Plastic Armor of God
POUNDING THE PAVEMENT:
IT WASN'T exactly like a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, although a lot of the cement was painted gold to resemble Jerusalem stone. And there were nightly crucifixions.
For the most part, Heritage USA was about as inspiring as Disneyland. Witnessing the thousands of sincere believers (a.k.a. naive rednecks) who filled this South Carolina Christian retreat, I was treated to a much better performance than watching the PTL Club on T.V.
"If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands," sang the visitors on the tour bus. After a meal at the Heavenly Fudge Shoppe and a run down the kamikaze water slide in the Heritage Island water park, I too was in a good mood. I had spent the morning communing with the spirit of Tammy Faye, and I was inspired to heed her message. Shop.
I headed for Main Street Heritage USA--a row of pastel storefronts covered with Christmas bulbs and American flags. In the toy store I pressed the tummy of a $25 doll, and it praised Jesus. The plastic Armor of God, manufactured by Praise Unlimited of Sarasota, Florida, was available at a more moderate price. And I found a real bargain at the drug store sale--"Tammy Faye for President" buttons, for only 99 cents.
In the Tammy Faye Cosmetics Store I was looking at mascara perfect for costume parties when a saleslady approached. She offered a free makeover, the chance of a lifetime--to transform into a Siren and be able to change back after a thorough scrubbing. With four shades of purple streaked in diagonal lines across my eyelids and with blotches of fuschia on my checks and lips, I resembled the "I ran into Tammy Faye at the mall" T-shirts more than I did the heroine herself.
Then, I opted for a more spiritual experience.
I TOURED the T.V. studio where the PTL Club is filmed. The other tourists gushed--starstruck over the baby blue carpet and the gazebo set where the gospel singers perform. They were awed by the barn-like room where the Heritage USA congregation prays on Sunday (presumably to the T.V. cameras dominating the middle of the room.)
I tramped up a path of Biblical phrases to another fortress of Jerusalem stone-The Upper Room. There I caught a few snatches of a preacher speaking to a dozen people--sinners, I think he said.
I rode the glass elevator up and down in the Heritage Grand Hotel lobby. With its burgundy velvet furniture, powder blue walls and Christmas bulbs everywhere, I might as well have been visiting the Grand Ol' Opry.
I drove around the entire 3000-acre retreat, past the swamp to be developed into time-share condominiums, past the children's petting farm and the house Billy Graham was born in (it was relocated there), past the Bunkhouse Hotel where believers can get a three-day vacation every year for the rest of their lives for a one-time donation of only $500.
Everywhere I went I saw paintings of a wondrous "Crystal Palace"--so I kept searching for this utopian structure. Unfortunately, it has not yet been built. Fortunately it may be completed by 1988, thanks to your support, the helpful staff explained.
THIS is the key to Heritage USA's success. The ministry plays on the wide-eyed dreams of poor folks--luring them in with promises of a cheap vacation in a grandiose building. One elderly woman I met, who had admired Tammy Faye on a local T.V. show years ago, had dragged her husband here for an affordable retirement vacation. Their one-time donation of $1000 was supposed to bring them a room every year for the rest of their lives in the new Tower--only it hasn't been completed yet and construction has been stalled by the PTL's debt problem.
More than 1000 people at Heritage USA don't have to worry about booking rooms--they live there year round. Clusters of ranch houses along Christmas Road (in the summer, it's decorated with American flags; in the winter, with lights and reindeer) are populated by kids, dogs and 4-by-4 trucks.
My tour guide, age 18, came here as a little girl. I asked if she was still in school. No, she said she finished when she was 16 and completed her Heritage USA home study packet. She intends to move out of Heritage USA to start her own ministry.
How do all these people feel about their deposed leaders? There's little loyalty, but a lot of sympathy. The Tammy Faye Cosmetics Store employees watch the scandal on the local news in their store T.V. One clean-shaven tour guide told me the workers think Bakker cheated them. But, weary of controversy, they just want the ministry rejuvenated. Most pictures of Jim and Tammy were torn down and replaced by the paintings of the Crystal Palace.