Meet Jay Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Faye. His dad preached prosperity. He preaches punk rock. His mom wore too much eyeliner so has he.
September 16, 1999
By Katherine Marsh
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
Jay Bakker wants a pair of praying hands. He wants them on his right arm, on an empty plain of bicep beneath the black sleeve of his "Suburbia" T-shirt. Standing in the middle of the third annual Atlanta tattoo Arts Festival, lulled by the buzz of needles piercing skin, Jay imagines the hands taking hold, first of his arm, then of each other. They are Christ's hands, and underneath them he wants the word "grace."
Jay's search for grace has brought him here to the Trinity Ballroom of the Holiday Inn, where misfits, goths and trailer‑park trash mingle beneath the crystal chandeliers. It's an exhibition of ambulatory artwork -Christs and Jerry Garcias and Chinese dragons framed by shoulders or the contours of a calf. Jay points to a spot on his arm to show where the praying hands will be. "I want them real bad," he says. He rolls up his sleeve to reveal the tattoos on his left bicep: a black cross over a yellow sun, a sacred heart, a blue Christ, the words grace and unity in Hebrew. "It used to be a controversial thing for Christians to get tattoos," he says, "but now it's becoming less so."
But it's still controversial for Christians to be like Jay. Especially in the turn‑or‑burn Bible‑thumping South, where the word church in the Atlanta yellow pages is followed by twenty‑nine pages of listings. Especially when you wear a ring in your eyebrow and a cross on your arm ‑and your last name is Bakker, your mother's name is Tammy Faye, and your father's name is Jim.
Jay, now twenty‑three, will always be known as Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's kid ‑ Tammy Faye, with her mascara‑stained eyes and squeaky voice, and Jim, the sheepish-looking televangelist who in the late Seventies and early Eighties ran PTL (Praise the Lord), the country's richest Christian ministry. In 1987, Jim was charged with fraud, the Bakker dynasty crumbled, and Jay, then just a kid, was left with the pieces ‑ his father's shattered reputation, a broken home, a tainted name. Now, more than ten years later, Jay is all grown up and back in the family business, running a ministry of his own. But there's something different about the message of the tattooed punk wanderer at its helm.
THE BEST PLACE TO HEAR JAY Bakker preach is at the Bible study he holds every Tuesday evening on the second floor of Safehouse, a Christian outreach charity located behind a metal fence in downtown Atlanta. On Tuesday nights, Jay and his staff move his Blade Runner poster and his Union Jack, his CD player and lava lamp out of his tiny office and into the central cement‑block room. They set up a makeshift bar, turn on Social Distortion and dim the lights, and by the time they are done, the room looks more like the basement from That '70s Show than the setting for a weekly Bible study.
The Bible study is just one of the activities, besides rock concerts and skateboarding shows, that Jay organizes through his ministry, Revolution. Every Tuesday around 6:30, the flock starts drifting in. At some point the New Living translation of the Bible is passed out to the thirty people gathered here, who range in age from their teens to their twenties. They have pink hair and metal studs on their jackets and rings in their noses and black hooded sweat shirts and tattoos. They don't look like the type that will listen to anyone, let alone Jay, who is small with long skater's sideburns and timid brown eyes. They don't even look like they will listen to one another, but when Jay finds a seat and says, "Let's start with prayer requests," they do.
Jay's own emotional needs are served by the gospel he preaches. He stresses acceptance and the unconditional love of Christ, a gospel uniquely suited to kids like him who seem so fragile that even a hint of judgment can cause an avalanche of self‑doubt. It is these kids who Jay wants to reach ‑ the goths and punks and hippies ‑ and he accepts them on their own terms. He combines Christian theology with New Age psychology: Christ is portrayed not as the revolutionary who, according to Matthew 10:35, came "to set a man against his father" but rather as a friendly and perpetually available shrink.
Jay is not alone in tailoring the Bible to turn‑of‑the‑century teens. Across the country there has been a resurgence of evangelical youth groups, and religiosity that was once considered backward is now in vogue. Look no further than Cassie Bernall, the Littleton, Colorado, teen who was asked, with a gun to her head, whether she believed in God. She answered yes. The gunman pulled the trigger and Bernall, a recently born‑again Christian who had dabbled in witchcraft and drugs, became an instant martyr. For Christian kids everywhere, including Jay, Bernall is a symbol of faith, and their faith helps them accept the senselessness of her death. It is also their faith that helps them come to terms with what they see as the senselessness of events in their own lives.
"I'm having a hard time in school. I'm lazy," says Josh, 16, who plays electric guitar and has blond hair down his back.
"I know someone who's a severe coke addict. She's seventeen," says Kelli, 26, who wears a floor‑length, patch‑hemmed skirt.
Jay listens. Then he asks someone to read a passage from Romans about how nothing can separate us from God's love. "Anyone have an example of that in your own life?" Jay asks, pausing for an answer. "Well, I do. For a while I thought God hated me. If I smoked or drank, I thought I couldn't live up to his expectations. But God wants an intimate relationship with you. He wants to hang out with you."
Vallorie, 17, raises a hand. She wears a denim vest with the words PROUD TO BE PUNK On the back. "I used to think that God was pissed off at me," she says. "But now I have this vision of being a little girl and crawling up in his lap. My dad's never been a real father figure, because he's not my real dad. So God is my dad."
Several kids nod. Dara, 29, a purple‑haired goth, says, "If we come from abusive backgrounds, we get scared that if our earthly dad beat the crap out of us, so will our heavenly dad. But God wants a relationship with us."
At the end of an hour, the stereo is turned back up and the party resumes. Josh, a regular, explains why he keeps coming back: "Most Bible studies put you on a leash, but Jay doesn't force anything down anyone's throat." When he started coming, five months ago, he was angry about being expelled from school and getting arrested on a weapons charge (which was later dropped). "I used to hate cops," he says, "until I came here and read the Bible verse, 'Do not judge lest you be judged.' Now I'm starting to feel some peace."
Dara has a flour‑white face, a missing front tooth and a tight black collar around her neck. "The church I was raised in didn't truly deal with people's problems," she says. "And it's not only the church. In this country, so many people's feelings and problems are denied. It's like those western storefronts where the outside looks fine but inside there's a lot of emptiness.
SHORTLY AFTER HIS SIXTEENTH BIRTHDAY, JAY BROKE UP with his girlfriend, Suzanne, and right away he decided that the only person who could make him feel any better was his dad. So when a family friend named Roe Messner agreed to accompany him from his home in Orlando, Florida, to the Rochester Federal Prison, in Rochester, Minnesota, Jay was ecstatic. Not only would he be able to tell his dad about his breakup, but since he was now sixteen and, according to prison regulations, an adult, he would be able to spend his first day in three years alone with his father, inmate Number 07407‑058.
Today, Jay claims that he can remember little about the visit. "I don't know how much detail I can give you," he says in a tone that suggests it all happened a long time ago. But then, suddenly, he imitates the crank and whoosh of the metal prison doors. "The door would open real slow," he says, "and then go gshhh! ‑ close real loud." He makes the closing sound several times. "Man, do I remember that," he says. As it turns out, he actually remembers a lot of things ‑ the razor‑wire fences and metal detectors, the glazed yolk‑colored walls of the visitors lounge. But most of all, Jay remembers spending six hours alone with his father, talking about their lives, about women and about the mistakes they'd made -their first man‑to‑man talk.
Father and son, July ’99.
For the nearly four years his father had been in prison, Jay was obsessed with getting him out. "There wasn't a second or a day that went by that I didn't think about that," he remembers. "I called the lawyers every week." Jay remained devoted to a father he saw only once every few months and only in the company of his mother and sister. "I could never let go with him when they were there," he says. "So on that day, we were able to talk about stuff we were never able to before." While Jay was upset about his breakup, his father was worried about a rumor he'd heard that Tammy Faye was going to leave him while he was still in prison. Jay assured his father that this would never happen. At the end of the talk, Jay told him, "Dad, this has been the best day of my whole life."
When people meet Jay, they immediately think of Jim, the third-generation Assemblies of God preacher who built up PTL, one of the largest evangelical ministries in the country. The two share an almost identical face, animated by the same crinkly, guileless eyes. Jay's register the needs of a single lost kid the way his father's once registered those of an entire studio congregation.
In the late Seventies, Jim Bakker realized that many in his congregation ‑ himself included ‑wanted permission to pursue a lavish lifestyle not usually associated with being Christian. So he incorporated this need into his gospel, and in 1978 he began building the $129 million Heritage U.S.A., a 2,300‑acre Christian resort near Charlotte, North Carolina. By the early Eighties, Heritage was the third largest attraction in the country, after Disneyland and Walt Disney World,‑ with hotels and condos, satellite dishes, a four‑star restaurant and even a water park. "Growing up and having your dad own a water park," Jay remembers, "was great." Even today, Jay is proud of his father's achievement. "The world is always so righteous when they look at Christians," he says, "but I don't think it's wrong that Christians have a nice hotel to stay in. That's what my dad wanted to do." I One of the few mementos from these years that Jay has kept is a leather‑bound, gold‑engraved volume tilled with yearbook‑style photos of life at Heritage: unwed mothers‑to-be cheerfully marooned around a pool, an enormous studio audience of tanned Christians, his father standing in front of a huge satellite dish. The satellite dish was Bakker's technological halo, and through the medium of TV, he trumpeted not only his gospel but, on December 18th, 1975, the birth of his second child and only son. Jim was taping an episode of The PTL Club when Jay was born, and although he did not witness his son's birth, he made sure news of it was televised. From the beginning, Jamie Charles "Jay" Bakker was a child both of God and of TV crews ‑ a Christian Truman Burbank.
Off camera, life at Heritage was less idyllic, especially for Jay, a chubby kid who seemed to physically reflect his father's excesses. Recounting his other difficulties ‑ the undiagnosed dyslexia that held him back at school, the early press attacks on his parents, the ulcer he developed at age nine ‑ Jay seems so honest and open that it is easy to miss the way he revises his relationship with his father. According to Jay, his father was a constant presence, always home for dinner, emotionally available the way a good parent should be. But not according to Jim Bakker. "I was such a busy person in those days," he now concedes, "that I really missed those years of his life."
By the mid‑Eighties, Jim Bakker's prosperity gospel was beginning to look less like a theology and more like a scam – at least according to federal prosecutors. In 1987 they charged Bakker with twenty‑four counts of mail and wire fraud, an accusation that came on the heels of a damaging personal one. Earlier that year, a secretary named Jessica Hahn had accused Bakker of raping her in a Florida hotel room, a charge that Bakker, who admits only to a short, consensual tryst, denies. Right before Hahn went public with her version of events, Bakker decided to temporarily give Heritage to the preacher Jerry Falwell. He never got his million‑dollar ministry back. Jay sees his father as a good man betrayed by the Judas Falwell, abandoned by his Christian friends and then ruthlessly crucified by the media. Tammy Faye agrees. "I always felt that Jim had no faith in himself," she says. "If he did, he'd probably still have Heritage today."
The Bakkers claim that the bias against them extended to Jim's 1989 trial, at which he was convicted of all twenty‑four counts and received the maximum sentence of forty‑five years. Jay points to the book Jim Bakker: Miscarriage of Justice?, in which legal scholar James A. Albert exonerates his father. "The prosecutors based their case on lifestyle," says Albert today, "on the argument that a minister shouldn't live like that." Jay believes that the judge, Robert "Maximum Bob" Potter, was out to destroy his dad. One of his strongest memories from the trial is of Potter's threatening to hold his older sister, Tammy Sue, in contempt of court if she didn't stop crying.
Tammy Faye remembers that Jay became withdrawn. "This all came at a time when a young man needs his father more than anything else," she says. Jay and Tammy Faye moved often, and Jay's education was broken up among North Carolina, Florida, California and Tennessee. At school, Jay struggled with the attention that came with his now infamous name. At Heritage he'd been given special treatment and bodyguards. In the real world, he had to fight his own battles. On one occasion, he was suspended for hitting a kid who'd suggested that his father was being raped in prison.
Jay started drinking the night his father was sentenced. He was thirteen. He experimented with marijuana, and in high school he started dropping acid. Jay doesn't remember too many of his trips, but he does remember a ritual with his ring. "My dad gave me this ring when he was in prison," says Jay, "and I wouldn't wear it when I tripped. I didn't want to think about my dad when I was tripping." During this time, Jay was living with his mother in Orlando and dating Suzanne, a college freshman. "Like me, she was into the Doors and cigarettes, but she also gave me a lot of acceptance," he says.
In 1992 the relationship ended ‑ and with that, Jay's life began to unravel. "Mom said, Roe will take you to visit your dad,' " recalls Jay. "I thought Roe was a great guy." At first it seemed as though the trip would be the healing pilgrimage Jay had envisioned. He was able to spend that first wonderful day alone with his father. At 3 P.M., when prison visiting hours ended, Jay left his dad, promising to return the next day. That night, over dinner at the hotel, Jay casually asked Roe, "You don't think my mother is going to leave my father, do you?" Roe confessed not only that his mother was planning to leave Jim but that she was planning to leave Jim for Roe himself. "I want to marry your mother," Roe told a stunned Jay, who'd had no idea that Roe was anything more than a family friend.
That night, Jay had no choice but to sleep in the same room with his mother's boyfriend. "I stayed up half the night smoking," remembers Jay. "I smoked a pack of cigarettes just sitting in my bed, pretty much to drive Roe nuts." The following morning, Jay returned to the prison to tell his father that, in fact, the rumor was true. Afraid that Jim would commit suicide after hearing the news, the first thing Jay told him was, "Dad, promise me you won't leave me." After Jim promised, Jay revealed what he knew. "We sat there for three hours, saying not one single word to each other," he remembers. "It was the worst day."
The next day, Jay flew home to Florida. A few months later, when Tammy Faye decided to move to California, Jay chose not to go with her. He never again lived with his mother, who married Roe Messner in 1993. Jay dropped out of the tenth grade, moved to St. Petersburg, Florida, and did camera work for a Christian TV station. About this time, he began haying flashbacks from all the acid he had dropped. "I would be sitting on a plane or in a car, and all of a sudden, I'd be in sheer terror," he says. Finally, a psychiatrist prescribed him the anti‑psychotic medication Thorazine. Marijuana triggered his flashbacks, so Jay gave up smoking pot and just drank, often to the point of blacking out.
Punk missionaries: Jay and his wife, Amanda.
During this period, his tastes veered to the alternative. "In ninth grade I started hanging out with punk and goth kids," he says. "I can recall this one time wearing all black and putting on black eyeliner ‑ and, of course, I had the most famous eyeliner on in the world: my mother's," he says, referring to Tammy Faye's much‑spoofed heavy eye makeup. "At the time, I didn't have any conception of God," he says. "I had this feeling that God was real, but that's about it. The punk groups really attracted me because they had this attitude like, 'We'll accept you, and everyone else can go to hell.' " Jay now says ministers should embrace bands that connect with alienated kids. "The church needs to stop figuring out ways that they can fight Marilyn Manson," he argues. "They need to start accepting all genres of music the way they have to accept all types of people."
Even during those years, Jay kept his sights on a single goal: getting his father released from prison. While Jim pursued an appeal that eventually reduced his sentence from forty‑five years to eighteen, Jay called his father's old friends ‑ ministers like Pat Robertson and Oral Roberts ‑ asking for help. According to Jay, not a single one of them would give it. Although Jay claims that as a Christian he has forgiven these men, the tense tone of his voice reveals that he has not. His animosity toward Falwell in particular is barely concealed. But if Jay wants his message of grace to apply to all, he must apply it to his father's enemies. So he struggles, one moment likening his father's erstwhile evangelical friends to Nazis and the next insisting that he has forgiven them.
Jay maintains that he has forgiven his mother as well. "I've probably never been that angry in my life," he says, recalling how he felt toward her during the divorce. But he is quick to add, "I'm completely over it now." He may be, but at sixteen he was full of guilt. "I was supposed to be the man of the house, and I never realized that this affair with Roe was going on," he explains wearily. "I should have stopped it." Like a modern‑day Hamlet, Jay assumed his father's feelings of rejection and outrage over his mother's betrayal. "I was angry for my dad," he admits, "because I felt like I was his representative. I remember yelling at my mom, 'How could you do this to him? He's in prison, and he trusts you!'"
By the time Jim Bakker won his final appeal and was released from prison, in 1994, Jay was spending up to $400 a week at the bars. Although he was relieved that his father was finally free, he felt guilty that he couldn't stop drinking. He felt guilty that he smoked. He felt so guilty that he began to believe that God hated him.
THE PERSON JAY CREDITS WITH SAVING HIM IS ANOTHER preacher's son, named Donnie Earl Paulk. On a sticky May morning in Atlanta, the two meet at Chick‑fil‑A, a fast‑food restaurant on North Druid Hills, a road filled with strip malls and hotels. Donnie Earl, 26, a bulked‑up ex‑jock in a suit and clerical collar, sits across from Jay, punctuating his stories with whoops of laughter. It is the type of laughter that booms across the Chick‑fil‑A, and even the guy sweeping up waffle fries smiles.
Descended from ten generations of Southern preachers, Donnie Earl is now a preacher himself, though a different breed ‑ one who prefers Marilyn Manson to Pat Robertson, who writes fan letters to Larry Flynt and refers to the Christian right as a bunch of assholes. Like Jay, he understands firsthand the hypocrisy of the church, having watched his own father's fling publicized on A Current Affair. "That whole experience made me realize that it's easier to write someone off than to listen to them," he says.
Donnie Earl's latest plan is to reach out to Atlanta's gay population by hanging out with them and letting them know that "no one's sending them to hell." This is the same message he once gave to Jay. And Jay listened because Donnie Earl listened. He listened as Jay described his loneliness and feelings of guilt over drugs and alcohol. Donnie Earl invited Jay to live with his family in Atlanta, which Jay did. At age twenty, Jay joined Alcoholics Anonymous and found the type of accepting atmosphere that he feels is lacking in most churches today. "I think AA is the way that churches should be," Jay says. "You should be able to come into a room and say, 'I'm a sinner, and this is what I struggle with.' " Jay has adopted this approach in his Bible study, encouraging kids to discuss their daily lives.
"I want to connect with those kids, meet them where they're at," says Jay over his chicken sandwich and fries," 'cause I've found that being a friend is the most important thing."
Donnie Earl's vision of Christianity may not seem very radical until you go out onto the streets of Atlanta and hear a voice like John Duncan's. While Jay and Donnie Earl sit at Chick‑fil‑A, Duncan and his wife stand in the square at Little Five Points, a two‑block strip of alternative clothing stores, tattoo parlors and coffee shops, yelling, "Repent from your sins!" A few street kids who live in a nearby squat are angrily yelling back. Duncan, thirty and pale, is wearing a placard that warns, "Abortionists, liars, pornographers, fornicators and potty‑mouths are going to hell!"
Duncan is happy to talk about why he's here, because no one's really listening to him anyway. His group, Campus Missions, preaches on college campuses throughout the South. Every few weeks he comes to Little Five Points to warn sinners of their wicked ways and God's wrath. Duncan, who says he was saved six years ago, feels that there are too many ministries condoning rock music and preaching a false message. "These preachers don't want to preach the truth," he says. "They just want to make friends."
Duncan is in no danger of making friends here. Jade, who is seventeen and has lived on the streets since she was eleven, yelled at him for a while but is now ignoring him. "I'm everything on that sign except a murderer," she says with a laugh, her arms around her friend Jordan, who is fifteen, has freckles and bleached hair, and lives with his family in Stone Mountain, Georgia. "Perhaps if they talked to me like a person," she says, "perhaps then I'd go for it more."
Turning her back to John Duncan and his sign, Jade adds, "I once loved the church heart and soul."
JAY BAKKER ONCE LOVED THE CHURCH HEART AND SOUL, too, and that is why he is so upset about preachers like Duncan. "The church should be there for people," he says, scanning the Trinity Ballroom, still looking for that perfect pair of praying hands. "Because Jesus sat with the scum. He sat with the sinners and prostitutes. I don't know how we've gotten so out of touch."
For Jay, getting back in touch began in Phoenix in 1994, when he and his friends Kelli Miller and Mike Wall started the first Revolution. The purpose of the group was to meet the social and spiritual needs of kids, particularly those affected by drugs, alcohol and abuse. There were coffeehouses, concerts, skating events and weekly Bible services. Starting with two kids, a punk and a hippie, the group quickly grew to 200. "We were vulnerable with them," remembers Kelli. "We told them how we'd screwed up. And after a while, they started treating us like family." When Jay moved back to Atlanta to live with the Paulks, the group continued under the leadership of Mike Wall.
In 1997, Jay moved out to L.A. to live with his father, who had his own ministry in Echo Park, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. As soon as Jay, along with his future wife, Amanda Moses, and Kelli arrived, they saw a desperate need for an L.A. Revolution. In the course of a year, the group organized a girls Bible study and a concert for 6oo area kids, mostly gutter punks. During this time, Jay lived with his dad at the old Queen of Angels Hospital, spending whole days with the father he now had all to himself. Eventually, when the group found it impossible to do more without its own building, Jay decided to move back to Atlanta.
Among the believers: “Most Bible studies put you on a leash. Jay doesn’t force anything.”
TODAY, TWO WEEKS before Revolution's next area concert, Jay has taken the kids from his Atlanta Bible study to hang out at the Tattoo Arts Festival. Dara, who is looking for a new design herself, explains the sociological reason behind the recent popularity of tattoos. "People are tired of false fronts," she says. "They want to show who they really are." Keith Cordell, 36, a friend of Jay's from his Phoenix days and a former roommate of Doug Hopkins, the Gin Blossoms lead singer who drank himself to death, puts it this way: "We're looking at a whole room of people who don't fit in anywhere. But here they can be accepted. They can belong."
Jay Bakker's hope is that someday everyone will belong. But for this to happen, people must start to listen and forgive. They must start to accept. "Those kids in Columbine were hurting because they had no idea they could be accepted," he says, referring to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two students who killed twelve classmates and a teacher in Littleton, Colorado. "We've got to get back to that, to accept others as God has accepted us."
Standing among the marked and the pierced, surrounded by the outcasts he loves, Jay suddenly reveals who he really is. "Listen, I dropped out of high school," he says. " I can barely write. I'm white trash, I wear leather bracelets and tattoos. But God has given me a gift ‑ to relate to people and to see the common sense of the Bible. It's not about 'Don't do this, don't do that.' God is saying, 'You guys are accepted, and you are loved.' God is saying, 'My hands are open.' "