.”
Branson, in the heart of the Bible Belt and a major family vacation destination, may seem like an unlikely fit for someone whose decline followed disclosures of infidelity and fraud.
Bakker said he was stunned at his acceptance and how stars such as Andy Williams and the Lennon Sisters invited him to their shows.
“Andy Williams had me stand up and take a bow,” Bakker said. “I was a disgraced minister.”
Bakker, 66, said he ended up in Branson because local developer Jerry Crawford invited him to town, bought a cafe to use as a studio and provided the Bakkers a house.
Crawford said Bakker’s ministry saved his marriage 20 years ago and he was convinced Bakker, who spent five years in prison on fraud charges, could still help people.
“I wanted to give other people the same opportunity we had,” Crawford said.
Bakker said he didn’t know much about Branson, except that it was a show town and he was inclined to avoid the limelight, given his history.
“No one said anything about the past, it was all, ‘We’re happy you are here,’?” Bakker said. “I think a lot of people in Branson have had brokenness. There is really a spiritual undertone to Branson.”
Bakker cuts a relatively low profile in Branson, not advertising his show or trying to compete with entertainers. He considers the cafe to also be a church and the show to be a service with prayer, music and religious messages.
Cafe walls are covered with framed paintings of Jesus, which Bakker signs and sells. There also are reminders that Bakker once traveled in powerful circles. Pictures of him with Presidents Reagan and Carter, along with presidential letters to him, decorate back hallways.
At the height of his success in the mid-1980s, Bakker’s empire included a South Carolina theme park and condominium resort called Heritage USA. He owned several luxury homes and a Rolls-Royce.
He founded the PTL Club with his then-wife, Tammy Faye Bakker. They created their own network, appealing to all denominations, as their show reached 13 million households.
Then came revelations that he had a sexual affair with church secretary Jessica Hahn and that his staff tried to buy her silence. Bakker later was convicted on federal charges that he sold, for $1,000 or more, Heritage resort weekend time shares that he could not provide, although a later class-action civil suit by buyers was tossed out.
Bakker said he has many regrets.
“So many people were hurt; there were 3,000 people who worked for me and their lives were impacted by it all,” he said.
Four years after he left prison, Bakker met Lori Graham at an urban ministry in Los Angeles. They married in 1998 and took into their care five Hispanic children, now 9 to 16. They adopted the two youngest children and have custody of the three others.
Lori Bakker, 48, says she is a former drug addict who had five abortions.
“We come here as examples of restoration,” her husband said before a recent show. “I don’t know about you, but I believe in second chances.”
Bakker said he runs his television show on a shoestring. Waiters and some of the show staff are volunteers. A free lunch is provided to the audience, though donations are accepted.
Bakker pitches jewelry, paintings, flashlights and other “love gifts” to keep his television show going. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Lori Bakker spent months devising a backpack of items useful in surviving a disaster.
“Get one for grandma, get one for your neighbor, or take this list and make one for yourself,” Jim Bakker said on the show. They ask for a $150 donation for the backpack.
Bakker is not hesitant to say the show needs money.
“We’re behind, we’re always behind, television is expensive, air time is the most expensive part of it,” Bakker said.
The show is operated by the New Covenant Fellowship, a ministry Bakker founded about 10 years ago. As a religious group, the foundation does not have to file public reports of its finances with the IRS. The Bakker family declined to say how much the fellowship raises annually.
“It’s not a moneymaker,” said Char Graham, Bakker’s mother-in-law, who helps oversee finances of the fellowship and show.
Newspaper reports in 2002 said Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker owed more than $3 million in back taxes and interest to the IRS, which could seize any assets he personally accumulates. Graham said Jim Bakker has made some payments on the debt but it could top $4 million by now.
The Bakker family, along with the show, will relocate in about six months to a housing and retail development called Morningside that Crawford is building in Blue Eye, Mo., about 25 miles southwest of Branson.
The new setting will have more space for the show and for more Bible study and teaching, Crawford said.
Bakker’s success in Branson is welcome to his followers.
Roy and Marilyn Paxson of Tulsa, Okla., lost two memberships at the PTL resort but still think enough of Bakker to have traveled to his show for their 54th wedding anniversary.
“Anytime a man falls from grace for whatever reason, it leaves a stench,” Roy Paxson said. But, he added, “If the Lord forgives him, so do I.”
ON THE AIR
The Jim Bakker Show can be seen at 9 a.m. weekdays on KPXE, Channel 50, in Kansas City.
Where are they now?
• Tammy Faye Bakker married former Heritage USA construction contractor Roe Messner in 1993, still lives in North Carolina and is fighting lung cancer.
• Jessica Hahn lives in Beverly Hills, Calif., with Ron Leavitt, co-creator of TV’s “Married…with Children.”