As the saga of the fallen preacher continues, ministry leaders and former followers try to sort out the pieces of the PTL empire.

At the Heritage USA theme park that Jim Bakker built, Dorothy Barry is praying that the pain of the last two-and-a-half years will soon end. From her vantage point at a concession stand in the Heritage Grand Hotel, she has been a front-row witness to the spiraling turmoil begun with the downfall of Bakker in 1987.

A few miles away at the new Heritage Ministries, former PTL employees are also praying for an end to the pain. Many have distanced themselves from the Bakkers, but the effects of the PTL scandal continue to influence their daily lives.

Bakker’s high-drama criminal trial has refocused national attention on the plight of the disgraced television evangelist. Less attention has been given to the remnants of the ministry he founded and to the thousands of Christians whose lives he touched.

Uncertain Future

At press time, the future was still very uncertain at Heritage USA, the 2,300-acre Christian retreat center in Fort Mill, South Carolina. Thrown into bankruptcy in June 1987, Heritage USA is still fighting for its life. The 500-room Heritage Grand Hotel, the Inspirational Network cable-television facility, and the recreational water park/camping grounds have continued to operate, administered first by a bankruptcy court and then by apparent buyer Stephen Mernick, a Toronto businessman.

Mernick’s attempt to take control has been put on hold, even though the bankruptcy court accepted his $65 million bid to buy the place in December 1988. Under the terms of the sales contract, Mernick was to have closed the deal on Heritage USA by September 30. However, late in August his attorneys asked the bankruptcy court for another year.

Mernick has been unable to take undisputed possession of the property because a group of Catawba Indians is claiming rights to part of the land. The bankruptcy judge was scheduled to hear arguments from both Mernick and the Indian group on September 27.

In the meantime, creditors with mortgage holdings at Heritage USA are pushing to take control of assets there. The largest creditor, Fairfax Savings and Loan of Baltimore, is raising doubts about whether Mernick can come up with the money to fulfill his bid. If Mernick does not go through with the deal, the bankruptcy court will have to decide whether to seek a new buyer, sell off assets piecemeal, or allow the creditors to control the assets.

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Staying The Course

Amid the uncertainty, Heritage USA employees—many of them hired by Bakker—are struggling to continue the original vision. The number of visitors has dropped dramatically, and the occupancy of the Heritage Grand Hotel is averaging only about 20 percent, according to a hotel employee. The Heritage Tower Hotel remains unfinished and boarded up. Grounds, once immaculate, are showing signs of deterioration. Yet employees are frustrated at media portrayals that the place has shut down.

Selina Sherill, who runs a craft shop in the hotel, said the uncertain ownership has prevented property development, publicity, and repairs. “And the negative news stories haven’t helped us any,” she said. Sherill said the water park had two record days this summer, and the hotel still sells out for periodic conventions. “This is still the best place in the world to come,” she said.

Ten minutes up the road in Charlotte, former PTL partners and employees are working on a new dream. Last month Heritage Ministries, led by Sam Johnson, dedicated new ministry facilities. Begun in 1988, the group had raised $5.5 million to buy back Heritage USA, but this spring decided the effort was futile.

Johnson, who was PTL director of world missions for two years before resigning and being brought back by Jerry Falwell in 1987, said nearly 27,000 former PTL partners gave gifts to buy back Heritage. He said about 90 percent of them agreed to allow the money to be used to buy new property instead.

Over Labor Day weekend, Heritage Ministries dedicated 20 acres of land, three buildings, and television facilities “very close to debt-free,” Johnson said.

Heritage Ministries produces “The Old Fashioned Camp Meeting Hour” weekdays, televises Sunday services at the Assemblies of God Heritage Church, holds camp meetings daily on the grounds, maintains a 24-hour prayer line, sponsors marriage and healing workshops, and has recently begun a Christian school and a prison ministry.

On Sunday mornings, the 750-seat church auditorium is generally filled to capacity, largely with former PTL partners. Johnson said no matter what happens with the Mernick sale, Heritage Ministries will stay at its current site.

Hard Feelings

While Johnson’s ministry has attempted to distance itself from Bakker, many ties still exist with Heritage USA. Heritage Ministries staffs the Upper Room Prayer ministry, the Welcome Center, and the Chapel by the Lake at Heritage USA, and runs a shuttle bus between the two facilities. “What we’ve tried to do … is to take the good and leave the bad,” Johnson said.

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Relationships between the two facilities are often rocky. Many of those at Heritage USA feel Johnson and the others betrayed the vision of Heritage by moving from the grounds. Some will always connect Johnson with Falwell and the downfall of Bakker.

Conversely, many of the partners who joined Heritage Ministries still feel hurt and bitterness toward Bakker. “The situation has had an adverse effect on us all,” Johnson said.

Perhaps the deepest effect has been on those who contributed money to the cause. Some, like retired coal miner Lamar Kerstetter, are still angry. Kerstetter testified for the prosecution at Bakker’s trial. Outside the courtroom another contributor, retired construction worker Joseph Cicciaro, voiced bitterness, telling reporters, “I was robbed. [Bakker] did me wrong.”

Gil and Mabel Zechman of Middleburg, Pennsylvania, are taking a more restrained view. The couple, who contributed $2,000 in 1985, said they made several trips to Heritage USA, stayed in the Grand Hotel, and enjoyed a number of activities. “We got our money’s worth out of it,” Mrs. Zechman said. “We don’t feel cheated at all.”

Lifetime partner Dorothy Barry remains staunchly behind the Bakkers. She spent several weeks this summer volunteering with the new Jim and Tammy Ministries in Orlando and is now working at Heritage USA. “I believe in a God of restoration and a second chance,” she said.

Many Bakker supporters feel shunned by the rest of the body of Christ. “My Bible says if you can’t forgive your brother … you’re a liar and the love of God is not in you,” said Tony Cutrufello, who works in a Heritage USA shop. “Even if [Bakker] were guilty of all of it, that’s no excuse for us to say, ‘Stay out.’ ”

Good Neighbor?

As Jim Bakker’s criminal trial got under way at the federal courthouse in Charlotte, North Carolina, local curiosity seekers waited for hours to catch a glimpse of their community’s most infamous son. In the region that watched Bakker’s ministry grow to national prominence, many people have sympathetic feelings toward the disgraced evangelist.

Bakker’s Heritage USA theme park was a major tourist attraction—6 million people were reported to have visited the grounds in 1986—and most community leaders were elated at the boost PTL gave to local tourism and area businesses during its heyday. Even local people who never gave a penny to the ministry visited the grounds for special events, such as the annual Christmas light show. Citizens describe how traffic into Heritage USA would back up for miles every December as people came to see the free show. Often they would receive a free Christmas ornament just for visiting. “Jim Bakker couldn’t have squandered all the money,” one visitor said. “Heritage USA didn’t come from the Big Bang theory.”

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Although Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were not active in community politics and other civic activities, they nonetheless became local celebrities. Many citizens can recount the times they saw Tammy Faye in her white mink at the flea market, or ate dinner at the same restaurant as the Bakkers.

Yet, local sentiment runs in the opposite direction as well. Two retired construction workers picketing with signs outside the courthouse said the Bakkers brought nothing but shame to the area. “God doesn’t need a theme park over Jesus,” Bob Eckhardt said. “The Bakkers have damaged the cause of Christ, and we’ll all suffer as a result of it.”

Lingering Effects

Partners on all sides are eager to put the scandal behind them, but many doubt that will happen soon. Insiders say more indictments and lawsuits are forthcoming. And the larger Christian community may also have to deal with the lingering effects of Bakker’s downfall.

Ross Rhoads, pastor of the interdenominational Calvary Church in Mecklenburg County, said the PTL scandal has in some ways hurt and in other ways helped the church. The Charlotte Observer, which won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the PTL scandals, has been publishing articles raising questions about Calvary’s construction of a new $35 million building and its capacity to pay back a hefty bank loan.

Rhoads, who is secretary of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, said he believes the size and diversity of Calvary’s programs would have attracted the paper’s attention even had PTL never happened. But he acknowledged the PTL affair has “heightened skepticism in the general public and heightened our accountability,” adding that the scandal “has produced a good and humbling reaction for the church to be more circumspect.”

But at the same time, Rhoads said, the scandal has added obstacles to witnessing about Jesus Christ. “There is greater bark to cut into now,” he said, “before we get to the heart of the tree.”

By Kim A. Lawton in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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