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Ted Haggard returns to the pulpit in Colorado

The disgraced former pastor is back in Colorado Springs, and his home prayer meetings have drawn an unexpected audience. 'I love a good redemption story,' a supporter says.

December 07, 2009|By DeeDee Correll

Reporting from Colorado Springs, Colo. — Ted Haggard climbed onto a bale of hay, Bible balanced in his palm.

"Welcome to my barn," he called out.

"Does anybody need a blanket?" his wife, Gayle, inquired as men and women in down coats shivered in the frigid November air. Some huddled underneath a space heater.

Then the blue-jeans-clad preacher began chanting: "God is good, God is good, God is good."

This musty barn next to the Haggard home is barely two miles -- but a universe away -- from the massive stage the former evangelical star once occupied at New Life Church. There, he would appear every Sunday before microphones, giant television screens and a congregation so large that services had to be held in shifts.

But in late 2006 came what Haggard, now 53, refers to as "the crisis," the revelation that he'd had a sexual relationship with a male escort. Haggard resigned from the church he had started in his basement 25 years ago and left Colorado Springs.

Now he's back and, some speculate, launching his second act.

Last month, Haggard -- who declined to be interviewed -- opened his home for a prayer meeting. He expected a dozen people. More than 100 came, and the Haggards moved the furniture out of the living room to make space.

A week later, he swept out his barn and rented 75 chairs. When they were filled, people stood against the back walls.

Many were former or current members of his old church who called him Pastor Ted. They said they had missed him, that he was born to preach -- not to sell insurance as he had when he first returned here. They said they had forgiven what they and Haggard regarded as his sins.

"I love a good redemption story," said Elly Kraai, a former New Life member. "I'm seeing one playing out here."

If Haggard can make a comeback, it will be because many evangelical Christians find his story appealing, said Michael Hamilton, an associate history professor at Seattle Pacific University who studies evangelicalism.

"Sin, sorrow, repentance, conversion and trying to live out your new faith -- that's the standard evangelical way to look at one's life," he said.

But whether Haggard can achieve his previous success is questionable, said Larry Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College in Illinois.

One sticking point could be that Haggard reportedly did not complete a church-mandated "restoration process." New Life officials have said Haggard quit the process in early 2008; he maintains that the church ended the process and that he did not ask to be released from the obligation.

"The larger question is the inability to put himself under someone else's authority and whether it shows true repentance," Eskridge said.

Another issue is the nature of the scandal itself. "Even though evangelical theology doesn't make distinctions between sins," Hamilton said, "homosexuality is a hard one for evangelicals to cope with."

But for two weeks in a row, Haggard -- who now makes a living giving speeches at churches across the country -- proved he could draw an audience.

As guests parked in his snow-crusted field and carried chocolate chip cookies and jugs of apple juice into the barn, he greeted them enthusiastically. "Look, everybody," Haggard announced when one person arrived with a special treat: "Chocolate cake!"

As the service began, he was jovial, even joking about his indiscretion. "If you're not getting enough snuggling [from your spouse], don't do it the way I did it," he said.

His audience chuckled, but grew hushed as he spoke of his ouster from New Life, describing his self-loathing and doubts. "Am I full of the devil? Am I everything that the paper says I am?" he said. "I was scared to death I'd gone off the deep end."

Haggard said he and his wife often awoke in the night in a cold sweat. "Those of you with financial fears know what that's like," he said.

In the back row, Kraai's eyes filled with tears. Another woman slowly nodded.

The rejection by friends and church members made his situation more painful, Haggard said. He did not name New Life, but spoke critically of people focused too intently on religion and rules instead of God.

"When you get yourself in trouble, are they going to draw near to you? No, they're going to disappear. They're going to judge you," he said.

H.B. London, vice president of church and clergy at Focus on the Family and a former member of Haggard's restoration team, criticized Haggard's decision to start a new church located so close to New Life as insensitive and premature.

London said he had heard from many pastors who didn't think Haggard was ready to lead a congregation again, asserting that Haggard had not completed the restoration process and was still in need of counseling.

But London said it didn't surprise him that Haggard could attract followers.

"He was a hero to many people, and people are pretty forgiving. Forgiveness is good, but just because you forgive someone does not give them the right to just begin again, necessarily," he said.

From a folding chair inside the barn, Carl Crews listened intently to Haggard's sermon. The former pastor is a changed man, less arrogant and more understanding, Crews said later. "Three or four years ago, he was more concerned about schedules, appointments, the tithe. He was busy all the time," Crews said.

"I think he understands for the first time in his life what people go through when they have to scrape their nose on the pavement for a living," attendee Randy Welsch said.

As the service ended, Haggard's supporters said they were glad he had not stayed away.

"He has a really big hole to dig out of," Welsch conceded. "I just want to see people give him a chance to see what happens."

Correll writes for The Times.

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