Under a sparkling blue South Carolina sky, a bright yellow Mustang--11 years old but in a state of perfect preservation startling to anyone who's battled the salt and grime of Chicago--was rocketing through the red-clay, pine-lined countryside near the North Carolina line. Inside were my 20-month-old daughter, Louisa, singing quietly to herself in her rented car seat; my mother, named Eleanor but known as Dolly; me; and the owner of the car, my mother's cousin--also named Eleanor, but known as Winkie.
We were headed for Heritage USA, the empire built by the faith and donations of the PTL Club, whose initials are known variously to its adherents as "Praise The Lord" and "People That Love," and to its detractors as "Pass The Loot" or, more recently, "Part Thy Legs." In the last year, since the news of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's sexual and financial peccadilloes, the papers and TV stations in the Charlotte area have served up a nonstop smorgasbord of PTL/Bakker news stories. "Even now, not a week goes by without at least one big PTL story," said Winkie, a resident of nearby Rock Hill. A cradle Episcopalian with sardonic tendencies, Winkie doesn't much care for these Bible thumpers or Heritage USA. But ever the good hostess, she readily offered to drive us when I expressed an interest in seeing it, a few days after PTL failed to make its first court-ordered bankruptcy payment of several million dollars.
No other cars were in sight when we pulled up to the guardhouse at the entrance. The uniformed security man seemed happy to see us: he gave us a big smile with a copy of the Heritage USA Herald, an upbeat paper containing schedules of activities and events and the latest on fund-raising efforts. "This your first visit?" he asked. "Just head on down to the Welcome Center--can't miss it, it's just ahead of you on your left--and they'll tell you what's what."
The young, bouffant-haired hostess in the Welcome Center Souvenir Shoppe seemed less pleased by company, particularly in the form of a toddler busily celebrating her release from bondage. "What do you want me to tell you? There's a map on page ten of the Herald." She paused and made an effort to warm up. "You can still make it to the taping of the New PTL Club--but I don't know if she could sit still that long." To myself I quietly agreed. I bought a postcard of Billy Graham's boyhood home, which PTL purchased and moved from Charlotte to sit in splendid isolation near the entrance of Heritage USA. There were no pictures of Jim and Tammy Faye, but many postcards of the passion play--including a realistic shot of the Crucifixion--performed three times a week in the Outdoor Amphitheatre.
I was surprised to learn from Winkie that there are several housing developments here, sort of like living in a fundamentalist Disney World. We drove past the mini-communities of Dogwood Hills, Wood Ridge, and The Meadows, past the unfinished Heritage Grand Towers hotel, a crane motionless on its roof, to find close-in parking for Main Street Heritage USA. We followed Winkie past cars adorned with Pat Robertson for President bumper stickers and Jesus Loves You! license plate frames to an indoor shopping mall with 1890s facades and up-to-date prices.
"Oh, they turned off the sky!" observed Winkie once we were inside. She was here once before, brought under duress by a group last year "when it was wall-to-wall people," she said. The clouds that a few months ago drifted across the ceiling arching over the mall's central walkway have been turned off, replaced by a permanent blue twilight. Here's the store where the women on televangelism programs must buy their dresses, simple, blousy, with padded shoulders, three-quarter-length sleeves, and lace collars. A couple of storefronts were papered over: Out of Business. The jewelry store had a giant Moving Sale! sign over the entrance. There was no one at all in the Time-Share Centre.
Feeling peckish, we wandered into a candy store. "I hate to give these people any money, but I guess fudge is fudge," Mother said philosophically. In the entrance to Heavenly Fudge, I finally found residual evidence of the Bakkers. They dominated a series of four huge photographs, their skin color tending toward orange, large captions underneath. In one from the Tammy Show, 1985, the owner of the shop, Maureen, bespectacled and wearing a "Kiss the Cook" apron, was standing with Tammy Faye--resplendent in black pantsuit and matching poor boy cap, the famous eyelashes brushing her cheek. There were two others from the '85 Tammy Show: a solo portrait of Tammy Faye and one of Maureen. The fourth was a shot of the Bakkers' 25th wedding anniversary celebration, the loving couple grinning away with their kids--a pair of clones, one heavily made-up teenage girl and one slick-haired little boy--all standing next to a huge, multilayered cake in tiers, the tiers connected by plastic bridges, a Barbie and Ken centerpiece in front. The bag the fudge came in was emblazoned with a dove and a citation. Psalm 34:8: "O taste and see that the Lord is good." Next door in the PTL Partner Center, the service center for PTL members, the computers sat with darkened screens. "You're not being aggressive enough in promoting Heritage USA!" an old man in a PTL pin and Heritage USA prole cap stormed at the woman behind the counter. "This isn't just the Bible; this isn't just the Billy Graham thing. This is all of it together and more. This is a special ministry, a blessed ministry, and we've got to get the word out, and you're not doing anything!" A Lifetime Partner--he and his wife have contributed thousands of dollars to PTL--from Florida, he would like to see the Bakkers "forgiven their transgressions" and returned to their electronic pulpit.
The tired-looking, 50ish woman with elaborately curled coal black hair patiently explained to him, with the air of one who goes through the routine several times a day, that PTL can't be like it was before, must work its way out of bankruptcy. "We have to do this in God's time, not ours." When he left, shaking his head, I asked her about lifetime partnerships. "Those aren't available now. You can still have a regular partnership, for $15 a month. And for a one-time $15 donation you can have a Christian Moppet doll for your little girl, marked down from $20."
She asserted that the crowds are down "because the partners are having to pay for things that used to be free. Lodging is $25 a night now--and they say, 'Why should I pay for it when it used to be free?' When we offered the old folks free lodging one month, they were here. When we started charging again, they stayed away."
Asked about the future of Heritage USA, she sighed. "We're waiting for someone strong to lead the ministry. It has to be done in God's time, not ours."
Opening off the Partner Center is the second half of the Heritage Gift Shoppe, Ye Olde Bookstore, where I found the Christian Mother Goose in the children's section: "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall / Humpty Dumpty had a great fall / Humpty Dumpty said 'Amen! / Jesus put me together again!'" Completing our tour of the mall was Victor's Records, where one may still purchase recordings of Tammy Faye Bakker singing inspirational. favorites.
A few oldsters littered the Heritage Grand, a low-rise hotel with several sets of glass elevators, many lights, a series of large oil paintings of an 80s-style Christ and Virgin Mary, elaborate furnishings, and a swimming pool that was closed. From the back door we could see Heritage Island, the amusement park.
Part of Heritage Island is the water park, with water slides, waterfalls, and an artificial lake. The water park will remain closed this season; it is costly to operate, and the Carowinds amusement park, just a few miles away, has similar attractions and no scandal hovering. One waterfall still tumbled merrily, close to an unfinished hamburger stand in the shape of a Norman castle. "It was in the paper the other day--400 people are out of work from Heritage USA," noted Winkie.
The parking lot at the Church Studio, where the taping of the New PTL Club was in progress, was a quarter full; we kept going. At the Outdoor Amphitheatre we found a couple of acres of empty pavement. Winkie parked illegally anyway, straddling several yellow lines. Inside were benches to seat thousands, facing a huge set containing versions of the temple, Golgotha, the upper room (the table already set for supper), what looked like the residence of either Herod or Pontius Pilate, as well as some tents for the shepherds. In the Jerusalem Shoppe adjoining, I bought another postcard--that shot of the Crucifixion. A listless clerk left off dusting to turn on the cash register for my purchase.
Outside, I offered to buy McMoose Burgers for the group. "I've got plenty of good food at home," snorted Winkie. "I'm not going to put any money into their pockets." "Bryan was being facetious," said my mother.
On our way out we passed only two cars going in.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.