As a former religion-beat guy in Charlotte, and a veteran of the Jim Bakker and PTL wars of the 1980s (click here for my flashback), I was -- of course -- very interested in The Charlotte Observer's lengthy update on the status of the old Heritage USA.
Here's the totally logical headline on this solid -- but narrow -- feature: "Jim Bakker’s theme park was like a Christian Disneyland. Here’s what happened to it." What's missing? Hold that thought.
As the story notes, Heritage USA was supposed to grow into a kind of Disneyland for charismatic Christians, but things fell apart before the 2,300-acre complex reached the roller coaster ride through heaven and hell stage of development. For those in need of a refresher on why there is this:
Construction had already begun by then on two other mega-projects: A sand castle with a 10-story turret that would house the world’s largest Wendy’s restaurant, and a high-rise hotel to be called Heritage Grand Towers. When finished, reported the Heritage Herald, a weekly newspaper for tourists and those living on the PTL property, the tower’s “elegantly furnished” 500 rooms would include 100 honeymoon suites “for couples who come to Heritage USA to renew their marriages.”
Two months later, Bakker suddenly resigned amid financial and sexual scandal. His plans were scrapped, the ongoing construction halted. Today, three decades after Bakker’s dreams gave way to a nightmarish spell of bankruptcy, lawsuits and prison, many of the magnets that once drew people to Heritage USA are long gone.
The architectural corpse that gets the most attention in this piece -- fittingly enough -- is Bakker's never-finished, never-occupied 21-story tower. It continues its slow decay, while the current owners dream of expanded ministries that sound eerily familiar.
This is the crucial part of the story that I hope Observer editors return to, in depth, in the future. Why? Well, I am biased because this is the part of the story that I kept writing newsroom memos about in the early 1980s, trying to convince editors that there was a national-level story at the foundation of the Bakker scandals.
Let's see if I can put it in a sentence: As the world of mainline Protestantism faded in the early 1980s, all kinds of independent parachurch ministries and mega-congregations sprang up -- with next to zero accountability to any supervisors, let alone established denominations.
In other word, the Bakkers (and others like them) were expanding into a vacuum, appealing to believers who were often fleeing the wreckage of old structures of American faith.
Alas, one of the strengths of formal religious institutions -- when they are at their best -- is that they offer some oversight, ethics and even caution. It goes without saying these structures often fail (think Catholic clergy sex scandals), but the freewheeling world of super-free-church Protestantism offered zero safety structures of any kind. There are few, if any, ethical ties that bind.
So who is currently in charge in the old Bakker-land? That would be Rick Joyner:
The 68-year-old Joyner, who has close ties to Bakker, is the founder and executive director of MorningStar Ministries, an organization that has churches, missions and schools around the world. In 2004, it bought 52 acres of the old PTL property for $1.6 million, then later bought 18 more acres.
It uses the hotel PTL did finish, the Heritage Grand, as headquarters for several of its endeavors, including MorningStar Fellowship Church, MorningStar University, a K-12 school, a publishing house, and a conference center. It kept the name “Main Street” for the building’s two block-long collection of offices and eateries. About 100 people live in the building, Joyner said, some of whom have come from other countries.
MorningStar did demolish the sand castle/would-be restaurant in 2013. But Joyner said he has grand plans for the tower that Bakker never finished. If, that is, he can win or settle his longtime court fight with York County that’s before the S.C. Court of Appeals. Joyner wants to turn the high-rise into a retirement center -- or, as he prefers to call it, a “refirement” center for seniors.
Veteran reporters who worked the PTL story in the past will -- trust me -- experience a chilly sense of deja vu when they learn that leaders at MorningStar are talking about building a retirement center.
Why? You see, the ability to tap into the emotions and savings of elderly believers was at the heart of Bakker's ambitions and fundraising efforts. That's the kind of project that faces major ethical hurdles, the kind of ministry that cries out for legal supervision from experienced ecclesiastical watchdogs.
So what is MorningStar Ministries? What are its roots, in terms of other churches? Is there any kind of denominational tie here? What does the Observer piece have to say?
I know that it's hard to cover religious structures that have little or no formal, legal or doctrinal structure. But that's the point. That's the bigger story. It's still out there in the ruins of Heritage USA.