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From fallen evangelist to popular penitent

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Outside of Providence High School in Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday, signs warned parents of the "mature nature" of Elevation Church's worship service that morning and asked them to route children 10 and younger to the kids' Bible class.

Inside, nearly 1,200 mostly young adults had filled up the auditorium as well as an overflow room and seemed riveted as Pastor Steven Furtick presided on stage over a Christian version of Oprah.

His guest: fallen evangelist Ted Haggard, who lost his Colorado Springs, Colo., mega-church after admitting that he paid a male prostitute for sex and illegal drugs. By his side was wife Gayle, who stayed with him even after that 14,000-member church exiled them and they ended up in Arizona.

There was a time when objects of scandal disappeared from public sight and lived out their days in obscurity. But in an age when the public, including many churchgoers, seems fascinated with the moral lapses and rebounds of famous people, celebrity sinner Haggard, 52, finds himself in demand.

After two years away from the spotlight, he and his wife now spend many Sundays in evangelical churches like Charlotte's Elevation — a theologically conservative but pop culture-friendly church that grabs headlines with its provocative programs. Haggard said the churches invite them to do what he calls "dialogues" about their journey from "crisis" in 2006 to "resurrection" today.

Although he once headed the National Association of Evangelicals, Haggard markets himself these days not as a pundit on political and theological issues, but as a modern-day prodigal son.

His and his wife's insistence that their spiritual life and marriage are now better than ever, thanks mostly to Jesus, sparked cheers and standing ovations at Elevation on Sunday.

"I don't view myself as an expert or a scholar," Haggard said. "I view myself, sadly, as a guy who's had an eventful life, and from those events, I've learned a few things. And maybe those lessons will be helpful to people."

Again living in Colorado, Haggard has launched a Web site,, to tell the story of his healing — via Jesus, therapists and his wife — and to hawk his fledgling life insurance and debt-reduction businesses.

After a recent documentary, The Trials of Ted Haggard, started airing on HBO, numerous invitations rolled in from churches and TV shows. So earlier this year, Haggard began what he calls "repentance interviews" on Larry King Live, Oprah and most of the networks' early-morning and late-night news shows.

He began the onstage interview with Furtick by apologizing to those believers who saw Haggard's behavior and hypocrisy — he had preached against homosexuality in his heyday — as another black eye for evangelical Christianity.

"I am so ashamed that I misrepresented the body of Christ and that I hurt people," he told the congregation. "I am so deeply embarrassed and sorry that that happened, and I don't think that's ever going to happen again."

Churches that invite the Haggards cover their expenses, and most also choose to pay them — Haggard said he demands no fee. Chunks Corbett, Elevation's executive pastor, said the church did pay the couple an honorarium, but he wouldn't say how much. "It wasn't huge, and it wasn't small," Corbett said. "We think it was fair."

On Sunday, Furtick, the church's lead pastor, wanted to talk about the cost of something else: sin. He said it had caused Haggard to go from being a top evangelical leader to being a pariah who, during his desert days in Phoenix, couldn't even get hired as a bus driver or a convenience-store cashier.

The price of his sin was so high, Haggard agreed, that his five children and, someday, his grandchildren will keep paying for it.

"My grandkids will Google me," he said, "and they're going to read shameful things about their grandfather."

Furtick asked Haggard's wife how she could stay with him. It wasn't easy at first, Gayle Haggard said. When the sordid details hit the national news, she was shocked, angry, humiliated.

But then, she said, "I asked the Lord, 'What do I do?' And he said, 'You forgive and you love.'"

There was little said Sunday of the particulars of Haggard's three-year affair with prostitute Mike Jones. Furtick also never asked Haggard about homosexuality.

Does he still think it's a sin?

"Everyone has to read their Bibles and pray and determine that on their own," Haggard told the Observer.

As for him, Haggard said, "I'm a heterosexual totally contented with my relationship with my wife. I have no desires to be with anyone other than her."