The Church of Living Dangerously

Written by David Kushner, Vanity Fair

Friday April 19th, 2019

How One of America’s Biggest Pastors Became a Drug Runner for a Mexican Cartel.

John Bishop the former Pastor of Living Hope in Oregon illustrated for Vanity Fair
Illustration by Tim McDonagh.

A little after five A.M. on December 11, 2017, a gray Volkswagen Passat inched through the darkness of Tijuana toward the brightly lit Customs and Border Protection port of entry at San Ysidro, California. It was in the SENTRI lane, the special passageway for pre-approved, low-risk travelers who have passed a stringent background check.

The driver, a stocky 54-year-old man with shaggy blond hair and a goatee, seemed as low-risk as they come. John Lee Bishop had established himself as one of the most successful pastors in America. His mega-church, Living Hope, was one of the country’s fastest-growing congregations. With over 8,000 members, it occupied an 85,000-square-foot former Kmart superstore in Vancouver, Washington, a working-class suburb just up the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon. Locals called it “the Kmart Church.”

Bishop’s mega-church was a kind of blue-light special for those who other churches left behind: gay teens, junkies, the homeless, anyone who felt excluded. Bishop understood “the unchurched,” as he called them, because he started out as one himself, a social misfit damaged by an abusive childhood and turned off by organized religion. With his long hair, ripped jeans, and laid-back demeanor, he looked like Sammy Hagar, whom he was sometimes mistaken for, and preached like a Vegas showman, nearly getting mauled by a 350-pound tiger he brought onstage for a Noah’s Ark service.

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Bishop and his church were also known for their good works: feeding the homeless, holding a prom for developmentally challenged teens, loading semis with supplies for survivors of Hurricane Katrina. When the late Billy Graham, the legendary Baptist minister, was in declining health, one of the few pastors he invited to visit him was Bishop, whom he personally blessed. “We thank you for the great ministry you’ve given him already,” Graham implored God, as he cupped Bishop’s hands, “and Lord we pray that it will only be the beginning.”

Now, as Bishop reached the border checkpoint, he flashed the Customs agent a smile. What were you doing in Mexico? the agent asked. Finishing up a religious mission, Bishop replied. Where are you headed? Chula Vista, Bishop said. A church.

Operating out of routine, the agent climbed down on his back and slid under the car. Then something caught his attention. Getting up, he crowbarred the trunk and began ripping apart the car. One by one, agents pulled out small, tightly wrapped packages of weed—in the dash, the bumpers, the wheel well, the rear seats. There were 105 packages in all, weighing nearly 300 pounds.

Bishop saw the flash of a gun and was ordered to his knees. His arms were pulled behind him, cold cuffs snapping on his wrists. He could feel the stares of passing drivers bearing down on him, along with the eyes of God. It felt like that verse from scripture: “And the mighty man shall be humbled, and the eyes of the lofty shall be humbled.”

What the fuck? he thought to himself as he knelt, head bowed. Why did I do this? What was I thinking?

John Bishop baptizes a congregant during Easter services at the Rose Garden, in Portland, Oregon, 2007.

By Rick Bowmer/AP Images.

Bailey Rose Sturdevant, 6, is carried by her mother after another baptism during the Easter service.

By Rick Bowmer/AP Images.

Growing up in Vancouver, an industrial town of paper mills and aluminum smelters, Bishop seemed more destined to be a drug runner than a man of the cloth. When he was four years old, his father, a truck driver named David Lee, died after he got drunk and drove his Corvair into a tree. Bishop’s mother, Carol, got remarried to an abusive drug dealer who beat the two of them. “I would watch her nose get bloodied and I couldn’t do nothing about it,” Bishop recalls. “I’d start to run up to her and he’d just push me down.”

For entertainment, his uncles ran a kind of kiddie fight club in the family’s backyard, pitting Bishop and other children against each other in bare-chested, bare-knuckled brawls while neighborhood men cheered them on. “They’d sit on the deck with a cooler of beer and lawn chairs and watch us beat the shit out of each other,” Bishop says. To survive, he took up martial arts, winning trophies in local bodybuilding competitions.

Then he met Michelle, a gymnast, at a rival high school. The pious daughter of an electrician, Michelle dreamed of marrying a pastor. Bishop “started going to church with me so I would date him,” she says. Bishop, who had never been observant, hated the overbearing preacher and long sermons. His severe attention-deficit disorder made it even worse. But he stuck it out, and two years after they graduated high school, he and Michelle were married.

It took a near-fatal accident, however, for Bishop to become truly devout. One day, after serving a stint in the Air Force, he was sparring with a friend when he took a roundhouse kick to the nose, severing an artery. “There was blood all over the floor,” Michelle recalls. At the hospital, the doctor told her that Bishop wasn’t going to make it. “If he’s religious,” he said, “call your priest.” Against the odds, Bishop survived—and felt transformed. “When I got out of the hospital, I said, ‘What’s really real?’” he says. “Like, what the fuck happens after this life, man? Do I become worm food? What the hell?”

As soon as he recovered, Bishop joined a bible study group run by Michelle’s pastor, Neal Curtiss. “He was a thoroughbred right out of the gate,” recalls Curtiss, who became his mentor. Bishop volunteered to lead the church’s youth ministry, building it almost overnight from a handful of children to 75. “He could connect with the kids that were struggling with broken homes and families, because that’s where he came from,” Curtiss says. “He was a pastor who understood people.”

Before long, Bishop felt the calling to start his own congregation—one that would reach the seemingly unreachable. His mission was simple: “Accept anyone,” he says. “Whether they’re gay, they’re black, they’re white, who cares, just accept them. And love them. And be there for them. And have grace for them. And don’t ask about their past.”

Starting a new church is a little like opening a restaurant: you set out to share your passion with others, but there’s lots of competition and very low odds of success. The vast majority of churches fail in their first five years. But Bishop, who was running his own janitorial cleaning business, fashioned himself as an entrepreneur. For $100, he rented a small red-brick social hall, put up a makeshift sign that bore the name of his new church, and spent Saturday nights preaching to a dozen or so working-class locals. “Welcome to Living Hope,” he told them. “We’re a church for all the rest of us.”

At first, Bishop stuck to the established script for Baptist ministers. He dressed up in slacks and a button-down shirt and tie, quoting from scripture as he paced the pulpit. But the uptight approach, he soon realized, didn’t fit his mission. “Unchurched people don’t wear ties,” Bishop says. “Unchurched people are really messy to deal with. They have drug problems, addictions, marriage problems. Churches want people in their suits looking polished and happy, smiling ear to ear. But it’s fake. It’s a façade.”

Instead, Bishop embraced a more radical notion: He decided to risk being himself. He began speaking from the heart about his own troubled past—his father’s drinking, the abuse, the childhood fight club—shedding the conservative attire for his usual wardrobe of jeans and a T-shirt and letting his mane of surfer-blond hair grow past his ears. He also worked overtime to make sure that none of his flock would feel bored, the way he had when he first started going to church. Working with Michelle and his three children—David, Katie, and Hannah—he staged increasingly theatrical productions for his sermons. “It was almost like [a] Las Vegas thing,” Michelle says. “What would bring people in? You get them in the doors, and then they’re hearing about the gospel.”

For a sermon on Noah’s Ark, they featured exotic live animals: crocodiles, snakes, a bear. To show how people could be imprisoned by their beliefs, they created a “Prison Break” event, wrapping the church in razor wire and dressing the staff like prison guards. As their congregation swelled, they had to merge with a local Baptist church to accommodate all the faithful. One day, Glen Johnson, the pastor of the church, drove up to see a giant sign out front featuring a single word in big letters: SEX. Inside, he found John and Michelle onstage, answering texts from parishioners on a range of explicit topics: What about sex toys? What about anal sex? “Anything in the marriage bed you can do,” Bishop was telling his flock. “There’s no anything off limits.”

“He came from a broken, screwed-up home,” says Mike Miller, a local pastor. “And he would share it with people: ‘This is where I was, and this is what God’s doing in my life.’ He was very open about who he was.”

By 2007, barely a decade after it opened, Living Hope had over 2,000 members—the threshold for being considered a mega-church. Outreach Magazine, a Christian publication that tracks American ministries, ranked it as the seventh-fasting-growing church in the country. Bishop moved his growing congregation into a former department store in a mega-mall, with even more room for theatrical productions. He brought in a broken Cessna and surrounded it with palm trees for a sermon based on the TV show Lost. He expanded his ever-popular animal-themed services to include a camel named Curly, a black bear, and, he says proudly, “the spider monkey from Pirates of the Caribbean.” He also added a huge Bengal tiger named Sundar. During the show, as the beast lumbered past him onstage, Bishop reached out to pet it—something he had specifically been warned not to do. Suddenly, the cat reared up on its hind legs, slashing its thick paws at Bishop. The pastor stumbled back as the congregation gasped, but he didn’t skip a beat. With a faint smile, he watched as the trainer pulled Sundar back on his chain. Then Bishop spoke to the congregation as calmly as ever. “Let’s stand for closing prayer now, shall we?” he said.

In 2011, Living Hope became “the Kmart Church” when it moved into an even bigger unoccupied store in a nearby strip mall. But Bishop dubbed it “the dangerous church”—one that’s “willing to do what’s not being done, to reach people who are not being reached.” Ever the entrepreneur, he set out to spread the danger around the world, opening satellite congregations in New Zealand, the Philippines, and India. “I modeled it, in my thinking, after Starbucks,” he says.

Unlike a restaurant chain, Bishop measured his success in the number of souls he saved. But running a mega-church also provided a decent living—enough to afford a 5,000-square-foot home with a three-car garage, as well as a three-bedroom vacation home in a gated community in Cabo San Lucas. During one trip to Mexico, Bishop decided to set up shop in an old synagogue. Dubbed Laguna Cabo, the church held services for local merchants in a makeshift tent on the beach. “I even had beer, because Mexican guys like to drink beer on a Saturday night,” Bishop says. For eight months, as he built the church, he traveled back and forth to Cabo. Then, one night, the danger came to him.

Answering a knock at his door, Bishop was confronted by a well-dressed Mexican man with a scruffy beard. “I want to talk to you,” the man said in Spanish, as his bodyguard translated. Taking a seat, he took out a nine-millimeter Glock and placed it on the table. “I just want to find out what you’re doing here,” he told Bishop. “Why are you here every week? Why do you fly out every Thursday and come back every Monday?”

Bishop didn’t know how to respond. “No disrespect, man,” he said. “But I don‘t want to die. Did I do something wrong?”

“No, not yet,” the man said. “But if I find out you’re selling drugs, I’m going to put a bullet in your head myself.”

Bishop later learned that his visitor was a feared hitman for New Generation, the powerful local drug cartel. He had been sent to make sure Bishop wasn’t encroaching on their territory. Two weeks later, his inquiries completed, the man returned to let Bishop off the hook. “I know for a fact you’re not dealing,” he told Bishop. Then he took out a small bag of cocaine. “This is my way of celebrating,” he said.

“I’ve never done that before,” Bishop told him.

“For me, you will.”

The man snorted his share, but let Bishop get away with rubbing some coke on his teeth. As soon as the man left, Bishop raced to the bathroom and washed out his mouth.

Bishop wasn’t the only one brushing up against the underworld. His 22-year-old son, David, had been experimenting with drugs and courting trouble with the law since age 13, when he was busted for breaking into a store to steal cigarettes. Unlike his sisters, David couldn’t cope with his father’s mega-church stardom—the pressure of people “telling me I got to sit in the front row and behave because I’m the pastor’s son,” he says. “So I just went in the opposite direction.”

Scrappy, witty, and barely five feet tall, David took to the young outlaws of Vancouver, wearing saggy jeans and sideways hats, earning the nickname Detroit for reasons he can’t recall. But he never lost his devotion to religion—he has a tattoo that reads “Let God” on his arm—and considers drugs divine manifest. “What’s the first miracle Jesus ever did?” he says. “He made water into wine—for a party!”

After high school, his parents convinced him to join the Navy to straighten out. But David, who says he was sexually assaulted by a group of sailors, returned home with P.T.S.D. and became hooked on heroin and meth. His father tried to help, in part, by turning Living Hope into a beacon for others struggling with addiction. “I feel like that’s why he started preaching like that,” David says. “Because he was trying to reach out to people like me.”

But David wasn’t just taking drugs—after services, he was also selling meth and heroin behind the church. His clientele were the very same homeless people and addicts his father was trying to save. “I definitely took advantage of being the pastor’s son,” he says. “Because he was untouchable, I was untouchable.” While David was at it, he would put in a plug for his father’s business: He’d sell clients in town a dime bag, then encourage them to come to Living Hope. “I brought tons of people to church that were my clients,” he says. “They’d come and change their lives.”

John Bishop arrives for his sentencing at the federal courthouse in San Diego on September 21, 2018.

By Amanda Cowan/The Columbian.

Bishop didn’t know that meth had become a sacrament of choice at Living Hope. In fact, as he struggled to keep up with the demands of his fast-growing ministry, he was on the verge of his own fall from grace. The Bible is full of epic tales about fortunate men who screw up: Adam eating the apple, Moses killing a slave overseer, King David breaking every commandment in sight. By 2015, Bishop was doing seven services a weekend for 5,000 congregants, all while feeding the homeless, writing books, traveling abroad to oversee his growing empire, and staging edgier productions (having an AC/DC cover band play for a “Highway to Hell”–themed Easter service). Overweight and middle-aged, he began popping painkillers after a double knee replacement. He also started drinking—a Grey Goose on the rocks here, another there—until it overtook him as it had his father years before. “He was absolutely falling apart,” Michelle says.

He was also, she learned, having an affair. One day, a group of women at the church confronted Michelle, telling her that Bishop had slept with a church employee. Her husband tearfully confessed that he’d succumbed to temptation of the flesh, and had been drinking himself into oblivion because of his guilt. “I hated myself,” he says. Board members at the church were furious. “I was livid, man,” recalls Curtiss, who had followed Bishop to Living Hope. “I could have punched him in the face—I felt totally betrayed.”

In November 2015, Bishop was fired as pastor, as was the rest of his family. Suddenly, everything he had worked so hard for was gone. The man who had attracted the unchurched in record numbers was now unchurched himself. “I looked around,” he says, “and all that was left was my family.”

After sobering up at a rehab facility in Malibu, Bishop tried to reconcile with Michelle. As angry as she felt, she believed in forgiveness, and was struggling to keep their marriage together. “It was a mess,” she says, “I was trying so hard.” Bishop also turned his attention to his wayward son, David, whom he felt he had failed to protect from crime and drugs. “We had lots of money, the best houses, we were always there, we never divorced, no abuse, nothing,” Bishop says. “So why did my son go that way?”

He decided to find out. “I want to understand your whole world,” he told David. “Because obviously your world must be better than what I’ve provided for you. You’re in a ditch, and I could rescue you. But I got to go into the ditch to know how to pull you out.”

“No, fuck that, no way,” David replied. “Dad, I don’t want to see you do this.”

But Bishop wouldn’t relent. “I wanted him to know I loved him enough to jump into his life with him,” he recalls. “It sounds super weird, but it was the only way.”

Late one night at home, Bishop found David and a friend in the garage bay he had converted into a library lined with 7,000 books, most of them on Christianity and religion. David, who had just shot up, was nodding off, his works spread out beside him. Bishop turned to the friend. “I want to know what David does,” he said. “What does heroin feel like?”

“You want to know?” she replied.

Telling him to lean his head back, she used a syringe to squirt several drops of heroin into his eye. “I just felt dizzy, like someone hit me in the face,” Bishop recalls. “I couldn’t get my footing. It was like being drunk times 100.” Then the friend squirted another stream into his eye, and he was overcome by a wave of nausea. He stumbled into the bathroom to throw up for what seemed like an hour.

The next morning, David chastised his friend for getting his father high. But Bishop insisted it was his choice. “Jesus came to be human to understand our lives, so we could believe he loves us enough to understand us,” he told David. “I want to do the same with you. I have nothing to lose. Nothing to gain. Maybe I should be a drug addict.”

Addicts are skilled at rationalizing their compulsion to get high, and Bishop’s godliness served as a perfect cover for his neediness. David, for his part, was desperate to reconnect. So father and son set out on a road trip to Cabo. They drove down from Portland in David’s lime green Ford Focus. They slept in crappy motels, listened to Eminem, ate greasy burgers at fast food joints, and took heroin and meth. The more drugs they did together, the closer they felt. “It was me revealing myself to him,” Bishop says. “My willingness to do anything to get to his heart.” They talked non-stop, making up for lost time. “What have I done wrong?” they’d ask each other, “What can I change?” After two weeks and 2,100 miles, they arrived at their vacation home in Cabo.

Bishop tried his hand at selling timeshares in Cabo. But without his church and his marriage, he felt lost. There was a bar in Cabo that let people fight for kicks, as others egged them on, just as his uncles had done when he was a kid. Bishop started going there every night, stumbling home bloodied and broken. “In the Bible, when the thing with God is not working, we go back to what we knew before God,” he says. “As an adult, losing my thing that gave me my identity, I didn’t know what to do except to revert back to someone I didn’t want to be.”]

His son, meanwhile, began to introduce Bishop to the ways of the street. Through a prostitute he’d been dating, David had established himself as a go-to drug dealer for one of the cartels. “All the tourists are down there partying, they don’t trust Mexicans,” David says. “They want to buy drugs from me.” One morning before dawn, after another long night of drinking and brawling, Bishop was eating at his usual taco stand when a lowlife gangster known as Fish pulled up, flanked by two thugs. In broken English, Fish told Bishop that David owed him money. If his son didn’t pay, Fish warned, he knew guys getting out of prison who would make him suffer.

“What the fuck?” Bishop replied, refusing to back down. “You fuck with my son, you fuck with me. What does he owe you?”

“Seven hundred bucks,” Fish said.

“Bro, I’ll give you 400 bucks, and I want it to end,” Bishop said. “I’m not coming for danger.” To his relief, Fish agreed on the deal.

Bishop had not only gotten the cartel’s attention, he had earned their respect. When a cartel leader named Chucho was gunned down in a shooting, Bishop was asked to lead the funeral service. “Papa John,” as Bishop was nicknamed, soon found himself praying over Chucho’s coffin in the desert, surrounded by several cartel members. “It was so easy to take advantage of my dad,” David says. “He trusts people way too much.” Later, when Bishop got mugged on the street, the cartel tracked down the thief, beat him bloody, and retrieved Bishop’s phone and money. He hadn’t asked them to do it, but now he owed them a favor.

In November 2016, Bishop was hanging out with a Mexican friend who drove a taxi in town. “I know you need money,” the friend told him. “I have an opportunity if you want it.” If Bishop agreed to smuggle heroin into the United States, the cartel would pay him $10,000.

Bishop declined, saying heroin is “poison.” But the friend’s associates were undeterred. One night, Bishop arrived home to find the place turned upside down, all of his TVs and valuables gone. A local drug dealer was sitting next to David. “Your son screwed up,” the dealer told Bishop. “But because me and my family like you and David, you’re going to be O.K.” He offered Bishop $20,000 to take two kilograms of heroin to Vancouver. He’d get through the border easy, being a pastor who could use the SENTRI lane. Bishop again refused.

Soon after, on January 4, 2017, Bishop was back in Vancouver for a visit when two F.B.I. agents showed up at his door. They wanted to talk with him about a drug dealing friend of his son’s, who had been arrested in Cabo the week before while driving Bishop’s car. Though Bishop had nothing to do with the incident, he broke down in tears and offered a full confession. He told them about his affair, his firing from the church, how he had been recruited by the cartel. Though he said he had declined to smuggle drugs, he “went on to discuss multiple drug dealers in Cabo with whom he was familiar,” the agents noted in their report. Saying he was “penniless,” he offered to work for the F.B.I., and asked how much informants are paid. The agents, recognizing that Bishop had little to provide in the way of access or inside information, declined the offer.

Back in Cabo, Bishop had nowhere else to turn. He and Michelle had declared bankruptcy and were living on food stamps. “I was desperate for money,” he recalls. So that summer, when the taxi driver asked him if he would be willing to smuggle weed instead of heroin, he caved. “You know what,” Bishop said. “I’ll give it a shot.”

Living Hope Church in Northeast Vancouver, May 21, 2018.

By Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian.

The cabbie drove Bishop to a Mexican restaurant in Ensenada to meet Pablo, the “big boss” of the New Generation cartel. Pablo was a modestly dressed, middle-aged man surrounded by eight bodyguards. Sensing Bishop’s anxiety, he shrewdly suggested that working with the cartel could help Bishop start another congregation. “We can start a church in Tijuana and sell Christmas trees,” Pablo told him. Drugs had been the thing that drew so many people to Bishop’s church. Now they were offering him a way to be born again.

Pablo sent Bishop to Tijuana, where he met with the cartel’s second in command, a well-dressed man in his forties who went by the nickname Memo. Memo took him to a cheap hotel where Bishop would be required to share a room with a cartel member, at his own expense. Memo also gave him a Passat, which was put under his name. Then it was time for him to “drive dry”—making some practice runs across the border, to test his ability to stay cool and see if his trips would arouse any suspicions.

Over repeated runs, Bishop was permitted to cross into the U.S. without incident. But in between dry drives, he was a virtual prisoner of the cartel. Each night he was given 45 minutes to pick up food at KFC. Sometimes he was allowed to go to a casino. It wasn’t just to keep him from running, he learned. It was to protect him from other cartels. One day, when he left his room, he was cornered by a rival gang who wanted him to work for them, until Memo drove up, gun in hand, and took Bishop away. The cartel called him “the asset.”

Finally, after 22 dry drives, it was time for the real thing. One morning, Bishop was introduced to his “handler.” The man drove him to his Passat, which was waiting for him a half-mile from the border. The car looked and smelled normal. When Bishop asked where they would put the pot, the handler pointed to the dashboard and the rear bumper. Then he gave Bishop a burner phone. “We’ll text you when you get to the other side and give the instructions,” the handler said.

Bishop entered the usual traffic jam to the border, barely feeling anything as the hours passed. As he approached the checkpoint, he eased into the SENTRI lane and handed his ID to the agent, where he was once again waved through—a pastor on his way to church. Thirty seconds later, his phone buzzed with a text. “805N to Denny’s,” it read. Bishop pulled into the restaurant parking lot, leaving the keys in the ignition as he’d been instructed. He ordered breakfast. A little while later, he saw some guys pull up, get into his car, and drive away. Two hours later they returned the Passat, emptied of drugs, and Bishop drove back across the border. Mission accomplished.

Back at his hotel in Tijuana, Bishop spent the night in his small room watching Mexican TV, then woke up the next morning to do another run. After five runs, he received his first payment of $3,000. It felt good to have some cash. “I was making a little bit of money, and it seemed easy,” he says. “I thought: it’s only marijuana. Who cares?”

As Bishop’s runs became more routine, he ingratiated himself with the cartel, becoming their unofficial pastor. “They were religious in that way,” he says, “as far as wanting God and having a sincere relationship with God.” Over beers, he would preach the Gospel and challenge them on what he saw as their culture of infidelity. “How do you justify, with all due respect, fucking this girl over here when your wife knows?” Bishop asked one cartel member. “You’re a husband and father. How do you do that?”

“It’s just the way it is here,” the cartel member replied.

“Bullshit,” Bishop replied. “Is it the way it should be?” He counted it as a victory when another cartel member who had left his wife went back to her after speaking with him. “They allowed me to ask questions no one would ever ask them,” he says.

In a matter of weeks, Bishop pocketed over $50,000. He sent much of it to Michelle, telling her that he was making money selling cars. He also began flirting with the idea of starting his own smuggling operation. “He was talking about breaking off to do his own thing,” says David, who tried to warn his father about the consequences of betraying the cartel. “I don’t give a fucking shit about your money,” he told Bishop. “You’re my dad. I don’t want you to get killed.” He felt like his world had flipped—that now he was the responsible one. “Look, you used to be my dad,” he told Bishop. “But now I’m your dad.”

In November 2017, Bishop took Michelle on an anniversary cruise. She begged him to leave Mexico and come home. “I don’t want you being in Tijuana,” she told him. “You’re better than this.” Bishop returned with her to Yuma, Arizona, where she had moved to be close to her ailing father.

Like many criminals who end up getting busted, Bishop insists that he was on the verge of going straight. He had made some 20 runs, any one of which could have landed him in prison. On December 10, 2017, he says, the day before he was to return to Tijuana for a drug run, he called Memo. “I don’t want to go tomorrow,” he said.

“No man,” Memo told him. “It’s already loaded.” The more Bishop pressed, the more threatening Memo became. “If you don’t do this, you’re going to fucking owe me,” Memo told him, leaving little to the imagination.

“Bro,” Bishop finally relented, “this is my last time tomorrow.”

“All right, man. We’ll work it out, don’t worry.”

Early on the morning of December 11, Michelle drove Bishop through the darkness and across the border into Mexico, where she dropped him off at Memo’s hilltop estate. When she reached the end of the driveway, she paused and looked back at him from her car. “It was the weirdest thing,” Bishop recalls. “Giving me this look like: I want you to come with me now.” Instead, he watched as she drove away. Soon after, at 5:25 A.M., he was on his knees at the border, under arrest for drug trafficking. As Customs agents swarmed around him, he begged God to forgive him for what he had done.

John Bishop photographed at his home in Yuma, AZ, September 19, 2018.

Photograph by Terry A. Ratzlaff.

These days, not many people show up to pray at the old Kmart in Vancouver. One Saturday, Neal Curtiss, now one of the lead pastors at Living Hope, is up on the large, darkened stage, evangelizing to a sparse crowd. “Let me ask you a question,” he says. “Is there anyone here right now that you need God to touch your life? You need a miracle in your life? I want you lift up your hand right now wherever you’re at.” Since Bishop’s dismissal over his affair and his arrest for drug smuggling, the congregation has plunged from its peak of 8,000 souls to under 800. “Spiritually they’ve had a knife through the heart,” Curtiss says. “They believed in him.”

 Some still do. “He didn’t act like a mega-pastor,” says Namon Martin, a tattooed truck repairman who was drawn to Living Hope by Bishop. “He just could be one of your buddies.” There’s a long tradition, from Jimmy Swaggart to Jim Bakker, of evangelical ministers falling from grace, only to be forgiven by their congregations. The more you sin, the belief goes, the more you can be reborn. But few have ever toppled as far as Bishop, running drugs across the border dozens of time for a Mexican cartel. At Living Hope, a graying woman in a flowered shirt tells me she misses Bishop. “He was a wonderful man,” she says.

Down in Yuma, on a sweltering day in July, Bishop was still trying to make sense of what he had done. He was living in a small mobile home with David and Michelle, out on bail after pleading guilty to unlawful importation of a controlled substance. Facing a minimum of five years in prison, he was awaiting sentencing. Dressed in a black T-shirt, khaki cargo shorts, and flip-flops, he hunched forward in a tan reclining chair, wringing his hands. A plaque above the TV read “This family is blessed with love and laughter.”

When I ask Bishop what he would tell his former congregants at Living Hope, he hangs his head. “I would say I’m responsible,” he says. “I hurt thousands of people around the world. And I can’t change it. As much as I wish I could—I can kill myself, and it doesn’t change it. For me, I deserve prison. I deserve nothing.”

For Bishop, there is one good thing that came from all the pain: a renewed relationship with his son. He succeeded in helping David escape the gang life of Mexico, though not exactly how he intended. After Bishop’s arrest, David fled the cartel and returned to Yuma to help his parents get back on their feet. Now he’s considering following in his father’s footsteps. “I feel like one day I will be a pastor,” he says.

Though Michelle filed for legal separation after Bishop’s arrest, she remained with him while he awaited sentencing. Working together, they had started a trucking repair company to try to sustain the family. Michelle views their troubles partly in religious terms. “I think it’s a spiritual attack,” she says of Bishop. “He was such an instrument of God that he had a big target on his back. We believe that Satan is real, and he’s out to destroy our lives.”

But according to a sentencing memorandum filed by prosecutors on September 14, Michelle was not an innocent bystander in her husband’s schemes. F.B.I. investigators unearthed more than 6,000 text messages sent and received by Bishop during his time with the cartel. Prosecutors alleged that the texts reveal that Michelle had picked her husband up at the border and helped him launder the drug money. “Michelle Bishop was not only aware of his involvement with drug cartels and smuggling,” the memo reads, “but encouraged Bishop to ‘work.’” She has not been charged with any crime, and Bishop’s attorney, Matthew Binninger, insists that the “government’s interpretations of the text messages do not demonstrate” that she was involved in her husband’s drug running. (Michelle declined to comment.)

On November 21, at a federal courthouse in San Diego, Bishop was sentenced to five years in prison for the drug run in which he was busted. “I wish you well,” Chief U.S. District Judge Barry Ted Moskowitz told Bishop, “and I suggest, if you are a true believer, that you keep your eyes open for the opportunity to do good.” Bishop is appealing the sentence.

Shortly after he was locked up, Bishop was approached by the jail’s chaplain, who had read his books, including Dangerous Church: Risking Everything to Reach Everyone. Bishop is now leading bible study for the other inmates, who call him “Preach.” He’s not sure, however, if he will want his own church again after he gets out. “I want to be a guy focused on his family,” he tells me. “I don’t care about starting a church. Maybe God has that plan, but that’s not my goal.”

Up at Living Hope, pastor Neal Curtiss disagrees. The beauty of evangelical Christianity, he knows, is that there is no sin too big to be forgiven. “I believe with all my heart,” Curtiss says, “that God is not done with John yet.”