Televangelist Jim Bakker said Monday that were it not for the legality of abortion in the United States, two scientists would have been born who had the ability to cure cancer.
How does he know? God himself said so.
I lived in Branson, Missouri for ten years. During that time many important things happened in my life. I married my best friend. I graduated college, I had my children, I met many wonderful people through Missouri State and through the job I had for six years at a casual dining establishment in Branson proper. Along with the lifelong friends I met there, I also had the privilege to meet people from other countries who were there on work visas. I learned not just of their countries (Russia, Jamaica, Honduras) but also about their many cultures and religions.
I met tourists from all over the country and occasionally the world. I met celebrities. I met country singers, Chinese acrobats. I met “Branson Famous” people, like Yakov and Shoji. And one day, I met Jim and Lori Bakker.
The Bakkers were regulars at our store. They came in every couple of weeks and sat at the same table, table 110, in the front of the store, behind the large glass windows looking out onto Highway 76, Music City Boulevard. They enjoyed watching the rest of Branson go on about their busy lives, while they sat behind the veil of glossy glass, that made it difficult for anyone to see them. He sat with his back to the door.
They were quiet, they didn’t try to bring attention to themselves, yet attention always found them. They were popular with the servers, as they tipped well above the 20% mark. They would come in at odd times, just after the lunch rush or just before the dinner rush.
I was usually finishing up the day’s business, counting the bar drawer, or tipping out the bus boys in the back office when the hostess would call to tell me the Bakkers were there, and ask which server should get them. I would study the floor plan and decide who I trusted the most, usually only a couple of servers were on the floor at that time. Though the Bakkers didn’t warrant any “special” treatment, they were, well, let’s call them, unique.
Jim Bakker ordered four drinks. An iced tea, half cut (meaning half sweet and half unsweet), a hot tea (English Breakfast), a second mug of hot water, an iced water, and on occasional coffee. I don’t recall what Mrs. Bakker ordered, as most of the pomp and circumstance went to Mr. Bakker. I’d assume a water with a lime wedge or an occasional cup of coffee would suit her.
Mrs. Bakker came for our salad bar. This I do remember, as we had an extensive conversation about it once at the front door. I was closing the inner doors because of the draft, and she caught me at the salad bar just inside. She asked if we had fresh croutons. This was not an unusual question, as many people loved our salad bar and our croutons, with there dark and crisp outsides and their soft and chewy insides. I told her that I would whip her up some fresh ones. She touched my arm and said not to do it just for her. I assured her that I was headed back there to do it anyway. I was not, but she was so gracious, I felt the need to do it. She thanked me.
I went back to the kitchen and dropped the small blocks of pumpernickle bread into the fryer and set the timer. It was a precise process. It took less than a minute for the brown bits to float to the top, but if you left them in just a moment longer you would hit the sweet spot. While I waited, I tidied up the line, as I often did when we were down to one afternoon cook, and I studied the screen in the kitchen with all the entrees cooking. I found table 110. It was nothing fancy, a bowl of soup, for Mrs. Bakker I assumed, and a small sirloin, cooked medium well, with a potato. Side of broccoli. No special instructions. No minus this, substitute that. Plain and simple.
I pulled the croutons up from the fryer, let them drain for a moment, then dumped them carefully into a large silver bowl. I sprinkled garlic salt over them (the secret ingredient), then tossed them a few times adding more garlic salt as I saw fit. I filled a large plastic cambro for the salad bar, then dumped the remaining handful into a small bowl and started for table 110.
When I got to the table my server was happily chatting away with the Bakkers. Mr. Bakker was explaining how delighted he was that his children were given the opportunity to play in a Christmas show that year. The children he spoke of, were adopted from inner-city Phoenix some years before. They had wonderful voices and he knew they would be a big hit. He spoke like a proud father, doting over each child and their particular talent. I sat the bowl of croutons down in front of Mrs. Bakker and I turned to walk away. As I did she gently touched my arm and said, “Thank you, Melissa.”
I was a bit taken aback as I had never told her my name. I later found out that she had asked the server who the “lovely manager” was, and he told her my name. I said, “You’re welcome, Mrs. Bakker.” And she told me to call her Lori. I did not. I smiled and walked away.
The rest of their meal was tasty, friendly, and quick, I hope, as those were some of our goals. It wasn’t until the server came back to cash out his money for the day, that I got to ask about their experience. He described it as “normal”, which was good, but I inquired further, what did you talk about with them? I assumed, wrongly, that they spoke about church. About religion. About Morningside, Jim Bakker’s place of worship and fellowship where The Jim Bakker Show is filmed every day. Morningside is 20 minutes west of Branson, on the Arkansas state line.
“No,” my server concluded. “He doesn’t talk about that. Just his kids, and the weather, and how business is for us these days.” I smiled, not sure why.
“He did say something weird about hot tea, though,” the server said, as he rolled up his apron and gathered his keys.
I looked up quizzically.
“He said hot tea has got him through a lot,” the server laughed. “He’s odd,” then he walked out the door.
I didn’t know much about the Jim Bakker at that time. In fact, I knew more about his ex-wife Tammy Faye, because she was the more memorable of the two. The talk around Branson was all positive. He was busing doing God’s work. Saving lives. Helping the less fortunate. He was the great American evangelist of the new century. And apparently, he liked hot tea.
In 1989, Jim Bakker sat in a courtroom, a mile from where I write this today. He was facing a long list of alleged sins, including hush money to a woman he’d had an affair with, stealing money from his followers, and fraud. He was also facing 120 years in prison.
In true Jim fashion, the court hearings started out odd and grew more bizarre by the minute. The court learned about the way he skimmed his followers, including the fear tactics and promises that were left unfulfilled. They learned about his homosexual behavior in steam rooms with young men. They learned about his desire to have a private geisha, going as far as having one of his office workers act the part, in exchange for an unlimited budget for travel and expenses, along with, of course, the knowledge that she was doing God’s will.
At one point his defense lawyer pled “insanity” on his behalf. Bakker slammed himself onto the floor and began sobbing, kicking his hands and feet. This was followed by what a reporter from the Charlotte Observer, Charles Shepard, called “A real breakdown”.
“His pain appeared genuine. So genuine I couldn’t even ask him questions. Neither did the TV reporters. He has this problem thinking people are always after him, out to get him. It is sort of a psychic nightmare of his. Now he is being dragged out in chains. He always felt like a victim, that people were after him. Now they really came and got him.”
Sitting here at my desk in Charlotte, North Carolina I may be a mile from the court that brought down a 45 year sentence to Jim Bakker (he only served five years), but I am a million miles from that young girl in Branson. A million more from the beliefs and ideologies of Jim and Lori Bakker. I know his kind now, regardless of how sweet he was, how solemn he seemed. I see the hurt he causes, I know the fear he puts into hearts, I feel his icy hand in moments of darkness. Making the world worse, not better, and doing so at the expense of others. Followers. Believers. Victims. And still I am left wondering if there is enough hot tea to save him from where he is headed next.