Jimmy’s missionary position

Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1987: And the Lord looked down on Jimmy Swaggart and shook his head: “Why did you do it my son? Why did you pay that New Orleans slut Debra Murphee good money to commit lewd acts upon your anointed conscience?”

“Ah don’t know, Father.” groaned Jimmy who was kneeling on the gravel of his driveway, oblivious to the sharp stones digging into his flesh. “It seemed lakh a good idea at the time…” “Oh Jimmy, my son. You are but a man after all and I intend to forgive you — just this once, mind. Now go book studio time speak to your flock fess up and let’s not hear mother word about it.”

Swaggart was grateful and did as he was bid. He appeared on TV and admitted to millions of viewers that he had sinned even mentioning more or less how. Through sobbing teeth said he had been forgiven and that they shouldn’t let what had happened affect their faith or their tithe.

Refusing to respect his one-year suspension from preaching, he was defrocked and dismissed from the Assemblies of God Church. Little over a year later in a Penthouse Interview, Strip-O-Gram dancer Catherine Kampen claimed she had gone to Swaggart for spiritual counselling and ended up in a French maid’s outfit tickling the preacher with a feather duster.

Kampen also said he had asked her to tie him up and whip him with a riding crop and had made her dance to the tune of Breathless, a thigh-slapping song penned by his famous cousin, Jerzy Lee Lewis. This time Swaggart denied it.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1989: “Father, hello are you there? Please pick up Father, don’t make me wait for the beep.” God released a sigh that stirred the gravel under Jimmy’s knees. “I’m here, my son. Don’t tell me, I already heard about the feather duster.” “But ah didn’t do it, Father,” Jimmy cried searching his damp handkerchief for a dry spot. “Nobody believes me and mah ministry’s in trouble. Oh God help me. Ah may have to sell the jet!

“Now look here, Jimmy,” said God, “I’m starting to lose patience with you, boy. Do you read me? What did I say about throwing the first stone? If you hadn’t made such a hullabaloo about that Jim Bakker bloke and his secretary probably none of this would have happened. Now go home to your lovely wife and examine your conscience, not your bank balance.”

“Yes Father. Can ah tell mah congregation ah’m forgiven?” “All right, Jimmy but next time — and I trust there won’t be a next time — you’re on your own.” The rest of Swaggart’s year didn’t exactly improve in leaps and bounds. Despite telling his congregation that God had forgiven him again and that the ministry was “as clean as the blood of Jesus Christ can make it”, his show was dropped from three cable networks.

Once the largest employer in Baton Rouge, Swaggart had to lay off staff, put the ministry jet up for sale and watch his R600-million telly crusade empire slide into the scandal swamp in one of his TV appearances before a diminishing audience he said his ministry was under threat of financial ruin “pornographers inspired by Satan”.

Around this time, local Rhema pastor Ray McCauley paid the Swaggarts a visit. Afterwards McCauley said he had prayed with Jimmy and held his hand while he cried. A national newspaper voted him “Whiner of the Year”.

Rosemary Garcia, a heroin junkie in need of money for a fix, was sitting outside the Desert Star Motel in Indio, California, when Jimmy Swaggart drew up in a white Jaguar. “Your place or mine?” Garcia asked. “Let’s drive around a bit,” said Swaggart. When Garcia got into the car she noticed a stack of pornographic magazines in the back.

As Swaggart leaned over to push them under the seat, he swerved the car and was immediately stopped by a highway patrol officer. He passed a breath test but was booked for not wearing a seatbelt and for driving on the wrong side of the road.

As Swaggart gave his name to the officer, Garcia was struck by a revelation “I realised this was the same guy who cried on TV for all those people to feel sorry for him and give him all their money. For what? So he can come and give it to us? I thought, this is a good one.” Within hours Garcia had sold her story to the highest bidder.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1991: Thunder rolled and prongs of lightning raked the black sky as Jimmy Swaggart lay writhing on the gravel driveway in his quilted velveteen dressing gown. “Ah’ve been trying to call you for a week, Father,” he yelled into the howling gale.

“Have you forsaken me in mah hour of need?” “I’ve been busy. Very busy,” snapped God. “Ah’m rilly, rilly sorry this time, Father, an’ah don’t want to waste your precious time, so could you please anoint and cleanse me right away because ah’m getting awful wet down here … ?”

“Jimmy Swaggart you’re a disgrace to the Christian faith … the Buddhists never give me this much trouble … I can’t just keep on cleansing and purging and purging and cleansing you like Brooklax. I want you to go into the desert — alone, mind — and think about your life. You can take the Jag, but steer clear of Vegas and don’t leave until I give you the sign. And Jimmy …” “Yes, Father?” “Don’t call me, I’ll call you,”

At the ministry’s regular Saturday night prayer meeting, Swaggart told his congregation of stories there would be no confession this time. “The Lord told me it’s flat none of your business.” Arriving at Jan Smuts this week for a round of crusades and a desperately needed fundraising banquet at the Carlton Hotel Ballroom, Swaggart fed 702 reporter Akashnee Singh much the same line.

“It’s a sin to bring up what God has forgotten,” he told her when asked about the accumulated effects of hired women on his missionary position. Singh and her microphone were shoved out of the pastor’s flight path while Swaggart’s wife, Frances, hissed mysteriously: “How dare you come here and embarrass women.”

Later that day I called the Jimmy Swaggart Ministries’ Johannesburg chapter to inquire about his sermon schedule and interviews. A woman with an American accent called Flora said there wouldn’t be any more interviews, except with Christian Television. She was very polite and chattered on about God and Jesus and Jimmy.

Then in her soft little voice, she said: “God has cleansed and anointed this man, so as a Christian friend I warn you: don’t offend Jimmy because you’ll be offending God and that’s serious business. And I tell you this: if your reporting turns people away from his sermons and they go to hell, you’ll be responsible.”

Photographer Steve Hilton-Barber and I were the only people who were (almost) turned away from Swaggart’s sermon at the AGS Anbiddings Sentrum in Benoni on Sunday. AGS pastor Sarel Rudolph said he couldn’t let us in if we called up the past and wrote “negative” things about Jimmy. He eventually relented (although we gave him no guarantees), and gave us front row seats.

The Jimmy Swaggart rock n’ roll road show lasted two hours. He clapped, he swayed, he sweated. He played the piano (Honky Honk, Gospel, Engelbert Humperdink) and he sang. He told down-home anecdotes about not knowing which knife and fork to use at a swanky Texan dinner he introduced his wife — “come on up here and greet the people, honey” – and he sobbed about Somalia.

He preached about Original Sin and Adam and Eve and the Apple: “If they hadn’t eaten that thing we wouldn’t have all these problems today!” The congregation roared “Amen Brother!” Someone called Brother Cocky told congregants they could multiply their joy in the ministry’s “product shop” after the service.

There was a new tape on sale – “the whole cassette”, Brother Cocky assured us, “is anointed” – for a discount price of R20 instead of the usual R39. It could save you, you could save R19.” And there were discount CDs (three for R100) for cash, credit card or cheque. “We’ll take anything,” boomed Brother Cocky, “anything but IOUs!” Swaggart scribbled something in the margin of his Bible. I expect Brother Cocky was rather hoping it wasn’t another IOU.

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