In her final TV interview, taped Wednesday and aired Thursday on CNN, Tammy Faye Messner didn’t declare that she knew God’s will. She didn’t excuse her own fallibility or pass selective judgment against others. And she didn’t order up a set of litmus tests for would-be followers to pass in order to win divine approval.
True to her lifelong calling, Messner spoke of a personal faith and unconditional love. As she was dying, she said, “I talk to God every single day. And I say, God, my life is in your hands and I trust you with me.”
Her son Jay Bakker struggled with religion for years after Jerry Falwell and other conservative Christians effectively excommunicated his family following scandals in the late 1980s. In recent years, Bakker was disinvited from a speaking engagement at Exodus International’s annual ex-gay convention in 2005 due to his affirmation of same-sex-attracted persons and his then-nascent support for their right to marry. Falwell, his family’s now-deceased nemesis, keynoted that Exodus conference.
Of Bakker’s ministry among society’s outcasts, some of whom have have tattoos and body piercing like his, Messner said:
I think it’s wonderful. I don’t think God cares what you put in your body or on your body. And he is just doing fantastic.
A world that sometimes heaped scorn upon Messner for her makeup learned in 2000 that she had a wonderfully self-deprecating sense of humor — as well as an axe to grind against Jerry Falwell — when she became the subject of a documentary, The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
She reminded the public again of her humor in her final CNN interview:
KING: …An e-mail from Jane in Ashburn, Virginia: Tammy Faye — “If you could have people remember you for one thing, what would it be?”
T.F. MESSNER: Well, my eyelashes.
T.F. MESSNER: No.
KING: You’ve still got that humor.
T.F. MESSNER: Well, I walk with the lord. I think people need to know that there’s great peace and joy in knowing the lord — the lord Jesus Christ as your savior. I have a prayer partner. Her name is Deb — Deborah Keener (ph). And she’s with me right now. And she’s doing the hospice work. And we pray together constantly. We pray for you. We pray for your family. And we pray for many other people.
Unlike many evangelicals — including ex-gay leaders — who seem to lose their prophetic voice and their ability to express compassion where same-sex-attracted persons and sexual struggle are concerned, Messner remained unflinching:
KING: We have an e-mail question from Jimmy, Sherman Oaks, California: “Unlike many of your Christian contemporaries, you have been a very positive influence in the gay community. Why do you think you found it in your heart to love and accept us?”
T.F. MESSNER: Well, you know when I went — we lost everything — it was the gay people that came to my rescue and I will always love them for that.
Jay Bakker told Larry King that he cherishes what he learned from a lifetime with Messner:
BAKKER: I’ve learned a ton from my mom. She stood up for people when it wasn’t popular. She had one of the first people in the early ’80s on Christian Television with AIDS. I mean Reagan didn’t even mention the word AIDS during the ’80s and here my mom was talking about it on Christian Television.
She had one of the first MCC pastors, which is the first gay denomination. She did an interview with them and always that she might not have agreed on everything with them, she loved them and built a bridge. And I just had a huge conference for MCC and hundreds of people just said, your mom built the bridge between Christianity and homosexuality and we love her and pray for her every day.
And, to me, that’s — you know, she will not be forgotten not just by the gay community but all communities. The people really have loved her because she’s never changed when people tried to make her change. And she always stood up for the underdog and for those who were hurting.
Lest anyone think Messner was grandstanding for attention, author Deepak Chopra emphasized that Messner was peacefully coping with death and constructively facing a future that many people would honestly fear:
CHOPRA: Well, again, she’s connected. She’s connected to her relatives. She’s connected to her children. She’s connected to actually her fans even at this moment. And she has the ability to crack a joke. You know that’s an extraordinary ability to have humor in the face of stepping out into the unknown at this moment.
King asked Bakker whether the process of dying had changed Messner:
KING: Has this ending, coming ending, changed her, Jay?
BAKKER: Well, it’s where the rubber has hit the road. You know she has always talked about you can make it and you know God’s not through using you, all this kind of encouragement. And what it’s done is it’s caused her to put it into effect. And she’s taken all this positive — I mean I can’t believe it. I can’t believe how positive she stays.
She’s had a few moments here and there where she said she was scared or she was worried. But really she’s just like, we’ve got to keep living, keep going, and she’s really — you know, if anything has changed about her, it’s just her wanting to know how much she loves people and that’s why she came on this show is because she wanted people to know how much she loves her fans and all those people, too, and how much she loves you, Larry.
When people learn that they or a loved one is dying, many may blame God. King asked whether Messner struggled with blame.
KING: Why doesn’t she blame God, Jay?
BAKKER: Well, I mean, I’m sure that there’s been times in her quiet moments where she’s asked God why. We all do. We all like to blame God for things. But we also know we live in a fallen world and a world that’s full of disease and all sorts of things, and that’s just part of humanity. So it’s so easy to blame God for everything. But instead of blaming God, we just try to trust God, you know.
Messner offered a final message to well-wishers:
I’d like to say that I genuinely love you, and I genuinely care, and I genuinely want to see you in heaven some day. I want you to find peace. I want you to find joy.
Her favorite Bible verse for finding peace and enduring adversity happened to be a verse that eschews conformity and instead affirms the value of every unique person:
Romans 8:28. “For we know that all things work together for good to those who love God and those that are called according to his purpose.”
Messner died Friday morning and was cremated Saturday. Her death, at age 65, was publicly announced Saturday evening. A public ceremony is being planned.
Addenda: Media coverage of Messner’s last days
Video excerpt: CNN interview of Messner and Bakker, 19 July 2007, via YouTube
Video report: Access Hollywood remembers Messner
Remembrance: MSNBC’s Alex Johnson puts Messner’s role in past scandals in perspective