If you pass the Dollar General, you’ve gone too far.
But first, let’s back up a few miles as you turn onto Highway 86 heading to Blue Eye. You immediately drive past Big Cedar Lodge, 4,600 acres of beautifully manicured land owned by Johnny Morris, who is worth $8.3 billion. This is what I call the manufactured Ozarks, the we’re a family-centered tourist attraction Ozarks.
I want you to experience the real Ozarks, so you’re going to keep driving on this narrow blacktop, carved through the most hospitable parts of the mountains. Occasionally, there are nice ranch houses with mowed lawns, flowers planted around the mailboxes and in front of the porches. But mostly, there are single-wide trailers that have seen better days, scrap metal and trash strewn around the yards. Dogs generally run loose. Some stay in their yards; some don’t. The dogs that don’t learn to stop chasing cars tend to have short lives, and you’ll eventually see their bodies wherever the impact threw them. Owners don’t bother to retrieve them, figuring the turkey vultures will clean things up sooner or later.
Jim Bakker was paroled in 1994, after serving five years of a forty-five year sentence for wire fraud, mail fraud, and conspiracy. The alleged rape of Jessica Hahn (he was never charged), the subsequent hush money from PTL funds to her, and rumors of affairs with men within the PTL organization dogged him for years before the IRS was able to build their case for his misappropriation of PTL funds, leading to his subsequent arrest and conviction.
In 2003, Bakker moved to Branson. In 2008 he bought the land where his new ministry, Morningside Church, sits, in large part thanks to a wealthy benefactor who credited Bakker with saving his marriage through his sermons. The irony is not lost on me.
Drive any gravel road on a Sunday morning, and you’ll see the Pentecostal and Mennonite church parking lots full. Keep driving those gravel roads deeper into the hills, and you’ll eventually stumble across which farmhouse the Amish are holding services in that week. Just look for the line of black buggies along the roadside, feed bags hanging from the horses’ necks as they patiently stand for hours, munching their oats.
These rural churches are the backbone of volunteer work in sparsely populated areas. Bake sales purchase new shoes and winter coats for children. Church members gather to help a farmer who just had heart surgery harvest his fields. They give elders rides to clinics an hour away. Fish fry dinner funds go to purchasing school supplies for the grade school and the high school.
We lose a lot of our brightest to the cities when they graduate. Who can blame them? That’s where the high-paying jobs are. I was one of them, leaving to move to Lincoln, Nebraska, where I stayed for thirty years before returning five years ago. And we have a dearth of activities available for our teenagers. Unless you love hunting and fishing, wandering the woods, or spending the day partying on the lake, your options are limited. The nearest movie theatre is forty-five minutes away. The nearest mall, the same distance. Live music is never held in places that are open to those under twenty-one. Many find their social circles in church. After all, besides school, that’s where most spend their time.
“Where you go?” is, in all its idiomatic glory, something that will be asked of you when you first meet someone new. What they mean is, “What church do you go to?” Because it’s assumed you go. Because denomination matters. Usually, I simply reply that I don’t go, that I’ve just never found the right church that felt like home. If I’m feeling particularly saucy, I’ll elaborate, will tell them God is in the rocks and the trees and the streams. They never quite know what to do with this, but they’ll assure me their church is different. I’m sure they think it is. I’m still not going.
I come from centuries of Catholic ancestors on my father’s side, going back to our origins in France. My mother agreed on two conditions when she married my father—that she would convert, and that their children would be raised in the Church. Neither happened. My mother tried to believe, tried to unquestioningly follow doctrine. But before I was born, before I was even a twinkle in their eyes, my mother finally reached her breaking point. Weekly, the parish priest showed up at the house, as he regularly did to all parishioners, and expected to be fed and to be handed an envelope of cash. One day, she greeted him out in the driveway, a shotgun by her side, called him a son of a bitch, and told him never to trespass again. My mother is a tough lady. The story goes that my father laughed when she told him what she had done, and they never stepped foot in the Church again.
I was curious to see what still caused my mother to spit on the ground in disgust whenever the Church was brought up, so I started going to Saturday mass on my own. I loved the ritual. I loved the peace I felt. By then, a new priest presided. He was in his early thirties and actively sought out the younger parishioners. But it felt like he tried too hard to appear cool to us. I was always polite, but I kept my distance. I started noticing that the priest would stroke the teenage girls’ hair, would hug them a little too tight, when he greeted them at the end of Mass. But only if they were blonde and thin. Brunettes still carrying baby fat weren’t his thing, so I was safe. I’d look around—anyone else having a problem with what we’re seeing here?—my facial expressions said. Nope, no one seemed to have a problem. It was all perfectly normal, a priest twice our age playing with teenage girls’ hair. I lasted less than a year before I simply stopped going and refused to ever go back. My mother gave me a look that said told you so when I informed her I’d learned all I wanted to learn. But she knew I had to figure it out on my own.
I’m telling you this because while I unequivocally believe in God's power, I don’t have much faith in humanity’s power. Corrupted souls preying on believers unfortunately seems to be all too normal. Like the parents and parishioners watching a priest’s lecherous behavior without a care in the world, this is what I see when I look at followers of Jim Bakker types. Questioning nothing. Blinders on. Buying what they’re selling.
Pull into the Walmart on any day of the week, and you will see Fuck Joe Biden and Trump 2024 bumper stickers. A few trucks have Confederate flags flapping in the breeze. One of those trucks with a Fuck Joe Biden bumper sticker belongs to my neighbor. He is a retired chemical engineer, holding a PhD from Stanford. His wife is a retired math teacher. These are not stupid people. But they believe, like many here do, that those in power lie to us, that there are agendas in play that do not bode well for hard-working Americans. Every month, we alternate houses for a shared dinner with these neighbors. On their kitchen counter, next to the flour and sugar cannisters, is a CZ P-10 C 9mm. A 450 Bushmaster leans against the wall next to their couch. None of us bats an eye. We have all been around firearms our entire lives.
The Sheriff regularly tells us through Facebook posts it is our duty to protect ourselves. Fifteen deputies for a county that’s seven hundred and fifty square miles means you have a better chance of winning the lottery than having someone quickly respond if there’s a threat that requires a call to 9-1-1. Most households have at least one weapon. Meth and opioid addictions continue to destroy many here. And now fentanyl. There are more managed pain clinics than dental offices. It’s common around here to support local government only. State, slightly less. Federal? There’s a good chance the answer will be no. What has the federal government done for us besides steadily erode our rights and put us further into national debt? This is what you hear again and again when you bother to ask.
Blue Eye is dissected by the aptly named State Line Road. North, you’re in Missouri. South, you’re in Arkansas. But don’t blink regardless, or you’ll miss the whole town. Remember to look for the yellow and black Dollar General sign standing high and turn your blinkers on. You’re about to enter Jim Bakker land.
When you first drive onto Morningside Church property (feel free; it’s open to the public), you’d almost think you were driving into one of the many gated communities that have popped up in this area in recent years. A guard booth stands, empty. While not manicured, the land at the entrance has been cleared, giving it an open, bucolic feeling.
But keep driving. Soon, the road turns to gravel and dips down into a valley. The tree line is dense, and when the trees are in full-leaf, sun does not reach the ground. It reminds me of my land, where in the thick of summer I can’t see our creek that is less than fifty yards from the house. You can easily get lost in woods this thick. Keep driving another hundred yards or so, and you come up to a fork in the road. There is a long line of mailboxes. Dozens of them. I’d heard people actually live here, and this is my first indication the stories are true. A sign points to the left to go to the chapel. Bluffs with natural springs weeping from the rocks surround me on both sides, breaking occasionally for steep hills lined with white and red oak. I’m forced to stop twice: once for a family of turkeys crossing, and once for white-tailed deer grazing along the roadside. Then, the road begins a steep incline, and before I know it, there is a huge parking lot on a plateau. The Morningside chapel/gift shop/TV studio/residential apartments stands in all its bright, multi-colored glory. But as I drive closer and park near the smattering of other cars in the lot, I see paint chipping and cracks in the sidewalk. New gutters look to be sorely needed. Photos online look far better than what I’m staring at.
Bakker is what is called an eschatological (End of Times) preacher. The Book of Revelations figures prominently in his sermons and TV show, along with information on the best places to survive the Tribulation (Branson being one place, of course) and how many bags of rice and beans you should have stored away. Bakker, like many eschatological preachers, do not believe the Rapture will occur Pre-Tribulation. They believe the Rapture will occur at some point during Tribulation, and thus, believers must be prepared to live through wars and famines until it is time to join Jesus in Heaven. This belief system makes for some hefty profits, as many eschatological ministries sell survivalist items at steep markups. Welcome to Capitalism, End of Times style.
In 2020, lawsuits are filed against Bakker and Morningside Church for claims colloidal silver supplements Bakker hawks on his show can cure Covid. He is no longer able to process credit card payments from viewers, and in 2021 he is ordered to pay $157,000 to consumers who purchased the colloidal silver supplements.
Why am I here? Why are any of us here? I will never have a satisfactory answer, but I keep asking the question. No one is more surprised than I am that I have a deep faith in God. I grew up with an authoritarian father, so you’d think I’d run for the hills before believing in an all-powerful God. And yet I do. But don’t ask me to believe in an earthly organization that holds power over me, because that’s where I draw the line. It’s surely because people are involved. I’d love to find a person in any kind of power who doesn’t scream self-aggrandizement. This is probably my problem, that I’m always looking for evidence of fallibility. Of course, I’m going to find what I seek. But let’s face it: if you want to fuck something up, put a person in charge. And my faith in God is where, strangely enough, I’m able to meet somewhere in the middle with people who doggedly believe in a charismatic religious leader or political leader, regardless of the overmounting evidence pointing at, at minimum, ineptitude, and at its most dangerous level, totalitarianism, because we all have this need to believe that someone has the answers, that someone can lead the way.
Inside, Morningside is empty. I have unknowingly made the spur decision to finally check this place out on the one day a week nothing is going on. The gift shops selling Jesus plaques and prepper supplies are all closed. The Jim Bakker Show (Monday-Friday on any Bible Belt TV station) is not filming today. I’m a little creeped out being alone in this big, dark room when I hear the elevator doors open. A woman in jeans and a T-shirt walks out and immediately smiles when she sees me. She doesn’t mind my questions; in fact, she offers me a quick tour. She shows me where Bakker sits when he films. Tells me MLK’s niece, Alveda Celeste King, will be there next weekend to deliver a sermon and raise funds for Trump. We end our talk with the woman’s invitation to drive around the property all I wish to, and a prayer for health and peace. Like all good rural girls raised on politeness and manners, I tell her I’m looking forward to coming back next week for services. She smiles and shakes my hand. We both know she’s silently praying for me, that I hear the call to return. We both know it won’t happen. But we have found a way to have a momentary connection with each other, even though we are vastly different in mind and soul. It’s another small puzzle piece of humanity’s messy connectedness I’ve been able to fit into place.
L MARI HARRIS'S stories have been chosen for the Wigleaf Top 50 and Best Microfiction. She lives in the Ozarks. Follow her @LMariHarris and read more of her work at lmariharris.wordpress.com.