DECATUR, Ga. (AP) – More than two months after Tammy Faye Messner died, her family, friends and fans gathered at a massive church to celebrate “the little lady who lived big.”

More than 150 people headed to the cavernous Cathedral at Chapel Hill to celebrate Messner, who as Tammy Faye Bakker helped her husband, Jim, build a multimillion-dollar evangelism empire that collapsed in disgrace.

“Everywhere Tammy went, it was something Tammy gave – that four letter word ‘hope,”‘ said the Rev. Don Thompson. “She was so loving, so passionate. She was so human. She was so real.”

Messner died of colon cancer in July at age 65 at her home near Kansas City, Mo. She also kept a home in North Carolina, but church officials said the memorial was held in metro Atlanta because Messner’s relatives are close with the church’s leaders.

In the mid-1980s, Tammy Faye and her then-husband ruled a ministry that claimed 500,000 followers. Their “Jim and Tammy Show” was seen nationwide, and they operated a complex that boasted a 500-room hotel, shopping mall, theme park and TV studio.

Then, in March 1987, Jim Bakker resigned and admitted he had a tryst with Jessica Hahn, a 32-year-old former church clerk.

Tammy Faye Bakker stuck with her disgraced husband through five stormy years of tabloid headlines as the ministry unraveled. For many, the image of her forgiving husband Jim’s infidelities, tears streaking her cheeks with her trademark mascara, became a symbol for the greed and hypocrisy of 1980s America.

In 1992, she divorced her husband of 30 years, with whom she had two children, while he was in prison for defrauding followers of their PTL television ministries.

Her second husband, Roe Messner, also served time in prison. He had been the chief builder of the Bakkers’ Heritage USA Christian theme park near Fort Mill, S.C., in 1993. In 1995, he was convicted of bankruptcy fraud, and he spent about two years in prison.

Although she was never charged with a crime in connection with the Bakker scandal, Messner’s links to Bakker’s enterprise rankles some. A handful of protesters near the cathedral jeered at those attending the service.

But inside the church, organizers hosted a solemn remembrance. Relatives offered their memories, a church choir sang her favorite songs and friends played a video montage of her life. In one clip, Messner says that after she died, she wanted “everyone to remember how crazy I was.”

Joyce Cordell, a former PTL staffer, said her friend of 27 years always had a solution.

When Cordell lost a tooth on a trip, Messner superglued it back in her mouth, she said. (It turned out to be a bad idea; her mouth later swelled up).

When inmates started to jeer Messner at one of her annual visits to a women’s prison in Milledgeville, Ga., Cordell said, Messner quieted the crowd with a simple message: “I don’t have to be here. I could be home with my family. But I’ve come to tell you Jesus loves you.”

Her family and friends grew to understand that the woman loved by many was also reviled by some. But her grandson James Chapman said it didn’t seem to matter to his “Mama Faye.”

“No matter who you were, what you wore, she loved you,” he said. “If you thought she was the most disgusting thing in the world, she still loved you.”

AP-ES-10-06-07 2124EDT


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