Standing atop a plush red pedestal surrounded by red velvet rope, Jesus is 15 feet tall and untouchable. His outstretched white marble hands show the markings of his crucifixion; his hair drapes over his shoulders, and his robe cascades around him. And though you could probably reach your hand over the velvet rope to touch some part of the Messiah without being caught, it still feels like there are a dozen eyes looking down from the buildings in the fake town square that surrounds him on all sides.
This is Morningside.
Located 30 miles southwest of Branson, Missouri, by car, Morningside is a giant compound on 600 acres of land that functions as part church, part business, part apartment complex, part suburb. From the outside, it looks like a shopping mall, but the inside — with a cinema that’s actually a prayer room, and a chapel — looks like a Hollywood backlot set for an Americanized idea of a European town square.
At the far end of the square is a granite stage surrounded by cameras and sound equipment. Three dozen chairs are set up around tables, which, although filming is supposed to begin in 15 minutes, sit empty. The Jim Bakker Show used to film here five days a week, but when I visited this past March the two scheduled episodes were both canceled because Jim Bakker — the once prominent televangelist whose very public fall from grace in the late ’80s resulted in a stint in prison — suddenly came down with an awful case of walking pneumonia. The taping had been canceled quickly and without notice, but there was no one there to miss it. Instead, the only audience for the empty stage was 36 white plastic buckets, each about a foot and a half tall.
They’re the kind of buckets that might be used to feed slop to pigs on a farm, and inside each are 18 dishes in freeze-dried food packets, making up almost 50,000 calories that, according to the purple labels slapped on their sides, have a 25-year shelf life. Just add water and, as Bakker says, “imagine — the world is dying and you’re having a breakfast for kings.”
A 15-foot marble statue of Jesus Christ at Morningside's Grace Street.
Whitney Curtis for BuzzFeed News
Nearly 30 years after fraud convictions and a sex scandal forced him to step down from his position as head of The PTL Club — one of the biggest televangelism shows in American history — and lose his platform, his network, and his theme park, Bakker is back and his message is simple: The end times are upon us, and he and his gear will help us survive.
In the Book of Revelation, the last section of the Bible, some Christians believe that God lays out a vision for his return. Revelation is the only apocalyptic book in the Bible, and its interpretation varies even within Christian denominations. Some people believe this book is a parable; some a warning; and others, like Bakker and his followers, believe that it plainly lays out the plan and circumstances for the second coming of the Messiah, verbatim. Their belief is that Revelation, as it is written, includes major events that will happen during this prophesied return: An Antichrist will be revealed. The Four Horsemen of the apocalypse will ride. There will be an earthquake and the sun will become black. Stars will fall from the sky. The water will be poisoned. The length of time before a New Heaven and a New Earth are created and eternity with God begins, known as “the Tribulation,” is widely disputed, and ranges from three and a half years to seven, depending on your interpretation of the Book of Daniel; for Bakker, it’s seven.
A political climate of fear over increasing liberalism in the United States certainly didn't hurt the perception that Christ's return was imminent.
“A time of trouble is upon us,” Bakker warns during one episode of The Jim Bakker Show. Though he is still charismatic, his voice rising into a yell and dropping into concerned whispers at will, he doesn’t pace the stage like he did in his PTL days. There are no more drumrolls to build hype, no more flashing stage lights, no more suits and ties and running makeup to create drama. There is only Jim Bakker, sitting next to his bubbly, amen-ing wife Lori, his voice even and desperate as he pleads convincingly — what with all the hurricanes, and the bird flu, the people who murder babies, and the asteroids — that the world is coming to an end. “There are two different ones, one right after another, that are going to hit the Earth,” Bakker says. “You know what I heard a scientist say? We are living in a galaxy shooting gallery.” And once those two asteroids hit, the Bible, according to Bakker, promises seven years of chaos and war, anarchy and famine. That’s what the buckets are for: $2,800 will get you 28 buckets, enough to sustain a person for those at least seven years of hell, plus two and a half years of extra meals to share with your neighbors.
In 2013, when Bakker began preaching about Christ’s return, the narrative made sense for a religious group focused on spreading God’s Kingdom on Earth. A political climate of fear over increasing liberalism in the United States — helmed by President Barack Obama — certainly didn’t hurt the perception that Christ’s return was imminent. “[Obama’s] reign,” Bakker prayed in November 2016, let him “change the rules of America, to change even the Bible’s standards.” But as the tide has turned and Donald Trump — a man Bakker believes God anointed for the presidency — is becoming friendlier to the country’s evangelical leanings, Bakker is still preaching the end of the world.
After you’ve been so certain that everything is spiraling toward disaster, how do you reckon with a win that makes it seem like, as Bakker said, “good times are here again”? While Bakker might have been happy with the results of the election, he still doesn’t see them as a solution. He recognizes that the country is still starkly divided, and that the divide places his church firmly on one side of the fight. And it doesn’t hurt that in Bakker’s case, the end of the world is also good for business.
Emergency buckets of food at Morningside's Grace Street.
Whitney Curtis for BuzzFeed News
Driving through the gently winding roads of the Ozark Mountains, it’s easy to understand why someone thought Blue Eye, Missouri, would be the perfect spot to build a religious haven. Less than five miles north of the Arkansas border, this land is beautiful, with a vast prairie sky stretching out overhead. Every driver who passes makes sure to wave. And at the top of a big hill sits the giant, colorfully painted main building of Morningside, surrounded by parking lots, a trailer yard, and, farther out on the property, homes where people live quiet lives among the mountains.
Mae Pullman, an older woman with grandchildren who won’t tell me her age, sits near the entryway to the main building. She comes down from her apa