COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Former evangelical pastor Ted Haggard says a well-attended prayer meeting at his home wasn't the start of a new church, but a sign of his resurrection three years after he was forced to resign amid a sex scandal.
"For the people who come tonight, that means they believe in the resurrection in me," he told reporters before the start of the meeting Thursday night. "Because I died. I was buried."
Many of those who attended carried cookies, pies, and brownies along with their Bibles. By the time prayers began, more than 50 cars were parked outside the home. Reporters weren't allowed inside.
The one-time evangelical superstar insisted that his intent is not to start a new church, but he isn't ruling out the possibility. He said the reason for starting prayer meetings after three years of exile was a simple one.
"We were getting lonely," he said.
Haggard, 53, began his journey to becoming one of the nation's best-known evangelists in 1985 at his home, where he led people in worship. Out of those meetings grew New Life Church, which had about 14,000 members in 2006 and a $50 million prayer campus.
As head of the National Association of Evangelicals, Haggard had the ear of White House staffers, participating in conference calls with them and lobbying Congress for conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices.
In late 2006, Haggard's life began to unravel when a male prostitute revealed the pastor had paid him for sex over three years. Haggard, who is married and has five children, said the sexual allegations were false, and admitted only to receiving a massage from his accuser and buying drugs from him.
"The essence of our faith as Christians is to forgive," said Alan Hawkins, a pastor from Albuquerque, N.M., who traveled to Colorado Springs to be in Haggard's living room Thursday. "When this thing happened, I said, 'Ted, nobody is defined by their worst moments.'"
New Life Church pastor Brady Boyd issued a short statement on the eve of Haggard's prayer meeting.
"New Life Church will always be grateful for the many years of dedicated leadership from Ted Haggard and we wish him and his family only the best," Boyd said. The church said it would not comment further.
Haggard later confessed to "sexual immorality" and resigned as president of the National Association of Evangelicals. He also was forced out at the church he founded.
As part of a severance package with New Life Church, Haggard agreed to leave Colorado Springs for a period and not speak publicly about the scandal. The family moved back to their $700,000 home down the road from New Life Church in 2007.
Earlier this year, Haggard admitted he had an "inappropriate" relationship with a church volunteer a few years ago. Haggard said the relationship with the man, who was 22 at the time, did not involve physical contact.
Haggard, who developed an anti-gay reputation over the years, told KMGH-TV in an interview Wednesday that he has more compassion for gays because of his trials in recent years. Haggard has also said that when he was 7, a co-worker of his father's molested him.
"People find it hard to stomach me," Haggard admitted Thursday, before the steady stream of people started arriving at his home.
"I understand," he said, a slight grimace on his face.
Even so, the people who showed up at his home were willing to give him a second chance.
"People love a good comeback story," Haggard said.