Branson -- Forgiven by some he fleeced, Jim Bakker is back.
The once-shamed televangelist, who spent nearly five years in a federal penitentiary, is eyed with interest by Christians and business people here who say Bakker's success could aid their own ministries and bring Branson national TV exposure.
And Bakker already is backed by the cash of entrepreneurs and the sweat of individual members of the Assemblies of God, the denomination that denounced and dismissed him.
Among the local volunteers who have gotten down on their knees to scrub floors or pound nails for Bakker is Janell Klein, youth administrator at Branson Hills Assembly of God. Several area churches were already working together to establish a coffeehouse for area youth when Bakker volunteered to do just that at the former Cowboy Cafe, she says. "God put it all together."
Jim Langham, president of the board of the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, says he does not believe the city will suffer from being associated nationally with Bakker. Nor has he heard any complaints locally about Bakker's plan to produce a Christian television show and ministry with his wife, Lori Graham Bakker.
"You've got to give people second chances," Langham says. "If you look at it from a business sense, there are lots of people who have started companies and made mistakes or gone bankrupt or had problems, and most of them have had a second chance."
"In 1987, the founder of North Carolina-based Praise The Lord Ministries resigned after admitting to a 1980 sex-and-cover-up scandal with former New York church secretary Jessica Hahn.
"Later that year, the Springfield-based Assemblies of God's national Executive Presbytery investigated and ultimately dismissed Bakker for "conduct unbecoming to a minister."
"In 1989, Bakker was convicted in U.S. District Court in Charlotte of 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy for bilking followers of $3.7 million that he put to his own personal use. Some of those convictions were later overturned and Bakker ended up serving five years of an original 45-year sentence. The charges stemmed in part from the misappropriation of money from followers who bought time shares at Bakker's South Carolina Christian-based resort and amusement park, Heritage Village.
Bakker publicly revealed his plans for a Branson-based Christian television show and ministry last week in an interview with the News-Leader.
Although Bakker is setting up in the back yard of the Assemblies of God's international headquarters, church hierarchy is mum on the reappearance of an embarrassment it disassociated itself from 15 years ago. Spokeswoman Juleen Turnage says the church has no opinion on Bakker's resurgence.
Yet Klein is among the Assemblies of God members who have expressed their opinions with action.
She envisions Bakker's Studio City Cafe as a place where teens, college-age kids and adults can fellowship with other believers, enjoy live music after football games, Bible study meetings and youth group activities.
"It's actually exciting," says Klein. "I can't wait to hear from him and learn from him."
The Bakkers and the seven Hispanic children of whom they have custody - ages 5 to 13 - moved to Branson last week. Klein and other volunteers helped unpack the Bakkers' furniture, cleaned bathrooms at the restaurant and took several Bakker children on a boating venture to meet their new schoolmates.
Last week, the 62-year-old Bakker stepped over piles of lumber and sawdust in the Cowboy Cafe, running his hand through thinning hair while explaining his latest ministerial dream.
He put his arm around a TV camera and talked softly, almost reverently, about the show he and Lori will host from the restaurant renamed Studio City Cafe.
"It's going to be a place for people of faith to come and enjoy good food and music," Bakker says. "We have some awesome people who will come and sing and play good music all throughout the day. We hope to use a lot of Branson people. There are so many people of faith here."
Bakker and his wife are picking out colors for the walls of what will be a coffee bar, restaurant and tea room. The roomy two-story building with murals of running horses around the walls is across Expressway Lane from the 3,000-seat Mansion America theater, where Christian pianist Dino Kartsonakis performs.
The restaurant to be used as Bakker's studio is licensed by the Churchill Coffee Co. of Springfield for an undisclosed fee through benefactor Jerry Crawford. Crawford - who owns the Cowboy Cafe and the home where the Bakkers are living - also is part-owner of Churchill.
Crawford says he invited Bakker to Branson because years ago Bakker helped him navigate difficult marital problems through his PTL Ministry.
Counters Bakker: "Jerry is our angel."
Forgiveness has been the cornerstone of Bakker's comeback since his release from prison, and he says the Studio City Cafe will be an activity center for youth of all denominations.
"I'm not asking anyone to trust me," Bakker says. "God restored me. We serve a God of the second chance. We are all about restoration."
Lori met Jim Bakker in an alley behind the Los Angeles Dream Center where she was ministering to troubled youth when he showed up after being released from prison. She says she was once a drug-abusing battered wife who had five abortions by the age of 21, but found God 13 years ago.
They served together in Los Angeles, and in 2001 opened the Camp of Hope in Vernon, Fla. The Bakkers say their move to Branson means the Florida operation will close, but they hope that work will continue through Studio City Cafe.
The Rev. Jess Gibson and his wife, Paula Gibson, of Cornerstone World Outreach Center in Springfield, lost about $2,000 they invested more than a decade ago in Bakker's failed Heritage Village time-share theme park. Still, the couple insist that Bakker "is a good man."
"He's been restored spiritually, I think, for him to go back into ministry," says Jess Gibson. "I've heard him speak, and based on my conversations with people who have had contact with him, he has genuinely been restored. I'd like people to give him an opportunity to prove himself and not hold his past against him."
The Rev. Fred Thompson and his wife, Helen, went to Heritage Village to consider a time-share investment but decided against it.
"I just didn't feel right," says Thompson, a retired executive and Springfield minister. "It was a lot of glitter. The real thing behind it might have been all right at the beginning, but the spirit just wasn't right."
Still, Thompson says he forgives Bakker his transgressions.
"If a man says he's repented, you have to take him at his word until you find out different."
Would he contribute to Bakker's new ministry?
"I doubt it," Thompson says. "But if he gets back to the ministry and preaches the gospel and if I see some fruit of it, I might back him."
Oscar Hicklin, a retired Springfield food broker, lost the money he spent on time shares, but doesn't begrudge Bakker a penny of it.
"I loved Heritage Village," he says. "The lodging was beautiful, the people were wonderful and there was entertainment all day. I have a feeling that it was the people who surrounded him. They were young, and it just grew so fast. I can see him having a real good ministry, and I might support him."
That's as it should be, says Rev. Cecil Todd, founder of Branson's Revival Fires Ministries that operates with a $1.2 million annual budget.
"People are going to be amazed at how many people get on his bandwagon," Todd says. "I felt the brunt of what he did, but unless we forgive others, we can't be forgiven. Some people can't cross that bridge, and if they have trouble accepting him, that's their problem.
"But Jim's a speaker, a motivator, and he could use his talents doing a lot of other things. As far as I can see, God's forgiven him, so why shouldn't I?"
Some television industry insiders say Bakker has a good chance to succeed in a town where several ministries already thrive. The daily, hourlong live-from-Branson talk show - expected to kick off in the next few weeks - can likely survive on a shoestring budget until donations begin to roll in.
Bakker says he is optimistic that the program will gain national syndication. So far, he has no firm deals. Several old friends from his broadcasting days have made commitments to help him once the show begins, Bakker says. He declined to name the stations that have expressed an interest until the deals are completed.
For years, minister Todd hosted "Cecil Todd Live," a weekly show from Tulsa, Okla., that aired on 153 stations across the country. Personnel to shoot and direct Bakker's program will cost about $1,000 a show, Todd estimates.
Bakker's show will be a boost for Branson, Todd believes.
"I really feel like Jim will raise the awareness level of Branson and this area to another level and put Branson in the minds of people who were never there before," Todd says.
Joe Sullivan, a principal of the Americana Network that aired from Branson in the early 1990s, says with volunteer help, Bakker can produce the initial shows on a shoestring.
"History tells us that once he's on the air, people do respond," says Sullivan, a show producer who this month brought Billy Ray Cyrus to Branson. "A lot of people out there were real sad over what happened and still love Jim Bakker.
"He's charming, and you put him back on TV and he will be successful with those people again. I think station owners and programmers will look at that. He was certainly popular, and there are lots of stations out there that a show like this could put them on the map with a certain demographic or niche group."
In the mid-'70s, Bakker and then-wife Tammy Faye began the PTL Television network in an abandoned furniture store. His biography, "I Was Wrong," chronicles a rise to power and riches that eventually led to his downfall. In the book there are photographs with Bakker posing with heads of state including Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Presidents Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.
Heritage USA was called a theme park by the media, but Bakker says it was intended as a retreat for worship and family fellowship. But as donations rolled in, Heritage USA grew more lavish with a posh grand lobby and a Main Street that rivaled Walt Disney. And there was Heritage Island, a water park with live Christian music and Bible classes on the beach.
Bakker was the chief fund-raiser. In 1986, the ministry took in $170 million.
In his book, Bakker says he takes full responsibility for what happened to PTL, for a moral failure that made him put money before God. But, he says, he did not conspire to defraud anyone. If the Heritage USA project had been permitted to proceed, the "Lifetime Partners" who "donated" their $1,000 would have had the program he promised.
"Clearly," he says in the book, "from the inception of the Lifetime Partnership program, it was stated that the money given by the Partners was to be used for the overall ministry, not simply to build hotels and other lodging places at Heritage USA."
Bakker was vilified for his lavish lifestyle. If he had it to do over again, he writes, "I would not have allowed myself to receive the salary I did. It was a terrible mistake in judgment."
In a 1997 interview, Bakker said he might someday consider a return to television. But never again to support that kind of lifestyle.
"I don't want money to be my consuming force again," Bakker said then. Now, even more than before his fall, Bakker says he has an important mission. "I told Lori, 'Honey, we have to come back. Not for us, but for all the other people who have been down out there and need God's help to go on.'"
Others also see new opportunities linked to the Bakkers' plans. Carolyn Daniels is the founder of the year-old Hiding Place Cafe in the Engler Block shopping center in Branson. Revenue from the cafe supports a ministry for abused women, and the demand for help continues to grow. Daniels says she is eager to see if the Bakkers will join forces with the Hiding Place Cafe to establish a women's shelter in town.
Adds Daniels: "God's up to something awesome here."