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

The worldly success, as one might put it, of the Potter’s House as an organization is resonant with Jakes’s emphasis on the worldly self-betterment of its members. This message is not without its critics. Those who still believe in the old guard, including Cornel West before that momentous dinner, have likened Jakes to figures like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan—people who undeniably induce a level of excitement but who shun controversy because they have too much to lose. Recently Shayne Lee, a sociologist at Tulane University and the author of T. D. Jakes: America’s New Preacher, told me, “He’s turned spirituality into a commodity. Materialism is the car that drives him. His whole message of materialism does not sit well with the Gospel, and that’s what I find problematic.”

Jakes would argue that what is really problematic is the absence of a self-betterment or entrepreneurial ethic among many black Americans. And his ambitions for this message go far beyond Dallas and even America—they extend, for instance, to Africa, where his brand of nondenominational, Pentecostal Christianity is growing as rapidly as it is elsewhere in the world. Jakes’s publishing and broadcasting inroads in Africa are deep, and he has a wide personal acquaintance with African religious and political leaders. Jakes’s thrust toward Africa has a twofold motivation.

First, he wants to make connections with a population that, according to census data, is finding its way into the United States every year in greater numbers than during the height of the slave trade (some 50,000 legal African immigrants have been admitted annually since 1990). Many of these hard-driving people share Jakes’s bootstrap vision of self-advancement. They have also never shouldered the historical legacy of slavery, and are thus, in Jakes’s view, psychologically distinct from the larger black community in America. The difference, which is an increasing source of intramural tension, was brought home to Jakes starkly during a cab ride one day in Baltimore in the mid-nineties. The cabbie was African, and in the course of a conversation the preacher, never one not to speak his mind, told the driver that he had never really connected with African people, that he just didn’t understand them, that they came across as arrogant. Turning to Jakes, the man said, “We are not arrogant. We are what you would have been had you not been slaves.”

Second, like many African-Americans, Jakes feels the pull of ancestry, the pull of identity. “One thing you have to understand is that the African-American soul is wounded,” Jakes says. “And for us, slavery was like the molestation of a nationality of people. Molestation to me is a good metaphor because it speaks to the person in power taking advantage of the person who had no power. Even though that has passed, there is a scar that remains. And to expect our community to be over it is like molesting somebody from the time they’re five years old to when they’re fifteen, and then meeting them at eighteen or twenty years old and saying, ‘You should be over it!’ Well, no. That’s part of my life, I can’t get over it. And with it comes the loss of your name—inheriting the name of somebody who owned you. At some time you question, ‘Who am I?’ ”

In the last two years alone the Potter’s House has invested more than $1 million in development projects in Africa, focusing, for the moment, on Kenya. Jakes does not do things in a small way. He arrived in Nairobi last September for his “Faith for Africa” mission with a party of some 400, including other pastors and their spouses, people from various denominations and those associated with him in Dallas or elsewhere in America (as well as a 140-person choir). Mostly middle aged and middle class, they carried hand sanitizer and bottled water nearly everywhere, traveled in groups, and generally refrained from eating outside their hotel. Jakes’s security team—men and women in khaki, with dark glasses and coiled earpieces—was never far away. Jakes intended to show his fellow believers what real poverty looks like when it exists on a systemic national level, and also to foster the development of a network of like-minded indigenous pastors in Kenya. In addition, he hoped to encourage or jump-start more grassroots development projects.

Jakes’s progress through Kenya had all the trappings of an American-style evangelical crusade—the gospel choir, the weeping throngs, the insistence that a better day would come—and it had been planned by his own team of advance personnel (the Potter’s House staff includes a “Transportation Ministry”). He worked the crusade on both the wholesale and retail level. In Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, he held a service and led a rally for nearly a million people—as many as had shown up to see Pope John Paul II in May 1980. But much of his time was spent with small groups. He spoke to a gathering of Kenyan pastors about the pressures, the weight, of trying to carry a congregation. At the Hilton Nairobi one evening he urged business leaders to embrace entrepreneurship, and held up his own vocation as a businessman as an essential complement to his preaching work, because the word of God alone wasn’t going to raise people out of poverty. He toured a slum neighborhood where the Potter’s House had built a well, and led a group of his fellow visitors down to the sewage-filled stream that had been the previous source of water. “Jesus,” Jakes said under his breath.

The trip was filled with talk of brotherhood, of the family coming together, all rendered in a colorful montage of dress and dance and music. But there was a darker undercurrent, a more troubling understanding: when you go looking for your heritage, your roots, sometimes you don’t like what you see. At a Masai village, many hours from the capital, Jakes and his wife were given the title of honorary elders. (They were also given a live bull.) At one point we watched as children began to perform a play. In the performance, boys play elders who solve a disagreement by arranging the marriage of a very young girl to a very old man. The girl in the play begins to cry, because she is so young, but that doesn’t last very long, because the nuptials apparently solve everything. The play ends with the whole group in a celebratory dance.

“Ask them how old they are when get married,” Jakes said aloud to anyone who could provide an answer. When he heard back a number, he shook his head. “Sixteen years? Fifteen years? Oh no, oh no, no. That’s terrible.”

From the archives:

Female Circumcision Comes to America (October 1995)
Performed by new immigrants, veiled in deference to a cultural tradition of the developing world, female circumcision is becoming an American problem. By Linda Burstyn

Later, when we were talking about practices prevalent in Africa such as child marriage and female genital mutilation, Jakes said to me, “When I hear of female genital mutilation, I think of my own children, and it’s gut-wrenching for me. My heart goes out to the young girls, and I think, There’s a better way. And if I’m going to correct something, at least it’s not a distortion of who we are culturally. And so it’s not that I worship ancestry and that I think that it’s flawless or spotless, but at least it is mine. And that’s important. It sets the record straight.”

Setting the record straight squares with the message Jakes delivers in Dallas. It means filling in the gaps of a person’s own history, recognizing the negative aspects of that history as well as its glory. It’s a tool that can move one away from always simply looking back to the slave ships and Reconstruction and segregated drinking fountains.

In truth, though, one couldn’t get close to Jakes in Kenya, where he’d be surrounded by large groups of children at one event and then retreat into the darkened corners of the Serna Hotel, in Nairobi, and talk for hours to local pastors. To be with him there was to see a man struggle under the weight of the very goals he’d set for himself as a man of God, a promoter of upward mobility, an international evangelist, a husband and father, a simple preacher, a sophisticated businessman. People who set out to change the world are not quite like the rest of us. They can sit in our homes, share our taxis, and attend the birthday parties of our children. But they are never fully detached from the great personal sacrifice that the role entails. For someone like Jakes, everyone from a beleaguered president in the White House to a malnourished Kenyan boy in a shantytown is tugging at his cuffs.

A couple of months after the Africa trip I asked Jakes if he thought of himself as a post-civil-rights-movement leader. The civil-rights issues of the 1950s and 1960s were large, overt, and, in a sense, “simple”: it was easy to unite around them. The politics and demographics of today’s America, including today’s black America, are more complicated. In terms of black leadership, how does Jakes place himself within the paradigm shift that seems to be occurring from the old guard to the new? Laughing, he said, “I struggle with that. My perspectives tend to be pastoral, you know? And I think I’m evolving. And that evolution is still new to me—because though I am pastoral, I also understand that I have an obligation to our people.

“I see myself as a leader, and as a leader I have a responsibility to reflect the views of my faith, and the views of my people—and those are two different things altogether. My thought at this point is, anything that I can do to really help to bring about equality among all people—I’m willing to do that. Even if it stretches my role … a little bit. I believe that God created us to be equal, and I believe that we should be treated fairly no matter who we are. Does that make me a civil-rights leader? I don’t know. But it does make me an American who would fight to the death for what I believe.”

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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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