I went to (the formerly named) Heritage USA today. If you were sober and
awake in the late 1980s, you’ll remember the huge scandal involving Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. They were popular televangelists who raked in millions of dollars per year with their tv channel. The money, it seems, came mostly from elderly retired people on fixed incomes who watched the channel incessantly, parting with their money as the smiling faces of Jim and Tammy Faye assured them it was all for the Lord. Well, naturally, when you have that much money coming in, surely the Lord doesn’t need it all and it would be good to spend it on some little treats now and again (oh, and as hush money over a sexual assault)(oh, and on pyramid schemes).
Heritage USA was a sprawling piece of land which they wanted to be known as the Christian Disney World. They had 6 million (!) visitors to the park each year. The park included a water park, mini-golf and, if you’re into what my untrained eye identified as tacky gingerbread style architecture a “fancy” hotel and conference center. I grew up one of very few families of Catholics in the mountains of North Carolina (just 3 hours
away) so when my parents took us on a drive-by of Heritage USA back in the 80s, I think they got out of paying for water park tickets by telling us they didn’t allow Catholics there. Lol. Good one, mom. Anyhow, as far as I know, we escaped unrobbed by the Bakkers which was a rare feat in those days. You may remember stories of their air conditioned dog house, six homes, and enough gold plated fixtures to inspire the Enron thieves years later. Self-identifying Christians of all stripes flocked to this Mecca of Tacky and found many opportunities to spend their money while there.
The place had fallen into ruin over the decades and today is a popular place for urban explorers to check out. Most of what was there was demolished, but there is plenty, I mean plenty of decay to be seen if you’re into that (and what person with post-modern tastes doesn’t like to see a little decaying civilization once in a while?) was bought by a group of people who believe their main guy is a prophet (oh, brother) and feature such activities as dream interpretation (I’m sure everyone volunteering for this squad has a PhD in Jungian psychology) and a prophecy group. I guess they figure the prophecy group volunteers are right as long as they don’t contradict their main prophet. There is a connection between them and the original Jim Bakker. (In summary, Bakker told this prophet guy the buildings and land would all be his one day. I’m too bored by their antics to explain more.)
I married into a family which has some curious Heritage USA connections. My adorable husband went to the high school which was the remnant of the one founded by Jim and Tammy Faye. He went there post-scandal so the population had dwindled to just 12 per grade. He often brags that he graduated in the top 12 of his graduating class. Oh, and he played three sports (everyone had to).
The family connection to Heritage USA I’m most proud of his the fine work of his uncle who was a U.S. Marshall. This scam-machine of deception called PTL (Praise the Lord) Ministry was shown to the world by a Charlotte Observer reporter who won a Pulitzer for his fine work. The veil was lifted and it turns out some very un-Christian shenanigans were going on under the gold-painted roof and fake skies (see photo) of “Main Street, USA.” These include affairs and I don’t just mean business affairs, sexual assaults and lots and lots of money being bilked from people. They sold off shares for $1000 apiece which enabled “donors” to spend 1 weekend per year for all eternity at Heritage USA. Guess what? Those donors were mostly elderly people with little money as it is. Well, problem is they sold more shares than units and didn’t even finish most of the building projects. Oh, but about my husband’s uncle: he served as a U.S. Marshall and is the one most prominent in the photos hauling ole Jim Bakker’s thieving bottom on the perp walk after his arrest. He’s a classy guy, this uncle, so he gave his coat to cover the ‘cuffs on this once-hailed, now-found-out-thief (who, by the way is from Michigan, not North Carolina). That really was a classy thing to do-gracious even. I was invited years ago to gaze upon various items related to this momentous arrest and was thrilled to my core by them!
As I walked around this now-refurbished building which houses the faux Main Street, I snapped photos, felt indignant about the whole ripping-old-people-off thing and wondered about the Bakkers’ own journeys through grief and rebuilding and coming to terms with what they got caught doing. Mr. Bakker admitted he was wrong, even wrote a book with the sing-song title I was Wrong and said in a TV interview shortly after being released from prison that, upon further reflection, he realized that Jesus didn’t really have too much good stuff to say about money grubbing after all. Granted, he said this while in a lovely home in Malibu listening to the waves crash under a particularly spectacular sunset (I’m guessing here), which makes the whole living simply and eschewing money grubbing thing a lot easier to stomach, but still, it is a step in the right direction.
What does this have to do with St. Francis of Assisi?
The story goes that Francis was spoken to by the Lord. “Go, rebuild my church which has fallen into ruin.” Well, certainly the hot mess of money and makeup that was PTL and the Bakkers fell into ruin, face first, taking plenty of prisoners with it. (A jury of my fellow North Carolinian decided the people who were bilked out of that $1000 time share deal would not be reimbursed by the PTL, which is sad and unjust.)
Maybe after having fallen into ruin, certain entities and people have to go through a purification to come out cleaner on the other side. I’m not thoughtful enough to come with ways that this actually is a story of redemption. I see that Jim Bakker is doing his old shtick, preaching on TV for money, but I mean, come on, I have to assume he’s going about this the right way this time. I will say that it’s a good thing that empire of tacky fell into ruin in the first place before more people were victimized by them. Sometimes stuff falls into ruin and that’s just the way it has to be. I guess our hope as Christinans is that the falling into ruin part is not the whole of the story, but is the beginning of a new story, one which moves beyond ruin into something even better than what was there originally.