Samantha Miller
May 17, 1999 12:00 PM

At the Los Angeles International Church in the inner-city neighborhood of Echo Park, a baby-faced, middle-aged figure addresses a Bible-study class. “When I landed in prison, I thought either God was mad at me or maybe there was no God,” says Jim Bakker, 59, clad in jeans and a gray work shirt. “Ever feel like that?” Among 40 or so rapt listeners, from schoolkids to drug addicts and ex-cons, heads nod.

Yep, this is that Jim Bakker—the formerly high-rolling televangelist who was defrocked amid charges of lurid sexual and financial misdeeds a decade ago, convicted of fleecing his flock of $158 million and sent to federal prison. Now, after five years behind bars and a few more lying low, Bakker says he’s finding redemption teaching Bible classes and preaching to “hurting hearts” at the sprawling former hospital complex in L.A. that the church calls the Dream Center. “When I first came here two years ago, I was still scared people would spit on me for what I did in the past,” he says. But “I spoke about repentance and forgiveness, and these people heard me.”

Gone is Bakker’s spider-eyelashed sidekick Tammy Faye, who divorced him during his third year in prison and married his former business partner. Gone, too, is his lavish lifestyle: He now shares a cluttered two-room apartment with second wife Lori Beth, 41, a counselor at the Dream Center, whom he wed last September. Now ordained by a small church he declines to name, Bakker has written a new book, Prosperity and the Coming Apocalypse, which warns of a world-ending meteor strike and condemns materialism. Yet the disdainer of earthly goods accepted a freebie face-lift and love-handle liposuction from a plastic-surgeon pal in January. “God had given me a new start,” he says, “so why not a chance to look more youthful?”

No surgeon, though, could erase Bakker’s notoriety. The Michigan-born Pentecostal Charismatic preacher landed his first TV show in 1966. By the mid-1980s, his and Tammy Faye’s teary pleas for donations had transformed his PTL (Praise the Lord) ministry into a glitzy empire, topped by their $200 million Heritage USA theme park in Fort Mill, S.C. Then, in 1987, Bakker confessed to having paid $265,000 in PTL funds to church secretary Jessica Hahn to keep quiet about a tryst. Amid further allegations of sexual shenanigans, his Assemblies of God church yanked his ordination. In 1989 he was sentenced to 45 years for fraudulently overselling time shares at Heritage USA’s hotels and skimming $3.7 million to support his lifestyle. (He still maintains his innocence.) “I figured I would die in prison,” he says.

But Bakker found friends among fellow inmates. He concentrated, he says, on forgiving people he felt had wronged him—especially his ex-wife and her new husband, Roe Messner. (Had he not been in prison, Bakker says, “I would have beaten his head to a bloody pulp.”) Tammy Faye, 57, who lives with Messner in Rancho Mirage, Calif., says she still loves her “misused and abused” ex. And she says she’s glad their children—Jay, 22, a street minister in Atlanta, and Tammy Sue, 29, a singer and mother of two in Charlotte, N.C.—”have got their dad back.”

Paroled in 1994, Bakker moved to a secluded North Carolina farm, where he took on fix-it tasks and wrote a memoir, 1996’s I Was Wrong. “I never planned to minister again,” he says. But in 1998, allowed by his parole board to travel, he visited the Dream Center and, he says, “started to see the way ahead.” He also met Lori Beth, who says she lived a life of “drugs, sex and rock and roll” before finding religion. “We were two people whose lives were smashed,” says Bakker. “Then God put us together, and we became like one whole person.”

Bakker says a return to TV is “up to God.” For now, he says he’s happy where he is. “Gang members put their arms around me and said, ‘Hey, man, we love you,’ ” he says. “All the down-and-outers treat me like a long-lost friend.”

Samantha Miller

Ron Arias in Los Angeles

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