Bakker Ministry Left Wake of Unfulfilled Projects, Promises
Last year, television evangelist Jim Bakker began a new crusade: to raise money for a home for handicapped children on the grounds of Heritage USA, his Christian family resort here. To make his appeal to viewers, Bakker introduced them to Kevin: a 17-year-old boy, victim of a rare bone disease, who has grown to a height of only 22 inches.
The home was dubbed “Kevin’s House.”
By all accounts, it was a highly effective fund-raising tactic for the founder of the PTL ministry. Money poured in for the home, and last July 4 it was ready at a cost of more than $1 million--a blue, gingerbread-style house with wheelchair ramps intended to house eight disabled children.
But like so many of Bakker’s projects, reality did not live up to the promise. Today, more than 10 months after it opened, the house has only five occupants: Kevin, his two sisters and his adoptive parents--who PTL executives recently discovered were Bakker’s cousins.
Agencies’ Files Searched
Bakker’s aides say they combed the files of local social service agencies and reviewed scores of applicants but couldn’t find any children that met their standards: handicapped and poor, but “ambulatory” and mentally alert.
Kevin’s House is an example of what some of Bakker’s former associates say were troubling flaws in his fund-raising methods. A star of television evangelism until he resigned this March after confessing adultery with a church secretary and payment of hush money, Bakker collected tens of millions of dollars from viewers after promising to use the money for ambitious “good works” projects--homes for unwed mothers and homeless men, counseling centers, foreign missions, a prison ministry and a nationwide network of “People That Love” centers that offered free food and clothing to the poor.
But, say former PTL executives, Bakker often overextended himself. Buffeted by repeated financial crises, he shifted and rearranged priorities, dropping projects he had once touted and leaving many of those who expected PTL funding out in the cold.
Last year, only 2.9% of PTL’s $129 million in revenues went to charitable programs, according to figures provided this week by PTL officials.
Praised by Reagan
During 1986, when Bakker and his wife were collecting $1.6 million in salaries and bonuses, PTL ceased funding most of its overseas missions in order to pay the bills at Heritage USA. Bakker also cut off support for the People That Love centers which three years ago President Reagan, during a speech at the National Religious Broadcasters convention, praised as being on the cutting edge of “volunteerism,” the administration’s alternatives to its social welfare cutbacks. “Bakker lost interest in it,” explains one ministry official.
“Bakker got very much missions-minded during a telethon because he knew . . . people would give more if you showed a hungry kid on the air,” Bob Manzano, a former PTL vice president, once told federal investigators. “I believe in many cases he was sincere in wanting to help, but he committed to too many things at one time . . . without being too concerned about how he was going to get the money to do it.”
“You have to ask, what is our philosophy? What is our stated purpose?” said the Rev. Sam Johnson, the pastor of Heritage Village Church and the former head of PTL’s home missions. “Is it to . . . put a blanket on the back of every homeless person in America? Mr. Bakker made a decision to put his greatest emphasis here on Heritage USA . . . a 21st-Century Christian retreat center for the family.”
But Johnson, who has known both the Bakkers since college and believes that they “have done an awful lot of good,” acknowledges that he has qualms about Bakker’s use of charitable programs to raise money for his ministry.
“What they started out to do 10 years ago and what they did 10 years later are really two different things,” he said.
$200,000 in Daily Mail
The lifeblood of Jim Bakker’s dream came from a small counting room inside the pyramid-shaped executive compound on the Heritage grounds. During the mid-1980s, the daily mail would sometimes bring in more than $200,000. Five employees cut open the envelopes and counted the take, and at 3 p.m. sharp, an armored car arrived to haul the cash away.
Bakker timed mail pleas to arrive the same day Social Security checks hit the streets, says an ex-staffer.
For those who gave, Bakker offered “a shower of blessings” and published a paperback devoted to letters from people who claimed to reap earthly dividends after dispatching cash to PTL. Some boasted winning lottery tickets. Others told of winning raises, new jobs, tax refunds, new cars, according to the book offered for sale here at a shop on the mall.
Troubled souls felt a kinship with the Bakkers, a seemingly ordinary couple whose real-life problems, marital spats and all, were aired live on TV as parables for modern living.
Often, older women Bakker affectionately called “Grandma Grunts” showed up at the studio, gifts in hand.
‘Something to the Ministry
“He didn’t have time for them,” said Jean Albuquerque, an ex-PTL greeter with a penchant for floppy hats. “I remember two spinsters in gingham dresses, hicks. No one would see them, so they asked me, ‘Will you come out to our car? We want to give something to the ministry.’ So I walked out, they lifted the trunk and there were 11 bars of silver! People gave us Hummels, furs, diamonds. . . . “
“I hear people say, ‘Jim is a genius,’ ” said Bob Gass, an Atlanta-based television evangelist and Bakker friend. “He is at one thing--fund raising. Bakker was a pioneer. But if there is anything wrong with the way any Christian evangelists raise money on TV, Jim Bakker is greatly responsible.”
Austin Miles, a former minister and frequent PTL guest, says he once feared that the ministry was about to collapse after watching Bakker plead for money. Miles remembers asking a PTL official, “ ‘How did you get over that financial crisis?’ Without changing expressions, he said, ‘Oh, there wasn’t really a crisis at all. We had money all along; it was just in another account. . . . It just gave people something to rally around.’ ”
The Bakkers’ combined salary was $72,800 in 1979, the last year it was officially disclosed. But Bakker had no trouble winning raises and bonuses that far exceeded this figure from the PTL board, some of whose members say they were not allowed to take documents from the meetings.
The money flowed through a confidential “executive account” controlled by Bakker and his top aide, David Taggart, and kept secret from PTL’s financial officers, according to Peter Bailey, the chief PTL financial officer.
By 1984, PTL’s attorney of 10 years, Edward Knox, then mayor of nearby Charlotte, N.C., learned of the secret executive payments. He says he protested, then resigned when they weren’t stopped. Last month, the Charlotte Observer disclosed the Bakkers’ real compensation: $4.6 million from 1984 through the first three months of this year.
The disclosures shocked many viewers and staffers who remember how the Bakkers defended themselves in the past against charges of high living. Weeks after the Bakkers bought their $449,000 Palm Springs, Calif., home, Bakker told viewers that he and Tammy had given nearly everything to a ministry facing yet another financial crunch. Said Tammy Bakker: “I have offered to sell everything I own because things really don’t mean that much when it comes to getting the gospel of Jesus Christ out.”
Meanwhile, pilgrims kept rolling through the gates of the 2,300-acre Heritage USA resort. They included people in wheelchairs and sick children, some on crutches. They would drop by the Upper Room, a replica of the one depicted in scenes of the Last Supper, open 24 hours a day for prayer and healing.
Homeless Show Up
Also showing up on Heritage’s doorsteps were the homeless and the jobless. Every week, say PTL officials, small groups of such down-on-their-luck visitors would arrive at the Charlotte bus depot, expecting to find shelter or work at Bakker’s Shangri-La.
“They’d have people coming out there who needed to be in the mental hospital,” said Knox, the former Charlotte mayor, who acknowledges that the city’s social service agencies would sometimes have to end up caring for such people.
“What we would do is send them down to the Salvation Army,” Sam Johnson said. “We’d give them some food money or we’d buy them a bus ticket back home.”
The problem was that Heritage’s highly touted social facilities--Fort Hope, a 125-bed drug and alcohol rehabilitation center for men, and Heritage House, a 24-bed home for unwed mothers--were not equipped to handle such visitors.
The strain became more acute early in January, when amid yet another financial crisis, Bakker ordered further cutbacks in these and other home missions. Unpaid bills piled up; the search for additional occupants for Kevin’s House was abandoned altogether.
Little more than a year earlier, in December, 1985, Johnson had come to PTL as “world missions director,” only to discover shortly thereafter that Bakker was eliminating virtually all of the ministry’s $1.8-million foreign missions program. “It was devastating,” Johnson said.
Johnson, however, also says that many of PTL’s foreign missions were not as effective as they could have been. Usually they consisted of little more than buying television time in foreign countries and then broadcasting PTL-type shows in the native language.
There was “no follow-up,” Johnson said, nor any relationship with local churches. “We never asked, ‘Hey, would you like to have a gospel program on television?’ ”
One of Bakker’s foreign “missions” had been in Monte Carlo, Monaco, the site of a powerful transmitter that broadcast a French-language PTL show into southern France, home of the Riviera.
Why Monte Carlo? Johnson was asked.
“Some of the greatest heathen areas of the world are in Europe,” he said. “Some of the affluent people in the world are some of the most ungodly.”