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

Jakes moved his ministry from the original storefront in Montgomery to a theater in Smithers and then, in 1990, to an old bank building in Cross Lanes, which could accommodate hundreds of worshippers. He also began dabbling in real estate, and turned out to be good at it. As his preaching and publishing became more visible, so did certain aspects of his evolving lifestyle. Perhaps inevitably, Jakes found himself the target of the state’s largest newspaper, TheCharleston Gazette, edited by a self-avowed agnostic named James Haught. Haught saw Jakes as a “young guy caught up in the preaching business” who was “cashing in.” TheGazette ran a front-page story highlighting the seven- bedroom house Jakes had bought in 1994 for $630,000. The property, paid for with the proceeds of Woman, Thou Art Loosed, had tennis courts and a swimming pool. The home conveniently symbolized the startlingly rapid expansion of Jakes’s preaching enterprise as a whole, with its books and TV shows and conferences around the country that attracted vast throngs. West Virginia is not a racially diverse state—as of the last census only about 3 percent of the population was black—and the emergence of a figure like Jakes caused a certain amount of discomfort and suspicion.

“I never will forget when [members of the press] came to my house with the camera, and I opened up the door and the reporter said, ‘Do your members know you live like this?’ And I stood there a minute stunned, and I said, ‘They should. They were over here last Saturday.’ You know? I had had a big open house, and all the deacons were swimming in the pool and were playing on the basketball court. It wasn’t like they were discovering a secret. But it was a discovery to them.

“I was successful, which was viewed as wrong in a poor state. And I was black? And I was a preacher? Oh, it was like, ‘Lunch, boys! Come and eat! Dinner is served!’ They were having me for dinner, and I didn’t even know I was on the menu.”

So there was undeniably a push factor pointing Jakes toward Dallas, where he moved in 1996. There was also a pull factor: Dallas was one of the cities where Jakes had held his conferences—elaborate, multiday gatherings with titles like “ManPower” and “When Shepherds Bleed.” During this time he received a call from a colleague in Dallas, drawing his attention to a 5,000-seat megachurch that was suddenly for sale, tucked into the bucolic hills of southwest Dallas. It had been the property of a televangelist named W. V. Grant, who had a nasty habit of committing fraud and not paying his taxes. That church (which Jakes bought in 1996 for $3.2 million), together with the larger community of Dallas, would provide Jakes with the kind of base he needed. Jakes called his church the Potter’s House, a new name for a new place, referring to a passage from the Book of Jeremiah (“Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel”). Dallas had a sizeable population of African-Americans (most recent figures show th—they make up about a quarter of the city’s more than 1 million people), and although many of them were poor (blacks in the city have a median household income about half that of whites), the city was also home to a large black middle class, and its members had things on their minds that white Americans scarcely register.

This group, which Jakes hoped in particular to reach with his ministry, has emerged in force largely during the past twenty or thirty years. A year ago roughly 2.3 million African-Americans were enrolled in some kind of higher-educational institution, double the number of two decades ago. More than a million held advanced degrees. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of African-Americans living in suburban communities grew by some 14 million. Although today only 1.5 percent of African-Americans over twenty-five have annual incomes above $100,000 (the figure for whites is 4.4 percent), the proportion of what Jakes calls this “minority within a minority” is growing.

When Jakes and I spoke about upwardly mobile African-Americans, in general, he explained the dilemma facing particular individuals: “He’s just arrived, you know? He’s the first generation into a suburb, or he’s the first generation—or maybe at the most second generation—with a degree. He’s upwardly mobile. He’s got a community that has people below him who have needs—endless needs. And he wants to respond to those needs. At the same time he’s trying to get membership to the country club. He’s too black often to fit into the white circles. But he’s too successful to be accepted in the traditional black environment. And often they end up stressed out, overworked. A lot of upwardly mobile African-Americans use the church as a support base. It is giving a motivational message that says, ‘You can make it, everybody.’ It says, ‘You have issues, too.’ It’s a place where you’re embraced.”

What the church does not embrace is politics. To be sure, Jakes forged strong ties with the Dallas political leadership, and with a (Republican) governor who in 2001 would go on to become president of the United States. But politically charged topics like same-sex marriage and abortion are not big issues at the Potter’s House. Last November Jakes spurned Louis Farrakhan’s call to join in the recent (and tepid) reprise of the Million Man March; his relations with Jesse Jackson are cordial but not politically close. Although the Potter’s House has received some federal money through the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative, and has participated in voter-registration drives, it has never endorsed candidates or handed down any directive on political issues. Instead, Jakes seems to keep his attention focused on the economic and spiritual development of all people, while encouraging those individuals to make political decisions for themselves. If he has political messages to deliver, he does it behind closed doors.

He talked about this issue of political involvement one day last fall at Princeton University during a public conversation under the rubric “Preachers, Profits, and the Prophetic: The New Face of American Evangelicalism.” His conversation partner at the University Chapel, where Martin Luther King once spoke, was the professor/activist/rapper Cornel West, formerly a sharp critic of Jakes—West said on one occasion that Jakes lacked “political courage”—but now a friend, the rapprochement forged over the course of a lengthy dinner one night in Dallas (they spoke for three hours before even ordering salad, the two recalled). On the dais, Jakes and West sat in comfortable black rocking chairs, the pair of them representing physical opposites: the commanding, shiny-domed, easy­going Jakes; the wiry, wild-haired, and tightly wound West. The discussion soon took up politics.

“You get more King-like every minute,” West said to Jakes, but then continued. “Let me ask you: What would be the conditions under which you would imagine your ministry to be in a fundamental confrontation with the powers that be—the White House, Wall Street?”

“I guess the question for me really is: Is all confrontation public?” Jakes replied. And he went on: “Because I find even in my own leadership style—for me, I respond better when you come to see me than if you just write a [public letter]. You can come and sit down with me and say, ‘You know, there might be a better way of doing that. Look at this and look at that.’ And bring about the right change in how I do things. Now you won’t get the credit, because you don’t do it in public.”

Jakes’s unwillingness to play the political card was evident during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when he was one of the few black leaders who did not come forward with stinging criticism of President Bush. (The rapper Kanye West, for instance, during a telethon to raise money for the hurricane’s victims, said bluntly, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”) Instead, Jakes met publicly with the president in Baton Rouge, an encounter that, whatever else it did, allowed Bush to use Jakes as a political fig leaf—though it should be said that the Potter’s House’s record in Katrina relief efforts has been exemplary. Deploying nearly all of the church’s 360 employees and thousands of volunteers, Jakes set up hot lines for refugees, shipped supplies to the needy, and raised nearly $3 million to help settle homeless New Orleans residents in apartments in Dallas. But Jakes raised the hackles even of his own ardent parishioners when he appeared alongside President Bush. Jakes gamely rejects the criticism.

“My grandmother is from Mississippi,” he explains. “My father is buried in Mississippi. My mother is in Alabama. And those are my relatives down there on top of the roof, okay? I have a choice between going and getting with a group of African-American leaders and screaming into a microphone, ‘Mister President! You need to do something about poor people!’ Or I get to fly down there and meet with him and say to him, ‘Mister President, you need to do something about these poor people. What can be done?’

“Which is more effective? To scream into a mic or whisper in his ear? And to be able to whisper in his ear and say, ‘Mister President’—not just, ‘You need to do something about poor people’—but I want to say, ‘There are thousands of people that you’re not being told about, that are not in a shelter, that are living in their houses with their relatives all over Dallas and all over Houston. I’ve got members, Mister President, all over my church, who are about to lose their apartment because they’ve got thirty people staying in a two-bedroom apartment. And this girl works for Rite Aid. You know? And she’s now trying to feed thirty people every day, because all of her relatives have moved into her house because they’re flooded out. And they’re not on FEMA’s radar screen.’

“I was about trying to find solutions to the problem. Now that’s important.”

The growth of the Potter’s House has been relentless. Some 1,500 worshippers turned up for Jakes’s first service there. And they kept on coming. The Potter’s House eventually spent millions widening the roads to accommodate the traffic. In time, Jakes would spend $45 million to build a new sanctuary. Now even more ambitious plans are afoot. On 200 acres south of Dallas, Jakes is constructing a red-brick, Harvardesque building to house his Christian prep school called Clay Academy—the “clay” here refers to what “the potter” works with—which in turn will form the nucleus of a planned community of 1,500 households, with housing for the low-income as well as the affluent. More than a bedroom community, it will become the hub—albeit a Christian hub, and a predominantly black Christian hub—of southwest Dallas.

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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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