writing << lifestyle

[originally published in Beyond Race Magazine]

jay bakker: rebel saint of brooklyn

For those not familiar with the labyrinth of parallel universes that form the patchwork of New York City neighborhoods, Williamsburg, Brooklyn is perhaps the most loved and hated piece of real estate in the five boroughs. Once the setting for the coming-of-age in a time of poverty yarn A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, today’s Williamsburg is, for most New Yorkers, the embodiment of all that is young, trendy, beautiful, pierced, tattooed, and yes, hipster (that most derogatory of terms; no one uses the “H-word” in reference to themselves). The residents of Williamsburg are a walking inconsistency: admired and loathed for their youth and style, while personifying both the abhorrence of materialism and the desire to be part of the newest trend. When in search of meaning, shouldn’t the residents of this little cultural contradiction on the East River look to a guiding voice that also knows a thing about contradiction? Revolution Church pastor Jay Bakker is a son of the bible belt come north, a recovering alcoholic who holds services in a bar (with $3 drink specials), and a preacher who can wax eloquently and urgently on the beauty of biblical grace while also able to surmise the artistic arc of The Misfits.

“…but, The Misfits—especially the early stuff—was really tongue-in-cheek. It was like vampires and all that stuff. It was kind of silly.” Jay Bakker says while sipping his tea in his favorite “Billyburg” café, even though he’s more of a Social Distortion fan (with three Social D tatts included in his arms full of ink). “It was when Glenn started taking himself seriously—that’s also when the music started going downhill. But, I also liked Glenn’s first album. So, yeah, I can listen to music and still not necessarily agree with the message. Supposedly, [Misfits’ bassist] Jerry [Only] is Christian, though.”

I first heard of Jay and his work with his Revolution Church through the Sundance Channel documentary series, One Punk Under God, which chronicled Jay’s move from Atlanta to plant the seeds for a new branch of Revolution in NYC. Along the way he alienated his more traditional Christian backers (and funders) through his unorthodox teachings, namely his acceptance for homosexuals. “It’s hard, because so much of conservative Christianity can be very hostile towards me. I think most of them by now have written me off, which is unfortunate.” This year, Bakker has plans to work with gay and lesbian group Soulforce to bring gay families to megachurches to “just have a peaceful dialogue.” And even in this sprit of bringing people together, for a discourse if nothing else, Bakker has faced resistance from the more rabid corners the religious elite. “Focus on the Family released this little statement to different churches that said we were ‘snakes in the Garden of Eden.’ And, it’s like—that makes no sense to me. We can’t even agree to disagree.”

This Soulforce campaign wasn’t Jay’s first run-in with Christian establishment, and very unlikely will it be the last. It’s the friction of two very different world views: the philosophy of the religious elite as presented on Fox News and AM radio waves around the nation, and that of Revolution, which is perhaps best summed up in the stickers the church hands-out all DIY-style: As Christians, WE’RE SORRY for being self-righteous judgmental bastards. Jay’s main theological argument—and one that has very worldly ramifications—is that God’s love is free to all, while “[Conservative Christians] have made a return to being all about the law, pleasing God, and not realizing that God loves us just the way we are. They’ve kind of made it about earning God’s approval and put a price on salvation, which I think is extremely dangerous.” Grace, which Jay defines as an unwarranted love from God to every human, is the underpinning of Revolution Church. And it was the discovery of this unwavering love from the universe that helped shape Jay’s worldview and guide the future Pastor Bakker through the very public chaos of his early adolescence.

Jay is, in some circles, better known as the son of one-time American Christian royalty Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, whose public downfall have become a part of the American cultural ether. Jay was brought up along with his family’s Christian media empire, which rose with the reinvigoration of the American right in the ’70s. To say the least, Jim and Tammy Faye “kind of pioneered Christian television.” They were the founders and hosts of the PTL (“Praise the Lord”) Club, which was broadcast around the globe and became one of the world’s most popular Christian media outlets. By the mid-’80s the PTL had branched out into a satellite cable network, a mall, and retreat center called Heritage USA in Fort Mill, South Carolina where Jay was raised. In addition to offering housing for single mothers and homeless services, Heritage USA was, famously, home to a roller rink and water park and became the third most visited place in the nation, just behind Disney Land and Disney World.

Then in 1987 “the scandal happened.” Jim Bakker was found using PTL funds to pay off a church secretary after an affair and was sent to prison for the church’s irregular book keeping. At age 11, Jay found himself not only facing the road through adolescence without a father, but doing so as his family’s legacy fell apart before the global peanut gallery. “It was on Nightline, there were newspaper stories, Saturday Night Live skits—all that stuff. A huge media blitz happened. It was pretty traumatic.”

The Bakkers, mocked and ridiculed in the secular world, also found many of their fellow Christians to be, if not allergic to their family’s plight, downright predatory. “So, this one preacher came in and said, ‘we wanna help.’ Unfortunately, the preacher didn’t help us and just took the church—that was Jerry Fallwell.” At the dawn of the PTL scandal Jim Bakker signed over control of the PTL to Fallwell who promised the family he would restore Jim to leadership in a matter of months after the controversy rolled over. But instead—and no more than 24 hours after the ink was dry—Fallwell decried the elder Bakker in the media as a liar, a homosexual, and “the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity in 2,000 years of church history.” Later that year Jim was sentenced to jail for fraud and conspiracy, never to regain control of his empire and even Heritage USA, with notorious water park in tow, was dismantled and sold.

Uprooted from all he knew, Jay mingled with rebellion in the form of skateboards and punk rock, which led to flirting with that other side of counter-culture when he discovered the escapist joys of drinking, smoking pot, and “taking a lot of LSD.” When Jim Bakker was finally released from prison, he found his son was a high school dropout who spent most of his time “drinking really heavily and partying with my friends.” Jim sent his son to Phoenix to enroll in a program meant to give your relationship with Jesus a booster shot. But Jay didn’t last too long because the program had “a lot of rules.” But Jay remained in Arizona and met some other like-minded folks who also had an interest—in addition to salvation—in punk rock and skateboarding. With time away from home, Jay had room to reevaluate his beliefs for himself, by himself (very punk rock). “Growing up in the church you kind of listen to all the pastors and take their words for it. … So, I started reading on my own and started applying scriptures like ‘God love you no matter who you are, what you’ve done.’… It’s nice realizing that everything I wished Christianity could have been started to seem like it was.” Jay and friends started toying with the idea of starting their own church for “people who didn’t go to church.”

The new church, branded “Revolution” did outreach by organizing skateboarding events and hosting hardcore bands, which would be followed by services. The services were held in an old abandoned bar, a tradition that has followed Revolution through its various incarnations in cities around the country. Revolution NYC services are held out of a bar called Pete’s Candy Store, where drinking is welcome during Sunday afternoon services, complete with the recovering alcoholic Pastor Bakker (12 years sober) reminding his congregate to tip the bartender. “People always ask ‘what if an alcoholic comes into your bar?’ And I’m like, ‘I know there’s at least one there every week—ME.’”

If Jesus—or any religious folk from the sandal and papyrus days—were alive today, they wouldn’t get far preaching agricultural metaphors and parables about flocks. They’d have to speak to his audience in a familiar tongue, in a familiar setting. During Jay’s Easter service sermon, he starts with a story about walking down North 7th street in Williamsburg and seeing a Good Friday procession of Sunday school kids reenacting the crucifixion of Jesus. All the while, he recounts, hipster on-lookers try their hardest to act like they’re not looking, while they (in mock cool voice) “flip my hair, bro” and “loosen up my skinny jeans.” Then after some audience laughter (which is packed far more than usual for the holiday) he follows-up with “I know, I’m a hater—I get accused of being a hipster all the time.” This is a bit of a self-effacing humor and an in-joke for the in crowd. Bakker then seamlessly transfers from the little vignette into a heavier dialogue on the foundation of faith. And all the while, the fashionable young audience sipping beers at candlelit tables in the darkened bar room is taking some time away from thinking about music, style, or the cute aspiring actor they met last night, and giving their attention to the man on stage with the bible in his hand.