BLUE EYE, MO. â€¢ Forgive them for gawking. They were not expecting this.
“Itâ€™s a little like Disneyland,” one stunned visitor says. “A miracle,” says another. “It is Godâ€™s work.” They stand surrounded by a surreal indoor streetscape of Italianate store facades and condo balconies. A grand chapel sits at one end and a portico at the other, the entire color-bursting scene playing out under a ceiling painted like a cloudless blue sky. It looks so real one woman decides to keep her coat on.
This is even more than Jim Bakker promised them. For months they had heard Bakker on his TV show touting his impending move here. Bakker, the disgraced TV minister of PTL-and-Tammy-Faye fame, said the day was coming when he would no longer broadcast his bare-bones show from inside a converted restaurant in nearby Branson, as he had for five years. He talked about moving to a sprawling complex being built for him as the new headquarters for his television ministry, the heart of a 600-acre development named Morningside.
Now, on a chilly morning in late January, that day is here. The debut of “The Jim Bakker Show” from Morningside is one hour away. Visitors pour in. Construction dust floats in the air. Backstage, Bakker waits. His shot at redemption approaches.
What a stunning reversal of fortune for a man who fell so spectacularly in the late 1980s when his $129 million-a-year religious empire crumbled; prison time and personal shame followed. A return to the airwaves seemed impossible.
Yet no one here tries hiding Bakker’s past. They openly acknowledge the striking similarities between Morningside and Heritage USA, the Christian theme park and resort in South Carolina that was the linchpin of the PTL empire. Bakker designed both, giving them the feel of dense European villages. Real estate, once again, is part of the mission.
But this time will be different, Bakker’s supporters say. He has changed. Morningside will prove it. And inside these walls, at least, the doubters are few.