Since becoming a writer for Crime In Charlotte .com, I’ve had crime on my mind. I’m constantly listening to the police scanner or on the lookout for “wanted people”. I think twice before walking up to the ATM machine in the dark, convenience stores seem like havens for general thuggery and I have contemplated purchasing “THE CLUB” to stop car thieves from driving off in my mini-van. I’ve kept my son a little closer to me and I check in on him while he’s sleeping a little more often – just to make sure no one has snatched him from his bed in the middle of the night. But this is Holy Week – and quite frankly, I’m having trouble concentrating on the arrest reports!
The kinds of crimes we report are sometimes scary, sometimes violent or sad. It seems like money – or at least the love of it – can make a criminal out of anybody. The crimes seem to be desperate attempts to get more, gain something, control someone or destroy people or property. Many times the crimes are driven by hate, greed or fueled by drugs, mental issues or an appetite for revenge. Every crime leaves trails of victims and loss and hurt and destruction. It’s all so senseless and cruel and the more I hear the more I wonder “what is wrong with people?! It seems like the whole world has gone mad!” But then I think about Jesus. And for every criminal who’s ever committed one of the crimes we’ve reported, there’s forgiveness. He loves the unlovable, He fixes the broken, He forgives the unforgivable. God Restores. Suddenly I don’t feel that far off from the criminals we write about. We’ve ‘all sinned’ and fallen well short of the Glory of God – Romans 3:23
But let’s get back to some crime! A notorious, Charlotte Crime….
I might be giving away my age here – (44 in October) – but if you grew up in Charlotte in the 70’s and 80’s like I did you have no doubt heard of The PTL Club and Heritage USA. The founder, Jim Bakker was a hugely successful televangelist who built the PTL Club into a massive television network, Christian resort and theme park which attracted almost as many people as the Disney Kingdoms. His ministry started humbly enough as he and his wife Tammy Faye Bakker put together a variety type program that included singers, lots of guests and even a cast of puppets. That children’s puppet show quickly grew out of its little studio out on Park Road in Charlotte and headed south to Fort Mill, South Carolina. In no time, it seems, the fledgling PTL Club was a 130 million dollar per year enterprise.
Let me write you to from personal experience. Heritage USA was a spectacular place! I had a chance to go there on several occasions with my family or friends for camping, the passion plays or the massive water park. Their Christmas light displays were as good Christmas lights could get. We waited in a line that stretched for miles down I-77 for the drive-through holiday show. Heritage was as wholesome as a place could be, clean, friendly and beautiful. There wasn’t a burned out light bulb, a scrap of trash lying around or anything at all that wasn’t manicured beautifully. It was cared for. The people who worked there loved it and took pride in their workplace. The people who visited there have fond and happy memories of the place before the, well … the fall.
At least around these parts, when you mention “Jim Bakker” you still get a response. People either loved the guy or they hated him. He was either a crooked, money-grubbing predator hawking prosperity in the name of Jesus or he was a horribly misunderstood man of God who was crushed under a mound of temptations and then abandoned and used as a scapegoat for the ‘real’ evil-doers. Jim Bakker himself has said he was a little of both. (Just not exactly in those words!) I personally have mixed feelings about him as I thought he was a wonderful preacher. I had the opportunity to see him a few times. But on the other hand, I gave money to his ministry, not realizing at the time that my contribution would be grossly mishandled.
At the core of the PTL rise was a guy with a calling to plant a church and build a great place where the ‘church family’ could come and enjoy. He also wanted to use satellite broadcasts, TV stations and whatever other modern means he could to get the Gospel to the “uttermost parts of the earth”. He did exactly what he set out to do – and it was a good thing. But then …
1 Timothy 6:10 says, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” And I would say that about sums up one of the most notorious crimes in all of Charlotte’s history. Money – or the love of it – can make a crook out of anyone. The same money that built the place up tore it all back down. After a scandalous encounter with the church secretary, hush-money, cooking the books, large bonuses, “conspicuous consumption” and selling stuff they couldn’t promise, the Federal grand jury stepped in. Jim Bakker was indicted on 24 counts of mail fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy.
During his trial, the streets around the Charlotte courthouse were chaotic. Crowds of people lingered around, waving signs, trying to get on TV or even selling tee-shirts. They shouted obscenities at Bakker as he entered or left the building, one local radio morning show was absolutely relentless in persecuting him. The local newspaper did him in on a daily basis. Our once beloved, local church leader was all of a sudden the most hated man in America, it seemed. He received the full-force backlash of every I-Was-Hurt-By-A-Church person that ever lived. Even the judge, Robert Potter, made no real attempt to hide his disdain for Bakker. He threw the book at him – sentencing him to 45 years in a Federal Prison. And wouldn’t you know it, while he was serving hard time in a maximum security federal prison in cold Minnesota his wife left him and married the guy that constructed Heritage, his PTL ‘partners in crime’, if you will, turned their backs on him and he lost everything he ever had. Despite all of that, Jim Bakker wrote in his book, “I Was Wrong”, he was actually grateful for his time in prison, learning and admitting that his “prosperity gospel” preaching was wrong and has expressed remorse for ‘leading so many people astray’. He got back to his roots and he asked God to forgive him. And God did.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the guy owed a debt to society. He fell into the hands of greed and used the name of Jesus in his money-raising schemes, bilking little old ladies out of their savings by promising prosperity and favor. He and his wife and kids lived an extremely extravagant lifestyle, with gold-plated bathroom fixtures and air conditioned dog houses in their Tega Cay lake home while some answered-prayer-needing guy sent in his 10% of his fixed monthly income. He crushed the faith of a lot of people. He put a smudge on Christianity, if you will, giving the nay-sayers something to use as a reason to doubt ‘any’ church. I’m not here to judge the man or plead his case to you. None of that is for me to do. But here’s the thing … Even after all of that deception and crime, Christ dragged his cross up the hill to Calvary and died for Jim Bakker’s transgressions. Before the bars ever slammed shut behind him, his debt was paid.
Most of the buildings and grounds of Heritage USA sat empty and unprotected. Many fell into the hands of vandals and thieves, the unfinished Heritage Tower was damaged by Hurricane Hugo – and to this day has never been repaired. The water park has been scraped to the ground and the amphitheater is gone. The roof of the Barn collapsed into the building and the Upper Room was within days of being demolished. There are neighborhoods now sitting where the campgrounds used to be. Nature started reclaiming parking lots, sidewalk and wrought iron fences and thieves stripped miles of copper wiring out of every light post left standing. It wasn’t long before it was a long-forgotten thing of the past. But not for everyone.
Over the last 25 years, many people have still been very drawn to the place. Smaller churches have come in and bought a building or two. The Upper Room Chapel was spared from demolition and completely restored with monetary donations and volunteers. The Barn Auditorium, home of the old PTL studios, was remodeled and practically rebuilt from the roof down. It’s now called the Broadcast Group. And there’s still ‘church’ going on out there! MorningStar Ministries has the Heritage Grand Hotel alive and well with a church, conference center, a school and even a completely intact Main Street. I wandered around out there recently, taking pictures and being nosy. You can’t help but wish the place would just spring back to life. You also can’t help but feel the presence of the Lord. The place was carved out for good, and even in the wake of its near destruction I think of Romans 8:28 that says “All things work for the good of those called according to His purpose”. Defunct Christian Theme Park? You never know … He did say “all things”!
So what’s Jim Bakker been up to these days? After receiving a reduced sentence, he was released from prison in 1994. He met and married Lori Graham and they headed off to Branson, Missouri to start building a new ministry together. The new place is called Morningside. Albeit much smaller, the buildings, the studio and the sets look nearly identical to the old Heritage USA. There’s even a nearly exact replica “Main Street” with the same domed and lighted roof made to look like the blue sky. He’s back on TV, now also web-streaming, with the Jim Bakker Show. He seems to be doing ok. He’s not the raging success that he was ‘back in the day’ – but he probably doesn’t want to be. I get the feeling that he and God have hashed things out.
Back to the Scene of the Crime…..
Who says you can’t go home? After 25 years of starting over, rebuilding his life, polishing his tarnished reputation and trying to regain the trust of the scattered flock, Jim Bakker made his way back to the still-beating heart of his ministry. MorningStar Ministries, at what is now called Heritage International, hosted the “Restoration Celebration” this past February. Recognizing that God calls us to forgive and realizing the “restoration” and “Heritage USA” cannot be in the same sentence without inviting Jim Bakker to be a part of it, the church leaders reached out to him. Bakker accepted and spent a week reliving the past – the good parts of it, anyway – catching up with old friends, supporters and co-workers. He even taped his new show as he was graciously welcomed into the old studios by a good-sized crowd who came to see him again. He looked happy and at home and his message was simple … “God Restores”. He wasn’t talking about the old buildings or the lost grounds of the fading landmark, but himself – a fallen man, a sinner, a “wretch like me”. God restores the worst in us, He cleanses us and heals our wounds. He pours into us all that He has and loves us unconditionally. No matter the crime, no matter the sin, no matter how far down one goes – God Restores. Jim Bakker humbly standing in the middle of the PTL Studios in 2013 is proof God can and will restore.
In the middle of this Holy week and upcoming Easter Sunday, I wanted this article about “crime” to be a little something different for you. One way or another, I think we’ve all been somehow touched by crime. Whether victim or criminal, innocent bystander or good Samaritan on the scene of a crime, we don’t have to look very hard to find a story.
But the Holy Week and the Easter Season is all about the promise of Restoration. There’s hope in the Springtime – that the old is shed away so the new can come. If you’re in need of restoration yourself – it is right there for you! Reach out to someone in your family, maybe a counselor or someone at your church. You can even contact me through our website and I’ll be happy to share with you! Happy Easter from all of us at Crime in Charlotte (. com)! And now back to your regularly scheduled crime news…..
Jonna Bishop Bingham