Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's son doing it his way

Posted: Friday, April 13, 2001

ATLANTA (AP) -- When Jay Bakker sits down for an interview, he can usually count on the question popping up: ''So what's the deal with your mother's makeup?''

When your mom is Tammy Faye Bakker Messner, the heavily primped and painted former Christian television icon, that's to be expected.

He's fine with it, though, keenly aware of her place in pop culture and that most people are more interested in her grooming habits than what happened when his parents' ministry crumbled under scandal in the late 1980s.

Bakker, 25, is fine with most things these days. He lives in Atlanta with Amanda, his wife of two years, and makes a living ministering to the young, downtrodden and misunderstood.

With studs in his ears, a gold loop through his lower lip and both of his arms sleeved in bold tattoos, he doesn't look like a man of God. And that's just the point. He's part of what he calls the ''disillusioned subculture.''

Bakker is reeling a bit from the intense media interest in his book, ''Son of Preacher Man,'' which came out in January. It chronicles his life growing up in his parents' ''Praise the Lord,'' or PTL, empire, their fall from grace and his own turmoil. He battled drugs and alcohol as he struggled to cope with his father's imprisonment and with being a member of the country's most ridiculed family.

''It's been healing, but it's been really hard to constantly relive, relive and relive the past,'' Bakker admits over lunch at a downtown restaurant. Slight of build, he wears blue work pants, a black T-shirt, a denim jacket and black sneakers. His dark hair is cropped short, and he wears a neatly trimmed goatee and sideburns that reach the bottom of his jaw.

''I'm ready to look for the future,'' says Bakker.

Millions of PTL viewers remember him as ''Jamie Charles,'' the pudgy-cheeked little boy on Jim and Tammy Faye's TV show with his older sister, Tammy Sue. He grew up on the set of the ''PTL Club'' with his family's 2,200-acre South Carolina retreat and theme park, Heritage USA, as his personal playground. Bodyguards tended to his every need. Every year, 600,000 copies of his school picture were mailed out to ministry supporters.

All that crashed down in 1987 when Jim Bakker's dalliance with Jessica Hahn became public, and the family was driven from Heritage USA. In 1989, Jim Bakker was sent to federal prison for overselling lodging guarantees at Heritage USA and diverting millions in ministry money.

Jay, 13 at the time, was already drinking. Soon he was smoking marijuana and tripping on acid. He fell deeper still when his mother divorced his father in 1992 and married family friend Roe Messner.

Hurtling through his teens looking for the next party, Bakker also endured constant mockery of his disgraced family, not only on ''Saturday Night Live'' but also by other Christian broadcasters.

''As a kid it broke my heart, it tore me to pieces,'' he says. ''When you become an adult you realize that nothing is sacred -- they make fun of everybody. But when you're a child, you don't understand that. You just think, 'These people must really hate my family.'''

While struggling to get sober in 1996, Bakker hooked up with the Rev. Philip Bray, a former drug dealer who runs the Safehouse shelter for the homeless in the shadow of downtown Atlanta's Ritz-Carlton.

Bray offered to give Bakker a place to live, office space and a salary to start Revolution, a progressive ministry offering punk-rock music and unconditional acceptance for the skateboarders, goths, drug addicts and other outcasts who come to the Bible studies and Friday night concerts.

During the week now, Bakker can be found ministering in and around the tattoo and piercing studios in the Little Five Points neighborhood, where the people he wants to reach congregate.

''I'm not about promoting Christ,'' he says. ''I'm about attracting people to Christ. I'm not out there (screaming), 'You need to get Jesus! You need to get your life together!' I'm out there saying, 'You know what, this is what I've got, and if you want to know more about it I'd like to share it with you.'''

Bakker often talks about his family during his weekly Bible studies. If people show up because they're curious to hear Jim and Tammy Faye's son preach, that's fine with him. As long as they come.

''Jay's life isn't his parents,'' says 18-year-old Josh Cook, who has been coming to Revolution for the past two years. ''And Jay's life isn't his tattoos.''

Bakker was approached about writing a book following a well-received story about him in Rolling Stone magazine in 1999. A high-school dropout whose dyslexia makes reading difficult, he dictated his story into a tape recorder and worked with writer Linden Gross.

The book was a painful read for his mother.

''I cried all the way through it,'' Tammy Faye Bakker Messner says. ''I was wishing I could somehow go back and change things for him.''

Messner calls her son's journey a ''miracle,'' and is dismayed when she hears people in some religious circles criticize him because of his radical appearance.

''Some Christians are so mean,'' she says. ''I had the same thing with my eyelashes and makeup. People couldn't see beyond that. I respect my son's right to have tattoos and I respect my son's right to have piercings, and if people don't like it they can look the other way.''

Jay Bakker remains unflinching in defense of his father. The book paints Jim Bakker as a victim, a do-gooder who trusted the wrong people and did nothing wrong knowingly beyond his tryst with Hahn while separated from Tammy Faye in 1980. Jay Bakker blames others for his family's woes -- a naive interpretation, some reviewers have said.

''I'm not going to spend the rest of my life defending them,'' Jay Bakker says. ''That's what this book was about. This is who my family is, this is who we are, this is the truth. They can call me naive or whatever they want.''

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