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.
Anyone who has seen him preach will have an indelible image of his theatrical sermons, with Jakes hopping around the stage, drenched in sweat, his voice rising to provoke the rapturous thousands around him. But in this Dallas foyer he was a different kind of person, engaging in modulated conversation, listening attentively, nodding, giving quiet, thoughtful replies. He spoke to one man about China and the global economy. He listened as one woman suggested that New Orleans not be rebuilt because “the whole thing’s going to happen again,” and politely shifted the discussion to the tragedy itself. He went on to talk about Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, about poverty in America and overseas, about the prospects for economic development in nearby Fort Worth (where he himself owns a home worth $5 million). He spoke about his recent meetings with Bill Clinton and global economic leaders, telling them what he had learned.
In a nearby room a number of other guests had been watching the World Series, in which a Texas team (the Houston Astros) was playing, but as Jakes continued to talk, small pockets of these sports fans drifted away from the game and toward the preacher. One of the guests, looking back at the growing knot of people around Jakes, said to me, “When T. D. Jakes came to town, nobody knew what to think of him. In Dallas we do churches big—I belong to one that’s six thousand people, and that’s nothing compared to him. He’s dwarfed them all.”
In the process of redefining, and dominating, the religious hierarchy of Dallas, Jakes has won some high-profile followers. In 1996, Carolyn Chambers Sanders, then the wife of Dallas Cowboys defensive back Deion Sanders, decided that her loose-living husband needed a mature male influence. For a decade Deion had run roughshod over the National Football League as the game’s most feared kick returner and defensive back, a man who’d danced his way to Super Bowl championships for two different teams. But however successful he was on the field, Deion’s skills as a husband—as a man, really—needed help. His lifestyle was out of control. Help could not come from his biological father or his stepfather, who were dead. Carolyn decided that it could come from Jakes, who had just moved to Dallas from West Virginia.
Carolyn and Deion went to Jakes for marriage counseling, at Carolyn’s behest, and Deion found in Jakes and his church a father figure and a spiritual home. Deion took in everything that Jakes and the Potter’s House had to offer—the Wednesday-night Bible classes; the loud, overgrown services; the one-on-one personal sessions in which Jakes encouraged Sanders to put aside his hedonistic ways for his own sake—and began to spend more and more of his time in the confines of the Dallas church. He embraced the ideals of righteous self-empowerment that Jakes tried to instill in his congregation. In the end, Sanders’s marriage did not endure, but his way of life was turned around. “The ministry was like a life raft, and it saved me,” Sanders explains. For him, the Jakes connection has remained durable. It would be Jakes who, in 1999, officiated at Sanders’s second wedding, to the New York actress and model Pilar Biggers, in the Bahamas.
What is it that has drawn Deion Sanders and millions of others to T. D. Jakes? The place to start looking is probably on the life raft itself: at Jakes’s church, a large white structure with all the haunting spiritual resonance of a Maine outlet mall, sprawling across fifty acres in southwest Dallas. On Sunday mornings the Potter’s House attracts a long stream of snaking traffic that evokes the triumphant ending of Field of Dreams. After parking according to a system designed by the person who helps the NFL with its own traffic problems, a visitor is greeted by men in black fatigues with the word “Amen” emblazoned on the chest. The interior of the Potter’s House looks less like a sanctuary than like a Broadway theater: 7,500 people can fit into its lower level and balcony. And the pulpit is a stage, really, flanked by two JumboTrons and backed by an imposing 200-person choir that stands above a nine-foot-high recreation of Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. Every Sunday the sanctuary fills to capacity—twice. The choir warms up the congregation until the arrival of Jakes, who almost always is accompanied by Serita Ann. He begins with mundane announcements of church news (the fitness center is now accepting new members; the upcoming men’s retreat will include both spa services and a golf tournament), usually delivered from the pulpit, but he then steps down to the floor like a Vegas showman. He moves into a full-throated sermon, in which he summons the witness of Scripture and the testimony of his own life. He voices shortcomings and fears and hopes and doubts, and he calls for self-betterment, sometimes shouting and sometimes speaking softly. Men and women rise, seized with religious fervor. Some come near the stage, almost dancing in excitement. Dozens of emotional new members, cheeks wet with tears, come forward to be received by Jakes’s pastors.
“It is time for the baby to move to the next level,” Jakes proclaimed as he looked out at the stream of followers one Sunday when I was in attendance. “Remember that the womb is supporting the baby; it’s the baby’s time to move to the next level. I’m talking about the power of vision. The power of vision!
“If you have not seen God the way you should see Him, right now you should repent of your small-minded concept of who He is. You should repent and get an inner vision of your own needs and limitations. Or if you’ve been so stuck on your own needs and limitations that you fail to see the global, bigger picture of how God can use you in spite of those limitations, then look out for where you are. I want you to bow your heads, and whatever level this message spoke to you on, I want you to respond to God on that level so that you can say, ‘Here am I. Send me. ”
There is, of course, more to the church than this emotional crescendo, much more: ministries for singles and couples, for young people and prisoners and ex-prisoners and recovering drug addicts and prostitutes. There are programs and seminars on personal finance geared to every social class. Although these are open to anyone, for the burgeoning black middle and upper classes, who are coping with new social and financial pressures, and also with the psychological burden of having made it when others in the black community haven’t, the church offers a wide range of programs that seem particularly appropriate. These include a “Doing Business in Deep Waters” cruise to Alaska, and the well-known Atlanta MegaFest, where religious programs are interspersed with appearances by people like the financial guru Suze Orman and the comedian Steve Harvey.
The Next Church (August 1996)
Seamless multimedia worship, round-the-clock niches of work and service, spiritual guidance, and a place to belong: in communities around the country the old order gives way to the new. By Charles Trueheart
Like Jakes, the Potter’s House is standing on the shoulders of the 1960s-era crusade for civil rights. Its agenda isn’t about rights per se, a battle that has been, if not won, then joined; rather, it represents something new in the black community. Although it continues to serve the needs of the dispossessed, it is just as interested in the very different concerns of the affluent. It cuts across class lines and gathers blacks of all socio-economic strata, functioning in the black community the way the class-transcending Catholic Church has always done in America. In the case of the Potter’s House, it does this through a common emphasis on personal betterment—moving from one level to the next. The white megachurches that began to spring up in the 1980s, and are now a fixture all over America, have widely been seen as a response to the rootless geographical mobility of the sprawling white suburbs. The Potter’s House is a megachurch, too, but it represents a response to something very different—to the challenges presented to the black community by social mobility, either when it fails to occur (as among the poor) or when it occurs rapidly and disconcertingly (as among the middle class).
The roots of the Potter’s House can be traced back a hundred years to a black Pentecostal movement that arose in America from a church located at 312 Azusa Street, in a multiracial district of Los Angeles, and from the words of its black pastor, William Seymour. Seymour had traveled the country, listening to and learning from white ministers. (One of them—indeed, his mentor—was a racist named Charles F. Parham, a Pentecostal preacher whom he met in Houston and who enforced the conventions of segregation by allowing Seymour to hear his lectures—but only if he listened from outside the door.) Seymour urged his followers to connect with Scripture in a deeply intimate way, as the apostles had on the day of the Pentecost, when “a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind.” Seymour offered a spiritual vision embracing all nations and peoples, whose direct connection with the divine would be manifested through speaking in tongues.
Today Pentecostalism is the world’s fastest-growing religion within the Christian faith, with an estimated 500 million adherents around the globe. The membership is drawn from all races and from all Christian denominations. Among poor blacks worldwide, who may chafe from the legacy of colonial churches brought by white missionaries, Pentecostalism offers a theology that is more emotionally and experientially based and a liturgy that accommodates local rites, rituals, and traditions. Pentecostalism is by definition a grassroots movement, without an encompassing hierarchical structure. (But there are networks of affiliation: Jakes was named a bishop in 1987 by the Board of Bishops of the Greater Emmanuel Pentecostal Churches.) At the Potter’s House, one discovers Baptists and Catholics and Methodists and Episcopalians.
Jakes regards his own conversion, as he explained one morning during a chat in the sanctuary, to have been a matter of providence. It was a Saturday, and Jakes, whom on other occasions I had always seen in an expensive suit, was wearing a windbreaker and jeans and cowboy boots. The previous night he’d come in from Arizona, and the next day he would fly out to Australia. Jakes stretched out his legs and seemed completely at ease.
“At the time I moved from the Baptist Church to the Pentecostal Church I was about sixteen years old,” Jakes said. “My father had died, something was missing out of my life, and I was not fulfilled in my spirituality where I was.
“The reason why I say it was destiny is because it was during this time that the charismatic Pentecostal movement was exploding in this country. And with that explosion came a multicultural interdenominational ideology. The megachurch is a place where Baptists and Methodists and Pentecostals intersect. And had I stayed in a mainline denomination, I would have missed that intersection. For the role that I was supposed to play globally, I couldn’t be owned by a particular denomination, or be narrow in my perspectives or focus.”
That may seem to some like a grandiose interpretation; it calls to mind the observation that the message of Jesus succeeded because it coincided with the fruitful conditions created by the Roman Empire. But there is a large element of simple truth in Jakes’s assessment.
The youngest of three children, Thomas Dexter Jakes was born in 1957 to working-class parents in South Charleston, West Virginia. His father, Ernest L. Jakes Sr., a native of Mississippi, owned a janitorial business. His mother, Odith, who studied with Coretta Scott King at Lincoln High School, in Alabama, was a schoolteacher. Odith would help her children get to know the works of African-American poets and writers like Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison, and she raised them to take seriously the prospect of the Kingdom of God.
In 1973, after years of suffering, Ernest Jakes succumbed to a kidney ailment. T.D., a teenager, and for years the only child at home to tend his father, was distraught. He dropped out of high school his senior year to care for his ailing mother, earned a GED, then enrolled at West Virginia State only to drop out after a year or so. He went to work as a processor of oxygen and acetylene at a chemical plant in Charleston, owned by Union Carbide, a job that he assumed would give him the kind of middle-class life that so many of his parents’ friends had achieved. But this way of life, which had sustained so many northern black Americans since the end of World War II, was coming to an end, as manufacturing jobs in what was already being called the Rust Belt began to disappear.
Jakes did not see that change coming. But even as he worked his day job he began exploring another path. His religious impulses had never atrophied; indeed, he had begun to preach at nineteen. He did not need reminding that there was more to life than Union Carbide, and he possessed an innate confidence—derived from having had to care for and serve as an advocate for his father—in his ability to talk to older people about things that matter. In 1980 Jakes opened his first storefront church, called the Greater Emmanuel Temple of Faith, in Montgomery, West Virginia, about thirty miles southeast of the state capital, Charleston. At his first service, he spoke to an audience of literally ten, swelled by the presence of his sister and mother. As a Pentecostal minister he did not need a divinity degree, simply a license from the state’s Pentecostal Association. He donned long robes when he preached, and he wrapped a towel around his neck to absorb the perspiration.
It didn’t take long for Jakes to be noticed; because of his distinctive and fluent sermons, word of mouth began drawing the multitudes. The head of the Pentecostal Association invited him to travel and speak throughout West Virginia, and Jakes honed his message about how to overcome self-loathing and self-doubt. He attracted large crowds—and the attention of Serita Ann Jamison, the daughter of a coal miner who lived in Alpoca, in the northeast part of the state. Before long Jakes was a husband and the father of twins (the couple now have five children, the youngest of whom is eleven). Then, in 1982, Union Carbide sold one of its Charleston plants, and Jakes was out of work.
“We lost everything,” Jakes recalls. “And it was a real fight to get back up. I’m glad it happened, from the standpoint that I can relate to extremely poor people. I was literally cutting grass and digging ditches, trying to get diapers for my kids. So when I go into a home of somebody who doesn’t have lights on, I’ve been there. I know what it is to get government milk.”
Jakes’s sudden financial fall would become a moment of intellectual and religious definition. In practical terms, it also made him realize that he had better start getting more creative about his livelihood and diversifying his income. The ministry would now become, and remain, Jakes’s main focus, but he was open as well to business opportunities of various kinds. He did not want to be living off the contributions of his congregation, most of whom were just scraping by.
Our culture expects preachers to be poor, or at least to be of no more than modest means. Scripture itself gives sanction to this idea. And Jakes might have remained that kind of preacher had it not been for a particular Sunday-school class he taught in 1991. Jakes had become increasingly concerned about the issues so many women faced: the drugs, the unreliable husbands, the sexual abuse, the overt misogyny. So on that fateful Sunday he decided to hold a special service to speak just to women. The service—in which he acknowledged and confronted the victimization of women, but also held out a vision of empowerment and personal resurrection—left a deep impression, and word of it spread. Soon women were coming from hundreds of miles away, and Jakes himself was invited to travel long distances—to Kansas, to Oklahoma, to Georgia—and bring his famous sermon with him. Speaking at a televised revival in Oklahoma, Jakes caught the eye of Paul Crouch, the head of the far-flung Trinity Broadcast Network, a Christian organization, and within a year Jakes began appearing regularly on television.
Commercially, though, the real breakthrough came in 1993, when Jakes used the family savings—some $15,000—to publish a book called Woman, Thou Art Loosed, which put into print everything he’d been preaching about. The book combined quotations from Scripture (the title itself comes from a passage in the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus brings the balm of relief to a troubled woman) and large amounts of practical advice. Jakes describes God as “the perfect husband” who “wants to make sweet love to you,” adding: “I’m not being carnal. I’m being real.” The self-published book, which initially sold for $10, went through printing after printing, and eventually sold more than 2 million copies, giving Jakes and his family a measure of financial independence. So fundamental is Woman, Thou Art Loosed to the Jakes ministry that everyone in his circle now simply uses the shorthand “WTAL.”
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.
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.”
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.”