Happy Hour Gospel
It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon at Pete’s Candy Store, a low-key watering hole on Lorimer Street in Williamsburg, the famously bohemian neighborhood popular with the young and the scruffy. A few men and women stand around the bar chatting and sipping on pints of beer next to a sign listing happy hour specials, while Dave Lagerman, a lanky young man with shaggy blond hair who lives on Long Island, sets up a row of chairs in a smaller, more intimate room in the back. A chalkboard easel outside the front door advertises the evening’s offerings, including a popular open mike jam session kicking off at 5pm. An hour earlier, at 4pm: “Revolution.”
“I grew up Lutheran, but I get more feeling here,” says Dave, nursing a two-dollar can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Dave and the other odd twenty-five souls who have made their way here today on a winter New York afternoon, some sipping on cocktails, others fingering personal copies of the Bible, have gathered for what is a fairly typical ritual, albeit in a fairly atypical location. For one hour every Sunday, the backroom of Pete’s Candy Store—a space with the feel of a boxcar dressed up as a cabaret, where red lights dot the ceiling, and the stage is done up in red carpet and lined with red wallpaper—is converted to a chapel for the weekly meeting of a nondenominational charismatic Christian church called Revolution.
At a few minutes to four, a man makes his way to the front of the room wearing black boots, a green biker’s satchel, a cap, and a web of ink up and down his arms. He has a small piercing in his lower lip and a big Toys “R” Us bag in his hands. After a final announcement is made inviting everybody at the bar to enter the “sanctuary,” the tattooed gentleman announces a holiday toy drive for kids with HIV and encourages people to dig deep into their pockets. In a mellow Southern accent he shares a memory from his own childhood, when a friend at school brought him a football one day out of the blue, and how happy that made him feel. “And believe me, when I was a kid I had everything. I was a spoiled brat.”
By most any standard, at least until the bottom fell out when he was a teenager, he was. This is Jay Bakker, the only son of Jimmy and Tammy Faye Bakker, founders of the Praise the Lord Club—or PTL—at one time the largest Christian satellite broadcast network in the world. They are the same Bakkers who found themselves at the tabloid epicenter of overlapping fraud and sex scandals in the 1980s that ultimately led to their ouster from the church they founded and to Jim Bakker’s imprisonment on embezzlement charges. It was one of the most storied chapters in the annals of American scandal, and now the Bakkers’ son preaches to a tiny congregation whose members sip draft beer and thumb through their iPhones while contemplating the gospel.
“I like to figure things out, and I like to question things; that’s why I enjoy theology,” Bakker tells his audience during a sermon in which references to Bob Dylan, personal anecdotes, and New Testament passages are seamlessly interwoven. When he’s in the front of the room, Bakker has great presence. He uses props and self-deprecating jokes, and has a knack for impersonation—a recent Sammy Davis, Jr. impression was spot on. Often, after reading a passage from scripture that he finds especially resonant, Bakker will say, to nobody in particular: “Doesn’t that blow your mind?”
“For me, the more I seek, the more I’m lost. That’s why I look at theology and philosophy together,” he says towards the end of his sermon, before bowing his head and leading everyone in prayer. “I think we need to hold our theology with kind of open eyes. When we limit God, often we do it with the Bible.”
The predictable way to understand this story would be as an ironic parable, and outward appearances certainly lend themselves to that. Rebel child versus establishmentarian father, hipster son versus square mother, radical new preacher of a gospel of acceptance versus right-wing old ideologues of a gospel of exclusion. None of the hackneyed tropes fits perfectly though, nor do the facts bear them out.
Jay Bakker is also a dutiful son who has taken and adapted some of the lesser-known and under-publicized tenets of his parents’ massive broadcast platform—preaching the love of Christ rather than the fear of a vengeful God, on a striving for grace, and a call for acceptance and love of outcasts and “the least among us.” While the elder Bakkers were at one time the biggest symbols of the unseemly televised marriage of commerce and faith that exploded in the 80s, they were also the first Christian evangelists to invite gay people, and those with HIV/AIDS, to tell their stories on air—this at a time when many religious establishments, especially Evangelical churches, were offering only fire and brimstone. The Bakkers were also the first evangelists to host homeless people and those struggling with substance abuse on their many live programs, engaging with “social outcasts” within a framework of Christian love and radical acceptance—on national television. One of the more iconic elements of the show was how Jim Bakker often ended the program: by looking in to the camera and earnestly telling his audience, “God loves you. He really does.”
“I don’t label people, I refuse to label people,” Tammy Faye told an interviewer during the making of a 1999 documentary, The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Until her death from cancer in 2007, she attracted a passionate following in the gay community and even became something of a minor celebrity at gay pride rallies around the country. “We’re all just people, made out of the same old dirt; and God didn’t make any junk.”
It shouldn’t therefore be surprising that, according to its website, her son’s church is meant “for those who feel rejected by traditional approaches to Christianity … to show all people the unconditional love and grace of Jesus without any reservations due to their lifestyles or background, past or future.” Tammy Faye Bakker may have been famous for her outrageous eyelashes and immaculate coiffure, and her son may have no shortage of tattoos, but beyond the artifice there is continuity here, in values and in teachings.
Jay recognizes this continuity. “My mom’s tears are real. She had a sensitive heart,” he tells me. “For better or worse I have the same heart.”
While a broadcast empire that reached millions seems very different from a Sunday bar ministry, Revolution’s sermons receive eight to ten thousand downloads a week, according to the church’s webmaster, Paolo Mello. In a neighborhood marked by an overabundance of bars, and amongst a demographic not much known for its intense piety, Bakker offers a church that young New Yorkers with a spiritual yearning and a liberal bent approach on their own terms.
Weekly sermons given by Bakker and his assistant, Reverend Vince Anderson, are explorations of scripture that often leave more congregants with more questions than answers. One Sunday, Vince launched a sermon with a quote from the poet Rumi: “Today, like every day, we wake up empty. There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”
Not everyone embraces this approach. I was at the church after a recent sermon when one of Vince’s provocations so riled up a first-time attendee that he accosted Jay afterward and asked, “What the hell do you stand for then?”
Afterward, Jay said with a bemused look on his face, “It was an interesting moment, trying to tell him what Revolution stands for, because I didn’t really know what to tell the guy—and I’ve been the pastor for 14 years.” Next to him was a collection hat with a few bills in it and a pile of Would Jesus Discriminate? bumper stickers. “I told him that I think what Vince meant in his sermon is that we shouldn’t act like we own the truth.”
Pastoring wasn’t an obvious career choice for Jay—having lived through the very public excommunication of his family from their church, institutional religion was something he couldn’t flee fast enough. Only thirteen years old when scandal ripped through his family, Bakker spent much of his adolescence abusing drugs and alcohol, dropped out of high school, and moved in counterculture and punk rock circles that don’t typically spend much time discussing the Bible. He has dyslexia, which went undiagnosed until he was 18, the same year that he got sober and rediscovered an “understanding God offering his gift of love and grace with no strings attached.” A year later, in 1994, Jay and two friends planted the seeds for Revolution in Phoenix, Arizona.
The newly-founded church sought to reach a subculture of people often ignored or dismissed by mainstream churches: skateboarders and punk rockers, bohemians and dreamers, kids with spiky hair and less-than-stellar academic records. Art exhibitions, DJ sets, and touring bands became regular features of Revolution’s services, and the church expanded quickly. Jay moved to Los Angeles in 1997 and then to Atlanta in 1998. There, the church enjoyed a large following until 2006, when Jay decamped for New York.
In One Punk Under God, a 2006 Sundance Channel documentary series following the ups and downs of Revolution Church in Atlanta, there’s a poignant scene in which Jay walks through the ruins of Heritage USA, the largest Christian theme park in the country. The jewel in the crown of the PTL Club, Heritage was behind only Disneyland and Disney World in number of visitors during its 1980s heyday. The park is now abandoned: empty swimming pools, buildings falling down, rows of shops overgrown with weeds. Heritage USA was also at the nexus of the embezzlement controversy, a scheme in which hundreds of investors paid for shares that didn’t exist.
“My parents went from being the biggest preachers in the country to, twenty-four hours later, being outcasts and abandoned by most of their friends,” Jay told me on a fall evening at a coffee shop a few blocks from his apartment in Brooklyn. His parents’ experience, he says, helped him develop an acute sensitivity for those who have been abandoned by the church. People who grew up in Christian churches but have lapsed in attendance often respond well to the younger Bakker.
“It can be painful, but it’s also really healing to come back,” says Renee Schaller, a Queens native with curly dark hair, after her first visit to Revolution. Through the hubbub of the bar crowd drifting into the backroom while the congregants of Revolution stream out, Renee talks about her upbringing in a Pentecostal church where both of her parents were ardent fans of the Bakkers. Her father is a friend of Reverend Vince, and she’s come to say hello to him—her first church service in years. She’s not exactly sure what she thinks of it yet, but she acknowledges that it resonated with her, and that she’d like to come back. “As you get older, you want to go home.”
More than a few Revolution members have Jim and Tammy Faye’s PTL Club as a reference point—often because their parents were dedicated followers.
“I don’t talk too much about Revolution with my parents,” says Chris Anderson, a young man with a dark beard and dark glasses who has been a member with his wife for more than three years. “But they have a lot of respect for Jimmy and Tammy Faye. A lot of people who come here, though … see PTL as not the kind of religious experience they want to relate to.”
Jerry Falwell, never one to mince words, once called Jim Bakker “the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity in two thousand years of church history.” It’s hard to know whether Falwell was referring primarily to the elder Bakker’s embezzlement scheme or to his message of radical acceptance, but the second is a legacy the younger Bakker has embraced.
After Jay’s move to New York in 2006, precipitated by his then-wife Amanda’s acceptance in to a master’s program in the city, Revolution became increasingly outspoken on the issue that remains one of the major litmus tests for American Evangelicals: gay rights, and gay marriage in particular. As well as addressing the issue in his sermons and in talks around the country, Bakker has taken action.
In 2008 he officiated a marriage between two women in California the day it was ruled legal by the State Supreme Court. That same year Bakker was one of the more prominent pastors involved in a project called the American Family Outing, which sought to organize meetings on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day between LGBT families and allies, and a number of influential Evangelical leaders (including Joel Olsteen of Lakewood Church in Texas and Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California). The effort was organized by a coalition that included SoulForce, a Christian gay-rights organization that often makes headlines with its confrontational tactics.
“At first I was really uncomfortable about all the attention. I didn’t think that was the best way to advance the conversation,” says Jay of the resulting media brouhaha. “But you realize that a group like SoulForce uses media campaigns as part of their civil disobedience, as part of a political strategy. And you reach a point where you realize that the cause is bigger than yourself.”
Bakker had spent this particular afternoon sending out a call to action to his followers on Twitter around a recent piece of proposed legislation in the Ugandan parliament, an anti-gay bill, which, among other things, would sentence HIV-positive homosexuals to death. The bill has been particularly controversial in the United States, given the close relationships between some American Evangelical leaders and the very same Ugandan members of parliament who drafted the bill. His tweets were mostly directed toward other church leaders and religious figures, asking them to speak out against the so-called Kill-the-Gays Bill, and rallying others to lobby on the issue.
“I’m really curious what a documentary on the History Channel will look like fifty years from now, when it describes how our society treated gay people,” Bakker tells me. “Some people say, oh we’re going to have to wait for the older generation to pass on, but I think that’s unacceptable.”
Jay’s activism has raised the ire of many in the Evangelical movement and has cost the church at least one major donor. Twitter, Facebook and blog comments regularly denounce Revolution and call Jay a heretic. Ken Silva, an influential pastor, writer and columnist for the conservative religion blog Apprising Ministries, has launched a particularly spirited campaign against Bakker, calling his gay-affirming stance “the doctrine of demons,” and warning that “outlaw pastors” like Bakker “are steadily gaining ground within evangelicalism.”
“I think we’re in another time of reform; there’s a sea change happening in the faith,” says Reverend Vince, the bearded assistant pastor with kind crinkly eyes and a brown fedora. “We’re trying to put the Bible back in to context with the time, what is and isn’t relevant today.”
Vince, who is the front man for the gospel- and Motown-inspired band, Reverend Vince and the Love Choir, was raised Lutheran and moved to New York City in 1993, enrolling at Union Theological Seminary, where he studied for one semester. He and Jay met four years ago when the latter began preaching in the backroom of Pete’s. Vince had read Jay’s book, Son of a Preacher Man, long before their meeting, and while he knew Bakker by reputation, he was wary of his intentions.
“I had seen this kind of Evangelical bar church before,” Vince says of his initial hesitation. “Often they bring you in with all the grace talk, and then the screws start tightening.” He wondered if Jay was the “cool face” of a sinister organization, and if perhaps there was somebody else behind the scenes, pulling the strings. But the first day Vince attended one of Jay’s sermons, Jay called him out in the audience—he was familiar with his music and seen him play. Despite differences of theological opinion, the two hit it off, and eventually Jay asked Vince to join the church as assistant pastor.
“Jay’s wonderful gift is that he still believes in the Church, that there’s an openness for reform from inside. His focus is really on restoration.”
Vince and Jay face challenges ministering to a group of people uncomfortable with the idea of even being part of a church, much less giving like one. Brooklyn-based members of Revolution seem happy to listen in at the weekly Sunday slot, beers in hand, but rarely throw more than a few dollars in the collection hat at the end of the service.
The recession is no abstraction for the two pastors. As employees of a church dependent on donations, they both earn a small salary, and neither have health insurance. While they collect offerings during the Sunday sermons, most donations come through the website. In 2009, even these online donations slowed down to a trickle, and the paid speaking gigs that Jay used to depend on for income dried up as well.
On top of that, with a last name like Bakker, fundraising poses a unique challenge. “I don’t like raising money, or talking about money. And of course on top of that there’s the whole ‘Look now, that Bakker kid is following in the footsteps.’”
Troubled fiscal waters notwithstanding, Revolution’s Williamsburg-tinged version of the gospel carries on. During a sparsely attended sermon in the midst of a holiday blizzard that pounded the East Coast, Bakker discussed Galatians, the book in which the apostle Paul laments that the people of Galatia had been led astray from Paul’s Christ-centered teachings. In fact, Bakker is currently working on a book about Galatians, one of his favorite books in the Bible. He later told me why he finds himself drawn to the story.
“Paul started a Church in Galatia, where they had really accepted the concept of grace. But then another group of people came in and said, you need holidays, circumcisions, rules and regulations to get closer to God. Paul’s letter is a rebuke, a bit of a rebuke to the Church.”
As biblical parables go, it’s not too hard to see why this one appeals to the evolving and difficult to pin down Christianity according to Jay Bakker. “Too much grace, not enough judgment or condemnation,” is how he sums up most of the critiques lodged by his conservative critics. Not that he spends much time paying attention to them—he keeps himself fairly busy working on his book, speaking at conferences, and planning sermons. He also spends many hours corresponding with friends, colleagues, congregants, and the many Revolution fans who tune in from outside of New York, some of whom pop up every now and then in the back of the bar on Lorimer Street. On a January afternoon, a couple from Philadelphia spoke to Jay after the sermon. They’d been listening to the podcast for a year, and decided it was time to visit in the flesh.
“It was just wonderful to be here and meet Jay, to sit in on a sermon” said Sheryl Bruzek. “It’s hard to feel part of a community when you’re not physically there—this really helped me feel a little more connected.”
It was fitting that the afternoon’s sermon, given by Reverend Vince, had focused on the importance of loving and embracing those we don’t know. According to Vince the phrase “love your neighbor” appears only once in the Bible, whereas the exhortation to “love the stranger” appears thirty-six times.
There are few cities in the United States as chock-full of strangers bumping in to each other at such a fast clip as New York City. Jay still seems to be getting used to it, acknowledging that compared to Atlanta, where his ministry overflowed with events and constant entreaties to meet and discuss and offer counsel on personal issues, the idea of Revolution has been a harder sell in a city that privileges the individual. At a recent Bible study meeting publicized regularly at Sunday sermons and on the website, not one member of the flock showed up.
Sometimes Bakker does wish that Revolution could be a little more hands-on, that people would involve themselves more in service and charitable initiatives—like what he remembers from the Church he grew up in, his parents’ Praise the Lord Club, which despite its accounting foibles gave millions to the needy as well, according to Jay. It’s one of the many times that Bakker references his parents’ church, and the theology that they espoused, as a predecessor to the community he has attempted to build in the back of a bar in Brooklyn.
I asked Jay what lesson from his parents he has most consciously folded into his own ministry.
“Love was always the big thing, love and respect. Jesus loves you, treat people the best you can.”
Joseph Huff-Hannon is an award-winning independent journalist based in Brooklyn, NY who writes on politics and culture. More of his work at www.josephhuffhannon.com.