Bishop T. D. Jakes is one of the most famous pastors in America. His multi-thousand-member Dallas megachurch, the Potter’s House, is just one part of his platform; he’s recorded gospel albums, starred in television broadcasts, led several popular conference series, and published numerous books, including his latest, Don’t Drop the Mic. But all of that fame couldn’t prepare Jakes for the past year and a half, when his ministry has been upended by the coronavirus pandemic and racial tensions in the United States. Suddenly, he found himself inundated with calls and texts from desperate, grieving families. Meanwhile, he found himself making calls and sending texts to prominent white pastors all over the country who were stumbling through long-overdue conversations with their churches about race.
All of this has made Jakes think through his theology, he told me recently. The message of Christianity doesn’t align with “the contemporary theology of just blessings and gifts and promises,” he said. “Suffering is center stage to our faith.” This was a stark assessment coming from Jakes: Fairly or not, the pastor is often associated with a gospel of prosperity, which teaches that the faithful will be blessed by God with health and wealth. Jakes told me he’s spent the pandemic flipping through the Bible and reading about earlier times of disease and dying. This is how this feels, he thought.
Jakes has also had to think through who his allies are. Paula White, one of former President Donald Trump’s most prominent faith advisers, credits Jakes with building her reputation among Black Christians. For years, she was featured at his popular conference Woman Thou Art Loosed, and he spoke highly of her preaching abilities. Jakes told me he doesn’t consider her one of his mentees, and that she knows he takes a different view of politics than she does. Still, “I don’t think that we should stop talking to people because we disagree,” he said. “I honestly, earnestly believe that we can have civil dialogue without demonizing people for their views and saying, ‘Because you don’t agree with me, you’re evil.’” Perhaps not coincidentally, that’s what his new book is all about.
I talked with Jakes about the ongoing trauma of COVID-19 in his community, and whether white evangelicals have lost sight of Jesus’s teachings. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Emma Green: In the past year, how many members of your congregation have either gotten sick with or died from COVID-19?
Bishop T. D. Jakes: I can’t even answer the question, because the number would be so high. It’s hard to even tabulate, because a lot of people in our church, when they pass away, they go back home to be buried.
But I can tell you that there were weeks that I was inundated with phone calls literally every day about somebody who either was sick or had passed away. What was numbers to everybody else—and the numbers were horrific enough—was people to me.
Green: I wonder if there was a moment when you realized, Oh, this is going to be a really major thing in the life of my community.
Jakes: When New York was bad—the numbers were so inordinately high—one day, I literally just lost it. I’ve done a lot of book signings on Fifth Avenue at Barnes & Noble. I’ve spoken in New York since I was a very young man. And I just wondered how many of those people who were at my services or at my book signings were in those bags. And I just started weeping.
To all people, being close to your loved ones when they pass is important. But to Black people, being able to have a funeral and eulogy is sometimes the only time day workers and frontline workers get to be important. It’s the only day other than a wedding day that everything is about you. To be denied that celebration of life—we call them homegoings, rather than funerals—I knew we would be devastated for years to come. The numbers have dropped, but the trauma has not.
Green: Where do you see evidence of that ongoing trauma in your community?
Jakes: Where do I not see it? Marriages imploding. Self-medication. Serious bouts of depression.
It has been devastating to all of America, but particularly to minorities. And that, coupled with the racial tensions—we were hit on so many different fronts at the same time. Our counseling department says we are getting 300 percent more calls than we were before.
Green: I wonder how, theologically speaking, you guide people through a time like this, when so many people have gotten sick or know someone who died. What do you tell people about what God wants when there’s so much dark stuff happening?
Jakes: It’s funny, because it really makes you think through your theology. As a Christian, the one thing that is quite clear about the Christian message is that it does not hide itself from suffering and pain. When the emblem of your faith is a cross, it’s quite obvious. Suffering is center stage to our faith.
It isn’t the contemporary theology of just blessings and gifts and promises. It is also seasoned, frequently, with the stoning of the disciples and the killing of members of the early Church. Pandemics are all throughout the Bible. When I looked at those scriptures, it really, really took my empathy toward the text to a different level. It’s one thing to know something intellectually. It’s another thing to say, “Oh, that’s how they felt. This is how this feels.”
But the other part of my faith that’s important is that ultimately, we may see suffering on Friday, but we see resurrection on Sunday. That’s the blessed hope of the Church: that there’s better ahead than there is behind us.
Green: Obviously, the pandemic has disproportionately affected poor people, working-class people, people who have essential jobs who have been going to work consistently. I wonder if seeing that unequal impact of the virus has made you think differently about the policies and politics that led us to have such an unequal country.
Jakes: Can I be honest?
Jakes: That’s only a revelation to people who are far removed from it. [Laughs.]
Because the Church is a galvanizing place of all classes of people, this is something that we’re confronted with every week. It is amazing to me that we can live in the same city and have two completely different experiences. You can kind of be willfully blind to the pain of the people who are in your own city and have ladies’ meetings and come together to solve poverty around the world and not think a thing about poverty right in your own city.
Green: You know, when I hear you say that, I can’t help but hear an implication about the way certain other Christians—maybe white Christians in particular—live, with a kind of international orientation toward helping kids in Africa but not caring that much about helping people who are their neighbors in their own city. Am I hearing you right?
Jakes: [Laughs.] I think that’s true in some cases, but I don’t think that they are a monolith. I’ve met pastors who cared, and who have joined hands and tried to help and serve, and who were first responders in times of crisis. But by and large, it makes people uncomfortable to look at complicated problems. And the problems in underserved communities are complicated by poor education, poor access to medical care, crime, and the distance in culture. As a whole, I think white evangelicals lost sight of “What would Jesus do?” because they only define Jesus in very narrow terms.
Green: Well, you’re going to have to say a little bit more about that.
Jakes: [Laughs.] I think that social issues define the spaces where faith and politics and society intertwine—Roe v. Wade and same-gender-loving people. [White evangelicals] don’t always put the same level of weight on the poor, the disenfranchised, or criminal-justice problems. They don’t see that as important.
Green: Just to be clear, I take it that theologically speaking, you might not disagree with, say, a conservative Southern Baptist pastor on abortion or same-sex marriage. But you’re saying that there’s a difference in emphasis.
Jakes: Yes, there’s a great deal of difference—you’re exactly right. There’s a great deal of difference in emphasis.
To raise the concern for the unborn above the born—to fight for the life in the womb and not in the prison or in the school systems—if life is valuable, then after the mother pushes out the baby, that life should still be that valuable.
Watch: Atlantic staff writer Emma Green in conversation with T.D. Jakes
Green: At least at the margins, President Trump picked up support in 2020 from Latino communities and Black people, especially among men. I wonder if you saw that in your community.
Jakes: You know, I think it’s an oversimplification to think that color dictates the way we think or vote. Black people as a whole tend to be conservative on certain issues.
Still, I was as surprised as the rest of the nation about the inroads he made among Black males.
Green: One of your mentees, Paula White, was one of President Trump’s most prominent faith advisers and supporters. I wonder what you thought of that.
Jakes: Well, I mean, first of all, I wouldn’t describe her as a mentee. She had had years of ministry experience before she met me. During the period when she was working closely with me, President Trump wasn’t an issue. And by the time she had moved into that area, I don’t think that she really considered herself a mentee of mine. We certainly still have an amiable relationship, but our views on politics are certainly different. And she knows that.
Green: Did you all talk about President Trump?
Jakes: I haven’t talked to her in quite a while. I mean, she got pretty busy. And I was pretty busy.
Let me be clear: She knows that our views about politics are very different. But you know, I don’t think that we should stop talking to people because we disagree. I think that’s the problem in our country right now: We’ve become tribalistic. Everybody who disagrees with anybody is demonized.
The only real hope we have as a people is to talk to people who are different. And I honestly, earnestly believe that we can have civil dialogue without demonizing people for their views and saying “Because you don’t agree with me, you’re evil.”
Green: I wonder if you’ve sensed more of an openness among white pastors—who, maybe even a few years ago, would have avoided tough conversations on race—to have those kinds of conversations.
Jakes: Where I’ve tried to focus is on the white pastors who spoke out and tried to say something positive that was misunderstood. And I literally got on the phone with some of them and encouraged them to keep talking. Their immediate reaction was “I got it wrong; I’m not going to broach that subject again. I’m going to stay away from it. I’m just not going to talk about it.” And if we do that, we’ll never get better. We have to keep talking.
Green: Can you tell me who that was, who you called up?
Jakes: I knew you were going to ask me that. I can’t divulge that—I think that would be unethical. But I can say it was several.
The reason I did it is because they were hurt. They were wounded. They didn’t really mean to enrage people who were already enraged. They were trying to fix it, and they didn’t have the language to communicate across the board. When you come up speaking to a congregation where the amens come free and you start speaking to a global audience, there are people who feel just as strongly in the opposite direction.
Green: I think the question of how people react to certain language really matters. I’ve noticed, in these conversations happening in the past year or so about race and the Church, that some very conservative white Christians are willing to say “I believe Black lives matter” but then explicitly distance themselves from Black Lives Matter, the organization, or any kind of political action. Why do you think there’s so much hedging in conversations about race in the Church?
Jakes: I think the peaceful demonstrations that took place about George Floyd and Black Lives Matter were extremely gratifying because I remember the civil-rights movement. You did not see a lot of white people marching with Black people in the streets. This time, you saw, sometimes, more white people marching than Black people. I think we need to pause and underscore how far we’ve come, that we could see crowds of people who chose not to be blind, who do care, who did march and wrote pieces and did things that were positive. That, to me, is the big story.