The Preacher

Bishop T. D. Jakes wants his flock not only to do good but to do well, and his brand of entrepreneurial spirituality has made him perhaps the most influential black leader in America today

Last November 2, in a city that had long ago lost its way and its strength and its ability to rise up, they mourned her. A half-century earlier, on a December evening in 1955, Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, and had become the catalyst for a civil-rights revolution whose iconic moments were captured forever in the grainy footage of black-and-white television. Her refusal to move sparked marches by demonstrators and, in response, violent reprisals by white policemen and others. As a consequence, America was finally moved to begin to address in a serious way the corrosive problems of race at the nation’s core. Rosa Parks had been a seamstress before becoming a symbol, and her actions gave powerful emotional impetus to the efforts of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers, John Lewis and Whitney Young Jr. But now, in her ninety-second year, Parks was dead, and an entire era of the civil-rights movement seemed to be going to its grave with her.

Barbara Tuchman, in her book The Guns of August, describes the elaborate funeral of England’s King Edward VII, in 1910, when the crowned heads of Europe gathered peacefully for one last time before the world was changed utterly by the onset of war. And so it was, in its way, at the Greater Grace Temple, in Detroit, where 4,000 people assembled inside for the funeral service, and thousands more held vigil outside. Within the temple you would have seen Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton side by side, and you would have seen most of the rest of America’s black leadership—people like Congressmen John Dingell and Danny Davis and Senator Barack Obama. There were a lot of white faces there, too—Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. You would have heard remarks from the pulpit by Joseph E. Lowery, the former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a thundering solo by Aretha Franklin. You would have heard from Bernice King, one of the four children of Martin Luther King. The service lasted for seven hours. Jesse Jackson reminded those in the pews that “some people’s lives are worthy of taking the time to say goodbye.”

Sitting on the podium with Jackson during the service was a black preacher from Dallas named Thomas Dexter Jakes. T. D. Jakes, as he is popularly called, had visited with Parks a few years before, at her home in Detroit, and now here he was, given a place of honor with Jackson, who for some decades has been the unofficial and presumptive inheritor of King’s mantle. And although his own remarks were brief—Jakes spoke of how much he and his generation owed to Parks—make no mistake: this is where Jakes belonged. He, too, is inheriting a mantle, very possibly the same one worn by Jackson.

T. D. Jakes, forty-eight, a child of the civil-rights movement, both epitomizes and stands at the front of a new generation of black leadership. His methods are not those of the 1950s or 1960s, the methods of political organizing or civil disobedience or black power. He has, rather, built a 30,000-member nondenominational church, called the Potter’s House, in the Pentecostal tradition, and alongside this church he has built a lucrative multimedia empire, TDJ Enterprises, that produces books and DVDs and a variety of other faith-based products, all of which has made Jakes a multimillionaire. Under the auspices of his church he holds “conferences” that are more like revival meetings—hundreds of thousands of people annually flock to arenas across the country to hear his message about finding the path toward self-healing and economic empowerment, and about how only Jesus can provide the strength to go down that path and to cope with the issues that arise when you do so.

Unlike black leaders such as Jackson and Obama, who are Democrats, or Condoleezza Rice and Alan Keyes, who are Republicans, Jakes is without political affiliation, and thus has the ability to straddle both Left and Right (“I’ve never seen an eagle that can soar on one wing,” he likes to point out). Several hundred prisons in more than half of the states have satellite links tuned to Jakes’s inspirational programming. Meanwhile, his international outreach is growing, spearheaded by a television presence in Europe, Australia, and especially Africa, where he has also invested heavily in schools and medical facilities, and in digging wells to provide fresh drinking water. Given his influence and reputation, it is not surprising that he has been sought out and asked to stand with both Bill Clinton (in the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky scandal) and George W. Bush (in the wake of Hurricane Katrina) when those presidents needed a black man of God at their side.

Jakes is an imposing presence: bald, six feet two inches tall, and with a nineteen-inch neck. He sports a white goatee and custom-made suits. In private conversations his voice drops to a near-whisper. He stretches out his words with a strong country contour, pronouncing, for instance, “Kenya” as “Keen-ya.” He is a man of means: he arrives at church in a Lexus or a Bentley and keeps up with his speaking obligations, which are numerous, by means of a private plane, a Lockheed JetStar II. He is always on the move—“I’m on the clock,” you’ll hear him say, “I’m on the clock”—because he seems to be the one man who unites the many worlds of America’s far-from-monolithic black community, from the well-off professionals in Chicago’s Gold Coast to the desperate refugees from New Orleans, fleeing for their lives. T. D. Jakes may be far from a household name in white America, but he was sitting with Jesse Jackson at Rosa Parks’s funeral because he is very much a household name among this country’s African-Americans. Indeed, he is fast becoming what Jackson no longer is: the most powerful black man in America.

Such a statement speaks to the nature of power itself—the will to act, and the ability to make that will a reality. Men like Al Sharpton can walk through New York City streets with bullhorns calling for racial justice. Colin Powell and Vernon Jordan can sit on the executive boards of Fortune 500 companies. What T. D. Jakes possesses is a unique ability to bring affluent white and black Americans to his parishioners, persuading them to sponsor events like the annual “MegaFest,” a three-day religious extravaganza that attracts more than 150,000 people to Atlanta. Jakes’s efforts have elicited historical comparisons, most notably to Billy Graham, whose nonpartisan stance won him the trust of all sectors of the power elite. Thus, when it came time for the Bush-Clinton Katrina Relief Fund to distribute money to religious organizations, it was Jakes (together with former Congressman William Gray) whom former Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr. chose to disburse the $20 million in aid.

The African-American radio host Tom Joyner, whose show reaches 8 million people and is broadcast on 110 stations, may speak to more American blacks on a regular basis than Jakes does, but he bows to Jakes when it comes to actual influence. “If you’re an African-American anywhere in this country,” he says, “the chances are you’ve been touched by at least one level of his vast ministry.”

“I don’t know a lot of African-American leaders who can go into what used to be called the Superdome and draw 50,000 people,” said longtime Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings when I asked him to rank Jakes with other black power brokers. “I don’t know too many African-American ministers who can go into a foreign land and draw hundreds of thousands of people, as he did in Kenya.

“When I watch T. D. Jakes,” Cummings went on, “it makes me go and work harder in my job, because he is good at what he does, and you know that he has been anointed to preach. You just know it.”

You can get a sense of the “it” just by being wherever Jakes is present. You certainly would have gotten a sense of it on a warm October evening in Dallas, when he was unexpectedly maneuvered into speaking to a group in a private home. He and his wife, Serita Ann, had come to a formal dinner party in a large house on the edge of Dallas’s old-money bastion, Highland Park. Jakes had come as a favor to one of his publicists, who had wanted him to meet the host, a noted legal scholar, and Jakes had brought a crystal platter from Tiffany’s as a gift. For Jakes, a man already of considerable standing in Dallas, this was a chance to make further inroads among people of means and influence in the white community, people who one day might be able to assist the work of the Potter’s House. Now, after two hours of eating and sipping Diet Coke (Jakes doesn’t drink), he found himself with his back to the door, facing an all-white audience that wanted to hear what this oracle had to say.

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Sridhar Pappu is an Atlantic correspondent. His last piece, on Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, appeared in the September issue.

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