Is This a Face You Can Trust?
BY Andrew Harmon
February 07 2011 5:00 AM ET
He starts things off with a testimonial from Kathy, a woman who sits in the front row with her teenage son and speaks about recovery from drug addiction. St. James attendees gave her a place to stay until she was able to find her own apartment. The mantra of St. James is “Give someone a break.”
“How long have you been sober now?” Haggard booms.
“About 44…” Kathy says.
“Just about five weeks sober, right?” he interrupts.
“No. Wait. Yeah,” Kathy says.
“From meth and heroin.” Kathy nods, beaming as the congregation claps.
Next to Kathy sits Daniel, a thin, 36-year-old man with blond hair who used to get high with Kathy and is also trying to kick a meth habit. He says he’s been sober “about a week or so” and is also looking for help with work and a place to stay.
“So not quite a week,” Haggard says. “You’ve got to tell the truth if you’re going to do this, OK? If you do your work, we’ll give you a break.”
The “saints,” as Haggard refers to them, are a lively and bighearted group, not exactly the lepers of Colorado Springs — even though Haggard likes to think of his flock as progressive misfits in the heart of American evangelicalism. Most are conservative Republicans. There are dentists, homemakers, soldiers, and executives as well as drug addicts seeking salvation. “This is an exclusive group in Colorado Springs, you know,” Haggard tells the faithful with a smirk. “But don’t worry, this barn is perfectly safe. As long as the wind doesn’t blow.”
Later, at an after-service barbecue in the backyard, I tell Haggard about the snake as he mans a popular snow cone machine on the deck. “I heard about that! Of course, you have to start your article there, don’t you?” he jokes, again with the smirk, one equal parts amusement and a resigned mistrust of most anyone writing about him. I’m always struck by how he speaks. His lips thrust forward, his white teeth invariably on display — Haggard is the same in person as he is on Larry King Live or The Oprah Winfrey Show. He is instantly likable, his charisma knows no bounds, and he has a way of making you forget the details of his story. But then again, there’s no way the members of St. James don’t know what they’ve signed up for.
Reinvention after a public sex scandal isn’t easy, but it’s increasingly predictable. Eliot Spitzer now jousts with conservative journalist Kathleen Parker on his own CNN show. Golf aficionados hail the competitive comeback of their sun king, Tiger Woods. Perhaps John Edwards read Woods’s November mea culpa in Newsweek (“How I’ve Redefined Victory”), looking for ideas. Show a little humility and America can be a forgiving, if amnesiac, audience.
The red barn, the snow cone machine, the same stacked-paint-buckets-as-lectern used to start New Life in a basement — these are the humble props of Haggard’s own comeback. Since I first visited him last summer, his church has outgrown the barn and moved to the auditorium of a Colorado Springs middle school, just three miles away from Focus on the Family’s headquarters. A congregation of a few dozen has grown to a few hundred, and the portion of the offering dedicated to church members who have fallen on hard times, or are close to those who have, was $4,000 one recent Sunday (an instructor at nearby Everest College was the grateful recipient, and gave the money to several students who had been living in their cars while in school).
Forget where Haggard was, and that this 54-year-old father of five and grandfather of two once headed the 30 million–member National Association of Evangelicals and spoke to Bush White House liaisons on a weekly call of conservative religious leaders. Unlike the meticulous rehab script Tiger Woods is following, there’s a naïveté to the manner in which Haggard is building St. James. He’s creating it from the ground up, hoping that his followers will prosper in tough economic times, trusting that the skinny man with blond hair will spend the small wads of cash church members give him on something other than crystal meth.
“People actually came up to me and said, ‘I want to give you some money to hold for Dan, because he may misuse it,’ ” Haggard says. “And I said no. He’s got to make his choices, and if we end up enabling him, such is life. And if we end up rescuing him, such is life.”
A day after the barn service we meet at a Starbucks in Breckenridge, a resort town 100 miles northwest of Colorado Springs. We sit on the bank the Blue River, which gurgles parallel to Main Street, and later eat lunch at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Haggard arrives on a Suzuki scooter after Gayle, unfailingly kind and warm, set up the meeting over the phone. At the barbecue she had spent more than an hour signing hardcover copies of her memoir under a large locust tree next to the swimming pool. Churchgoers took books by the armful from neatly stacked cardboard boxes for her to inscribe, all courtesy of the Haggard family. It made for an odd scene: a woman’s account of her journey with a husband many still believe to be homosexual, circulating through an after-church social in a backyard full of charred hot dogs, grape snow cones, kids playing in the pool, and parents eating off paper plates resting on their laps. Gayle signed her crisp signature again and again, chatting with everyone who approached.
“We were lonely,” Haggard says of their decision to start St. James within eyeshot of New Life. “We wanted a group of believers, so we thought, if we start something and they choose to come, then they’ve accepted me.” He later adds, “And we knew we had to finish the story, so it wouldn’t finish with the scandal. So to finish the story, this is the place to do it.” He says he got that idea from Alexandra Pelosi, the documentary filmmaker and director of HBO’s The Trials of Ted Haggard. “She said, ‘OK, let me just tell you in a language that you can understand: Jesus ministered and was crucified in Jerusalem. If he had resurrected in Rome, it wouldn’t have worked. Although you deserved your crucifixion, you’ve got to resurrect in the same city where you ministered.’ ”