Morningside USA was supposed to be apocalypse-proof.
A gated, stucco fortress in the southwest corner of Missouri’s Ozark mountains, Morningside is an evangelical Christian community built to rent condos right through the end of the world.
“Where are you going to go when the world's on fire? Where are you going to go? This place is for God's people and this place, we need some farmers to move here,” Morningside’s founder, the disgraced doomsday televangelist Jim Bakker, said in a May 2018 sermon. “Did you know people from the government, from NASA, research from so many of them, they have said in their research, the safest place to live in troubled times is right here?”
Morningside is the name of Bakker’s Christian broadcasting empire, as well as the Missouri residential community from which he broadcasts. But it’s mostly made news in recent weeks because of its founder’s legal woes: various government agencies have accused Bakker of promoting a fake COVID-19 miracle cure.
So what does the coronavirus pandemic look like in this temple of survival? According to interviews with people who have recently lived, worked, and spent time there, pretty much the same waking nightmare as everywhere else: mixed efforts at social distancing, layoffs, and reported shortages of everyday supplies as COVID-19 ravages the country.
A former Morningside employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she hoped to return to her job as the pandemic eased said she was among a wave of layoffs as the community entered lockdown in late March.
“They were running out of supplies they had stocked up on when I was leaving there,” said the former employee, who argued Bakker was being vilified in the media.
Neither Morningside nor a Bakker representative returned requests for comment for this story.
The story of Morningside’s development involves two failed historical theme parks and two dozen criminal charges. Bakker, now 80, was a star of the 1980s televangelist scene and even expanded into a biblical theme park until feds convicted him of an elaborate scheme to illegally skim millions off the amusement park. A former church secretary also accused him of sexually assaulting her and buying her silence, although he claimed to have only had consensual extramarital sex with her, and was never charged.
Twenty-four convictions on fraud and conspiracy charges in the amusement park scandal and four years in prison later, Bakker was released from lockup in 1994. By 2003, he’d returned to broadcast ministry, this time with an eye on the end-times. He preached the apocalypse and used a loophole in non-profit law to hawk survivalist gear like supposed health supplements and giant buckets of shelf-stable food.
“Imagine,” one of Bakker’s emergency food ads said, “the world is dying and you're having a breakfast for kings.” (Because his ministry is technically a nonprofit, Bakker does not “sell” his goods; he offers them as “love gifts” to people who make specific donations, like $4,500 for a “Peace of Mind Final Countdown” bundle that contained 31,000 servings of food in a variety of buckets.)
In 2008, he opened Morningside, a church complex/Christian broadcast studio/evangelical utopia on the former site of a follower’s Renaissance faire-themed amusement park. It was the ultimate survivalist sales pitch: Bakker claimed it could withstand an imminent apocalypse, and offered a variety of dwellings onsite. Higher-end homes included condos overlooking a shopping mall-like central meeting area, which also featured a chapel, a General Store, a cafe, and a 15-foot statue of Jesus.
Would-be survivalists could also live in something called a “dome home,” a hemispherical concrete structure that Morningside advertises thus: “In 2003, a monolithic dome government building in Iraq survived a direct hit by a 5,000 pound bomb.”
But for all its disaster preparedness talk, Morningside appears to have faced many of the same coronavirus inconveniences as the outside world.
Susie Ruiz, a longtime Morningside resident who recently sold her condo there, said the restaurant had converted to takeout-only during the pandemic and that the General Store—which sells canned foods and religious tchotchkes—had placed markers on the floor six feet apart to encourage social distancing.
Pam Burnett, administrator of Stone County Health Department, which oversees Morningside USA, said the county only had three confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus. Residents in the rural county might have an easier time maintaining a healthy distance than those in larger cities, she said. And while she declined to comment on Morningside, she noted residents in close quarters can protect themselves by washing their hands, wearing face masks, and keeping apart when possible.
Of course, social distancing can come as a blow to a close-knit community like Morningside.
“I was just down there a couple days ago and they have prayer teams,” Ruiz said. “It’s always been a place where people volunteered. There’s a sense of community, not like a compound, not like a cult, but just like any senior place, where you have all these people congregate. There’s Movie Night on Saturday. They’ve got Game Night. They’ve got exercise classes, stuff like that. There’s just a pulling-together, a sense of community.”
One of the biggest threats to traditions like Game Night is not the coronavirus but Bakker’s own legal and financial worries. The televangelist made headlines in March when the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, and state officials in New York and Missouri slapped him for allegedly promoting a bogus coronavirus “cure” on his TV show. The so-called “Silver Solution” was touted as a salve for COVID-19, SARS, HIV, and other ailments. Bakker denied the allegations in a filing on Monday. He is being represented by former Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, and is also facing a class-action lawsuit by a Missouri resident for his alleged promotion of the Silver Solution. His lawyers declined to comment on the lawsuit earlier this week.
As a result of his legal woes, Bakker claimed to have been cut off from credit card processing companies. In mid-April, he began begging followers to send physical checks, suggesting his legal fight was so expensive that he’d have to sell parts of Morningside unless his followers sent more money.
“I’m just sad to see what’s happening to America,” Bakker said in an April broadcast, according to Right Wing Watch. “We are living in the final days, and if we go the wrong direction, America is through. You have to use a check [for donations and purchases]. Your products are going to come to you. Every one of them will come right to your house, and if we can’t, we are going to refund. I will sell parts of the buildings at Morningside in the long run if you give me a chance. Don’t let me have to file for bankruptcy.”
Morningside appeared to be saving some money the way many American businesses are: cutting its staff. The recently laid-off employee said she was among many workers to lose their jobs when Morningside started practicing social distancing measures, like having its televangelist hosts film programs from home.
“They had to let go of pretty much everyone except essential workers who were helping with production of the show who were essential like video editors or camera guys, or guys who worked in shipping,” she said.
During at least one previous disaster, Ruiz said, the General Store sustained Morningside through food precarity. Although Bakker now sells portable generators for $1,090, Morningside initially lacked a backup generator shortly after she moved there in 2008, she recalled.
That winter, “we had an ice storm,” she said. “Everything was shut down, but it was one of the coolest times because we all hunkered down in the main part of the building … Pastor Jim was a super generous guy. He opened up the General Store and oh my goodness, we were eating like we were on death row. We were having ice-cream and whatever. It was really cool. Eventually they got a generator that turned the lights on just for the inside of the building and then they got a bigger generator for the whole building.”
Those were Morningside’s early, sparsely populated days. A 2018 article said the population had since expanded to more than 70 full-time residents, with plans to grow above 2,000.
The former employee wasn’t sure whether Morningside had been able to restock on essential goods since she left. (Lori’s House, a Morningside home for expectant mothers, recently put out a call for baby products.) And for all its associations with disaster-food buckets, Morningside doesn’t hold the main stockpile, the former employee noted. The buckets are not assembled in Morningside, but purchased from the Utah-based Augason Farms bulk food company, which often ships them directly to Bakker’s customers.
The General Store, “did have some of the food buckets they sell still there, but it’s mostly shipped out from places that aren’t at Morningside,” the former worker said. “If you order online, it comes from Augason Farms. It doesn’t go to Morningside.”
As for the allegations that Bakker fraudulently peddled a Silver Solution miracle cure, the former employee claimed Bakker uses the products himself. “Pastor Jim's always been a believer in being prepared,” she said. “He wouldn’t endorse something he didn’t believe in and use himself. Everything he sells, I've seen him use. I've seen him use silver on a daily basis.”
Ruiz, who attended a different church than Bakker’s despite living at Morningside, said not to conflate the locals with the man who made the community famous. (While she was living there, people told her Morningside “can come off ‘like a compound,’” she said.)
“Give me a break,” Ruiz added. “It’s a place where people live, and then there’s Jim Bakker.”