Finding Grace

Jay Bakker is blessed, or maybe cursed, with one of the most high-profile surnames in American religion.

But don’t assume that you understand Bakker and his New York City-based ministry just because he’s the son of Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Messner, whose high-flying televangelism empire crashed and burned amid allegations of sexual misconduct and financial fraud.

Don’t think you understand Jay Bakker, either, from "One Punk Under God," the Sundance Channel documentary about him. While the series was both revealing and sometimes painfully candid, Bakker doesn’t consider himself punk, but thought the title better than the alternative — "Tattooed Prophet" — that was bandied about.

If you do seek some notion of what Jay Bakker and Revolution Church, his New York City ministry, are about, the stickers he made up to advertise it are a good start.

"As Christians, we’re sorry for being self-righteous judgmental bastards," they read. "Revolution NYC. A church for people who have given up on church."

This weekend, Bakker comes to Las Vegas to speak at Community Lutheran Church, 3720 E. Tropicana Ave., during services at 6 p.m. Saturday and 10:45 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Sunday.

Bakker said last week that he tends to be a last-minute sermon-preparer. But, he promised, "I guarantee it’ll have something to do with grace."

It’s a favorite topic for Bakker, 31, who reveals himself during a telephone interview to be a down-to-earth guy who speaks, articulately and passionately, about what he thinks Christianity should be but often isn’t.

And while he has told the story hundreds of times already — including in a memoir, "Son of a Preacher Man: My Search for Grace in the Shadows" — Bakker again outlines, candidly and with flashes of self-directed humor, his formerly uneasy relationship with God and the pain he endured after the collapse of his parents’ PTL television ministry in the 1980s.

Bakker grew up on television — his father announced his birth during a "PTL Club" broadcast — and Heritage USA, the Christian theme park his parents founded in South Carolina, was his childhood playground.

But, Bakker said, it turned out to be akin to living in a bubble that finally burst when allegations arose that his father had a sexual relationship with a church secretary and committed fraud in the selling of PTL memberships.

Jay Bakker was 11 when his father lost PTL and 13 when his father went to prison.

Suddenly, Jay Bakker recalled, "all of these people you felt close to didn’t want to talk to you anymore and said mean things about your parents.

"It was just devastating. Everything around me had fallen apart. It was like having everything you knew gone."

Worse, Bakker saw "the hypocrisy" of people who were supposed to be about forgiveness and love. So, he said: "I ran from everything. Not just God, the whole thing."

By the time his father got out of prison five years later, Jay Bakker had developed a drinking problem and a rebellious streak. Even worse, he said, "I was struggling with thinking God hated me."

Bakker still believed in God. But, he said, "I was, like, God hated me, God thought I was an awful person, and I could never please God, so I’m done."

Then, some friends challenged Bakker to read the Bible. In it, he learned about a God, and a Christianity, he’d never known.

In it, Bakker learned about grace.

Bakker had grown up hearing about do’s and don’ts, and how about being a Christian was mostly about "when you die, where are you gonna go?" he said.

But what he found in the Bible was that God loved him, no matter who he was, and that God would forgive him, no strings attached.

It was, Bakker said, as though "I’d been lied to all these years and (Christianity) was completely something else than I thought it was."

It was that realization that in 1994 led Bakker and two friends to found Revolution Church to minister to people who, because of their appearance or lifestyle, were ignored or rejected by other Christians.

The goal, Bakker said, is getting "the message of grace, compassion and tolerance out there, and realizing those things were in the Bible."

Today, Revolution has branches in Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., and New York City. Bakker started the New York branch after his wife, Amanda, was accepted into New York University. Their relocation from Atlanta was recounted in "One Punk Under God," a six-part Sundance Channel series that’s now available on DVD.

Response to the series has been "mostly positive," Bakker said, although he has seen some negative comments "about me, and not the show. A couple of my stances, especially the gay stance, got me canceled from (speaking at) most churches."

Bakker’s support for including gay people in his church and gay marriage were key events in the series and resulted in a significant measure of Revolution’s financial support drying up.

"For me, it was a no-brainer. It just felt like that was what I was supposed to do, and I would rather do what I’m supposed to do than compromise," Bakker said. The withdrawal of financial support led to layoffs of a few staff members.

"There’s only two of us (on staff) now," Bakker said. "But I don’t regret it. Hopefully, people can learn to disagree on the subject in the church."

Revolution, he said, is about "getting rid of the legalistic, condemning tradition that the church has passed on and just getting back to the message of God’s love and grace."

Through speaking engagements and his sermons — which can be downloaded from Revolution New York City’s Web site, (www.RevolutionNYC.com) — Bakker hopes to spread that revolutionary message. It’s also why Bakker found so much of the response to the documentary series so heartening.

"I’ve gotten so many e-mails and letters from people who just found hope through the message, and that really makes me happy," he said.

"People thought, ‘I thought God hated me, and he doesn’t.’ And that’s neat, because I was there.’ "

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