Bakker to preach from Branson

Evangelist puts criminal past behind him and prepares national broadcast.

Springfield News-Leader/September 11, 2002
By Kathryn Buckstaff

Branson -- More than a few careers have been revived in Branson.

Now, fallen televangelist Jim Bakker has come to town to start what he projects will be a nationally syndicated broadcast ministry, pumped onto the airwaves live from a studio in a restaurant. Bakker moved to Branson two weeks ago. In an interview with the News-Leader Tuesday, he said he is only weeks away from launching his show.

The 62-year-old Bakker is building a TV set in the former Cowboy Cafe. He will co-host the daily, hourlong talk show with his wife, ordained minister Lori Graham Bakker, Christian celebrities, musical guests and a live band.

Bakker's show is tentatively scheduled for the lunch hour. He said broadcast audience members could eat and witness to their faith at the same time.

Springfield's Churchill Coffee Company will operate the restaurant. A trial sign for the renamed Studio City Cafe touts "Friends, Fun, Food and Faith."

"I've dreamed for years of more 'reality TV,'" said Bakker who first hit the airways with his PTL Ministries in the 1970s. "I believe the Gospel is true reality."

Branson supporters, both newfound and those dating to Bakker's scandal-riddled PTL Ministries, are financing and encouraging the move.

Bakker, a former Assembly of God minister, is not affiliated with any denomination. He returned to Christian evangelism upon his release from federal prison in 1995 and began working with a ministry in Los Angeles. Thirteen years ago he was convicted of mail and wire fraud. Recently, he has operated out of Vernon, Fla., where he founded another independent ministry, New Covenant Fellowship.

Bakker and his wife, who also has a troubled past, make their failures a feature of their current preaching.

"We serve a God of the second chance," Jim Bakker said. "We're about restoration. We're not coming to say, 'Be like us.' "

Bakker said he has commitments to air the programs on TV stations in several cities -- including Atlanta, Philadelphia and Nashville.

"Many are my dear old friends, giving me a chance to broadcast all over the country," he said.

Bakker, who has been a featured speaker for Revival Fires Ministry's Campmeetings in Branson, has already found friends here. Branson developer Jerry Crawford said he offered the building as a ministry center because Bakker touched his heart years ago during hard times.

Because the center will offer nondenominational activities, volunteers from several area churches were there Tuesday painting and remodeling. Volunteers from local churches also unpacked the Bakkers' furniture before Lori Bakker arrived with the seven children the couple are raising.

"Branson is known for its strong family and religious values," said businessman and Alderman Ron Huff. "For Jim Bakker or anyone else trying to get their life put back together, Branson is probably a good choice. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt. We do that for lots of folks."

Past Follows

Fifteen years after founding the PTL Ministries, Bakker resigned in 1987 while admitting to a tryst with a ministry secretary. His troubles continued to mount, and in 1989, Bakker was convicted of a wire and mail-fraud scheme over the sale of more than 150,000 lifetime partnerships to his ministry's Heritage USA theme park in Fort Mill, S.C. Other ministry officials also were convicted in the case.

Two years later, Bakker's 45-year sentence was reduced to 18 years. He served five years before his parole. While in prison, his former wife, Tammy Faye Bakker, divorced him.

Bakker's credentials as an ordained minister were withdrawn in 1987, said Juleen Turnage, spokesperson for Assemblies of God International in Springfield.

Bakker said people still bring up his problems, but most have forgiven him.

"I'm sure there are some people out there who haven't," he said. "But God has restored me. I'm not asking people to trust me. This isn't about trust. This is about restoration for anyone who's blown it, who's made mistakes."

Audience Here

Bakker said some of his supporters are among the 8 million tourists who come to Branson each year. Some of those visitors also came to his South Carolina theme park before it closed.

"I meet those people here now," he said. "This now is a vacation destination where a family can come and not run into the bad influences they might encounter somewhere else."

The staff of the New Covenant Fellowship has already sent word of Bakker's upcoming return to television to people on the PTL Ministries' old mailing list, he said. Before making the move to Branson, sought the advice of retired TV evangelist Cecil Todd, founder of Revival Fires Ministries.

Its twice-yearly camp meetings bring thousands of people to Branson and pack the 4,000-seat Grand Palace, generating millions of dollars for worldwide missionary programs.

"I told him, 'Branson would put you ahead by 10 years because the Christian foundation is here, and people are already coming here,' " Todd said.

The Christian market is important for Branson, said Claudia Vecchio, spokeswoman for the Branson-Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. Each year, chamber representatives attend the national conference of religious conferences, "one of Branson's key markets."

Bob Ramey, director of Stonecroft Conference Center in Hollister,said his organization hosts thousands of Christians each year. Ramey said the center, founded in 1981, is booked three years in advance and has a waiting list.

"Generally, the Christian conference market is always growing," Ramey said. "The economy doesn't affect it, 9-11 didn't affect it."

A Second Chance

Jim Bakker readily admits he once was a troubled man. The title of his autobiography says it succinctly: "I Was Wrong."

His wife also survived tough times.

She says she was a drug-abusing battered wife who had five abortions by the age of 21. But 13 years ago, she found God.

She met Bakker in an alley behind the Los Angeles Dream Center where she was ministering to troubled youth when Bakker showed up after his release from prison.

They married four years ago after a whirlwind seven-week courtship.

Her biography, published in 2000, is titled "More Than I Could Ever Ask."

The Bakkers have custody of seven children ranging in age from 5 to 13 who grew up in difficult circumstances and were befriended by the Bakkers during their work at the Dream Center.

Before his 1998 appearance at the Grand Palace, Bakker reflected on his life, moving from the lap of luxury to a prison cell to a single room at the Dream Center.

"You know," he said, "it used to take a million dollars every two days just so I could live. Now it's so much more awesome just to be loved by those kids."

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