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T.D. Jakes' fiery sermons, global reach have world watching

BY TIM MADIGAN

Knight Ridder Newspapers

More and more, Bishop T.D. Jakes' influence begins to resemble that of another contemporary African-American icon - Oprah Winfrey. His spiritual empire has recently grown to include Mama Made the Difference, his latest inspirational tome, which hit The New York Times bestseller list a few weeks ago. There is his national television ministry, too; his counsel with American presidents and star athletes; his work with hurricane victims; expanding missions in Africa; and revival-like conferences around the globe that draw hundreds of thousands.

But for the 48-year-old evangelist, none of that would exist were it not for what happens on Sunday mornings. On one such Sabbath in early March, the west Dallas freeway, Spur 408, began to clog before 8 a.m. as thousands hurried toward The Potter's House, a sprawling off-white building tucked into sparsely populated hills. Inside the arenalike nondenominational church, after rousing hymns sung by a massive choir, Jakes emerged to pace the length of a broad altar, a stout man in a custom-tailored suit and white goatee, shouting one minute, whispering the next, dancing, then standing rock still, his bald head glistening with sweat as he whipped up his congregation in the finest tradition of the black pulpit.

If that's all he was, just theatrics and style, Jakes might still be preaching to small crowds in his native West Virginia. Instead, "what brings audiences to tears, Sunday after Sunday, is his compassion," Texas Monthly's Skip Hollandsworth wrote in April, "his understanding of people's deepest fears and doubts."

Witness that recent Sunday.

"The challenge is when you have defined yourself through a dependency, or a co-dependent relationship or issue or area of bondage or a simple thing like poverty," Jakes says that Sunday in March, speaking to a congregation that was 90 percent black, dabbing away the perspiration with a red cloth. "You would be surprised at the people who would not give themselves permission to prosper because they are accustomed to seeing themselves as poor. When you try to rescue them, they come out physically but they don't come out mentally because they are so used to being the victim . . . . because they're hooked on their pain."

He paused, his image captured on two Jumbotrons on both sides of the altar.

"I know I'm going to step on some toes today," Jakes says. "That's all right. You should have worn some tough shoes today. . . . I'm not saying you're not saved. But what do you do when you're saved enough to leave the Pharaoh, but the Pharaoh's influence hasn't left you? I swear to you, every level brings a new devil.

"The way to break your tie with the past is by your fascination with your future.

"Step into your destiny!

"Step into your future!"

The crowd stood and took voice as Jakes' own decibels rose.

"How am I preaching this morning?" he shouted.

Then Jakes broke into a broad, gap-toothed grin.

No person can speak with such insight about human suffering without suffering himself, and Thomas Dexter Jakes has suffered greatly. He was the youngest of three children born to Odith and Ernest Jakes, (she was a teacher, he a janitor,) and will never forget the virulent racism of his native West Virginia, and from visits to the Deep South where his parents grew up.

When Jakes was 10, his father came down with a debilitating kidney disorder, and the boy, the only one of his siblings left at home, became a primary caregiver. When the dialysis machine malfunctioned, and Ernest Jakes' blood spilled onto the floor, his youngest son helped his mother clean it up. T.D. Jakes was 16 when his father died.

He later dropped out of college, lost a job at a chemical plant and struggled to provide for his own family, which in the early years included his wife, Serita, and twin boys. (The couple now have five children).

"We lost everything," Jakes recently told Atlantic Monthly. "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."

The personal trials leavened a natural gift for preaching that was evident from his boyhood days, when he was known as Bible Boy. (He has only a few semesters of college, and no formal theological training.) Back then, Jakes toted a Bible almost everywhere he went, and retreated alone into the hills of rural West Virginia to sermonize to squirrels and birds. And eventually his gift would prevail.

In 1980, in the small town of Montgomery, W.Va., Jakes opened a storefront church, preaching that first Sunday to a congregation that included his mother, older sister and eight others. Word of his talent quickly spread, forcing Jakes to find ever-larger sanctuaries. Then, in 1991, Jakes made the fateful decision to teach a Sunday school class for women only.

"He had been a pastor for awhile by then, so he had a lot of broken women coming to him, sharing intimate things about what was happening to them," Jakes' older sister, Jacqueline, remembered in a recent interview. "He began to minister to them one on one. Then he taught that Sunday school class, and it was so good that we said, `Do it again.' And this went on for six weeks and women started coming from other churches."

Within a few years, Jakes was ministering to women across the nation, work that also inspired his self-published novel Woman, Thou Art Loosed! The book's heroine is a young woman who was, according to the liner notes, "lost and sentenced to a private hell of abuse, addiction, poverty and crime." A pastor named Bishop T.D. Jakes helps the woman find her faith and a life beyond affliction. The novel has now sold more than 2 million copies and was adapted into a 2004 feature film of the same name. (Jakes is prominent in the cast, playing himself.)

Eventually, West Virginia became too small a stage. Jakes moved to Dallas a decade ago, and later moved into his $45 million sanctuary on 50 acres in West Dallas where today the membership is 30,000 and growing. Just last year, the preacher and his family sold their mansion near White Rock Lake in Dallas and bought the $5 million estate in east Fort Worth that was previously owned by novelist Sandra Brown.

It is that lavish lifestyle, which also includes luxury cars and a private jet, that's most seized upon by Jakes' critics. But years of digging by investigative journalists have failed to unearth any impropriety, financial or otherwise. His multimillion-dollar income derives from his books and outside business interests, not from The Potter's House. And Jakes does not apologize.

"I think it's critical that our community see success in their color," he told The Washington Post five years ago, "success that is progressive and legal."

Other critics have compared Jakes to African-Americans like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, mega-celebrities who have been reluctant to speak out against racial injustice in any assertive way. Among them has been Princeton University professor Cornel West, one of the nation's most strident black voices, who said Jakes "was a spiritual genius, but he had not manifested the kind of political courage I wanted to see."

But that was before the East Coast professor flew south a few years ago to hash out his differences with the Texas preacher. At a now-famous meal at a Dallas restaurant, the two talked for four hours before ordering salad.

"When I met him, I was looking at his soul and character," West says. "I found humility, spiritual depth and willingness to serve. He is in process. That's the bottom line and that's a beautiful thing, because televangelists are not always in process. They think they've got it all figured out. They're closed, final. That is not my dear brother T.D. Jakes. He has his own distinct way. His own distinct calling."

That calling recently entailed a four-day business conference in Australia, several national television appearances to promote his new book, and on a sweltering Wednesday afternoon last month, a long interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Jakes was dressed that day in black religious clothes (he typically favors colorful, custom-tailored suits) for a photo shoot later on, but slumped casually in a soft chair in a church conference room. For almost an hour, he talked freely about racism and his strategy for combating it; his own suffering; how he prepares his sermons; and how, in the face of so much adulation, he keeps from feeling like he is a god himself.

Q: You preach with great insight about human suffering. Could you talk about your own?

That ambidextrous ability to connect with people who have been victimized or brutalized in any way was the catalyst that started my ministry. Yes, my father was sick. That was a very painful thing for me because of my age. It was very traumatic for a 16-year-old in the middle of adolescence to watch his father die and all the things that went along with the process.

I have images burned in my head of trying to get him to go to the hospital, with him holding onto the wrought iron railings in front of our house, begging my mother to let him die. To go through that at a very pivotal time in my life, to lose my father and then right after that, almost lose my mother who had multiple fibroid tumors .. . . that was very painful. But again, I was a minority in West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the Union. So I grew up with a lot of things that I could reflect on, seeing my father belittled when he was healthy, talked to and called "boy," spat on. A lot of things were a catalyst for me.

I minister to (former Dallas Cowboy) Deion Sanders and I know nothing about sports, nothing. But I know something about pain and I connected with him on the basis of pain. I connected with him (by) understanding what it was like for him to be thrust into a world where he had a talent that would carry him, (but) where he didn't have the background to support or undergird that wealth and that brightness and that light. There was nothing in the community that he came from that prepared him for that, so we began to talk about that

Q: In one of your books, He-motion, you talk briefly of a deep depression you suffered after you became successful. Do you know why? And how did you emerge from it?

At the time that I was sitting on the floor by myself, crying in the dark, I was still in West Virginia. I don't really know what caused it. I think it was burnout. I think it was my wife being crippled badly in a car wreck and the doctor saying she'll never be able to walk gain. (Serita Jakes is fine today.) Trying to support that process and trying to raise two kids and losing a job, and then getting back up on my feet. Sometimes after the trauma, after you've survived everything and everything's OK, then you fall apart. It's the weirdest thing in the world. I don't fall apart when it's going on. It's like after everything's OK, then I give myself permission to be human.

I went through a period where I was just freaking, just literally emotionally distraught. Never in public. Never around anybody else. But in the private times of my life, just feeling empty and drained and incapable and incompetent to respond to the challenges. Even today I think I still feel incapable and incompetent. The problems (are) so severe that anybody who says "I can fix that" hasn't seen it. Thirty thousand members of this church, each with their own story, their own brand of problems and trials. It's a lot every day.

Q: Whether you're white or black or brown, if we're being honest with ourselves, all of us feel broken in some way. Maybe that's why your message seems to resonate across cultural barriers.

It does resonate. I was in Australia eight days ago doing a leadership conference and had about 14,000 predominantly Caucasian people in the room. The fact that I was African-American was a moot point. It was no issue at all. I connected with them because we're all having this experience in time on the planet together. And like it or not, we suck in the same air. We deal with the same storms. When the floods and hurricanes come, they wash us out without discrimination. When the terrorists attack us, they kill us all. We all die together. We're better at dying together than we are at living together.

Q: You've been criticized for not being more militant about racial issues. Along those lines, Cornel West says he believes you're "in process," evolving into someone who might become more outspoken. How do you respond to that?

I agree with him. I am a work in progress. But I also think our country is a work in progress, and I really feel that the African-American community is in an evolution, too, in terms of its leadership style and its approach to solutions. ......We certainly need African-Americans who march when marching is appropriate, but I also think we need people who work within the system to bring about change. I don't think one or the other is right or wrong, but we need a mixture of both. The ultimate goal is effectiveness and not effervescence, and I think it's vitally important that instead of screaming at the darkness, we light candles.

I tend to be solution-oriented. To bang my fist and say what's wrong with America might be fine. But if I can fix a corner of it, I'd rather do that. ...... Am I angry? Sometimes. When I see injustices, of course, I'm angry. Is my first reaction to grab a picket sign and run to a corner? Not generally. . . . When people start screaming, no one listens. I think we need that sometimes, but I think we also need people who work within the system, as we have done to promote things that I think are vitally important to our community, like economic empowerment; teaching our people entrepreneurial pursuits; the value of education and ethics and working as we have done to build our school (Clay Academy, a private school near the church). I would rather do things like that

Q: A big part of the problem is white America's apathy or obliviousness to racial problems. If you spoke out, couldn't you help educate whites?

I don't think it is just a matter of bringing awareness to white America. I certainly think that's an important goal, but I don't think we're just totally at the mercy of white America. I think there are some things we can do ourselves, and I think there are some things we must do ourselves. I'm not sure that help is coming when the house is on fire, so to scream on the roof for help. . . .We need only to look back on New Orleans to see that screaming doesn't always produce help.

I think there are a lot of things that need to be done in our system to destroy the economic disparity that exists in our community. I'm concerned that 47 percent of African-Americans own homes as opposed to 74 percent of Caucasians. One solution was to join Jesse Jackson on Wall Street as he challenged banking and lending institutions to stop profiling their customers (by where they live.) I joined him in that protest, and in that statement in New York. But the other solution is to train our people to get out of debt, to move up the corporate ladder, to develop entrepreneurial pursuits so they can be ready when those opportunities emerge. I want to start there and move forward with the conversation.

My mother is from Alabama, graduated from Tuskegee (Institute) and my father is from Mississippi.. . . . .So, in touch with suffering? Definitely. I went to colored bathrooms. I drank from colored water fountains. I've seen the KKK drive through my grandmother's neighborhood in their white sheets, and I laid on the floor by the bed with her until they passed by. So I don't need a course in remembering. I will never forget. My own sons have experienced racism in schools, and come home crying to me saying, "Daddy, why is it that the darker we are the more they dislike us?" So I'm definitely in touch with it. We want the same goal, but our approach is different, say, between the civil rights activists and persons like myself.

There's not going to be another Dr. King, and all those who seek to imitate him will only become copies of a great original. The white community doesn't have just one voice or one way of responding to issues. Why should the black community? The very fact that we approach the problem from different perspectives is a sign that we're healing. And the African-American community has to be more suave in how we approach issues. We are going to be in the room with the decision-makers. We have to be able to play with the big boys. We're not in the back of the bus anymore. I don't need a seat on the bus. I don't even want a bus. I'm glad I can eat at any restaurant, but I'm interested in owning restaurants

Q: That said, what would you say if you could address white America?

(After a long pause.) We live in a country where you can get a Ph.D. and not know anything about us and we can't get a GED without knowing something about you. I would say to white America, "Educate yourself about people outside of yourselves. Respect diversity and culture. America's demographics are changing. We cannot protect America any longer without you being aware of minorities, diversity, different cultures, different religions. And not only aware of them, but respectful of them." We must integrate not only where we sit but how we think. Jesus said, "My people perish for lack of knowledge," and that's true about everything.

I once visited several predominantly Hispanic churches to better understand their needs and culture. I went in and sat in the back with nothing particularly in my mind except to learn and understand more about their community and preferred worship styles. I think more white Americans should do the same. It would be helpful, I think, if they removed themselves from familiar environments where everyone looks like them, acts in similar ways and professes similar preferences, to get in touch with other people's cultures and, as a result, better understand their needs.

We've got to work toward getting better at that process. But there are so many things about us that are common. Rather than just focus on our differences - though we need to understand them, our uniquenesses - we also need to understand the commonness. We want the same thing for our children that you want for your children. My wife comes home and tells me about the green beans that were on sale, 10 cans for a dollar. I don't care about that any more than you do. I just want to know what's for dinner. (Jakes laughs.) We're having this same experience down here together. That's why Penguin/Putnam would publish my books and not limit them to black bookstores. They put them right in there with white America's books and people read them. Ten million copies of my books have sold. That's not just black people buying them.

Q: Not to sound cynical, but the reason Penguin/Putnam publishes you is because you've sold 10 million copies.

(Jakes laughs.) Absolutely. But the thing is, America is gradually starting to sample off of other dishes of other cultures. Years ago, that was unheard of. When I left West Virginia, 35 percent of my congregation was Caucasian. That was amazing. You can't do that if you can't connect with people under the skin.

Q: Let's shift gears. Your sister says you've been preaching the same way since you've been a teenager. How did you learn that?

God. It comes from God. I'm not formally trained. I'm a bootstrap person. I'm honored that people validate it. I'm amazed, to be honest with you. I have been amazed at how America responded when I got out of West Virginia and into a broader market, that people would come like that. I just do it the way I feel it. The first time I went to a Bible college, I was speaking at it. That's the truth. I couldn't be more honest. I'm still shocked that people come, and they get blessed by it. It's given me so much purpose and so much meaning to my life. So many dark days have been validated by so many good days. I've been stopped in restaurants by white guys in business suits. They say, (quoting one of Jakes' sermons) "You're right. The devil is after our marriage." And I'm like, you know, huh? (Jakes laughs) His buddies are looking at him like, "What in the world are you talking about?" I was just in L.A., and a guy told me, "I'm from Cairo, and we love you in Egypt."

I preach in a very black, African-American style, but it's not my style that does it. I believe it's my heart. I believe it's my passion for people, my passion for life, God's gifting on my life. It's not something that I studied and researched. It's how I feel it.

Q: But there has to be a process. Do you, say, start thinking about your sermons on Wednesday and write them down on Saturday night, or what?

I have a recipe for ministry that I give to ministers, and I'll share it with you. My rule for sermon is, No. 1: Study yourself full. No. 2: Think yourself clear. No. 3: Pray yourself hot. No. 4: Let yourself go. Most people think that the most important thing is to study yourself full, but it's not. The most important thing is to think yourself clear, because until you have a clear understanding of what you are trying to accomplish, you just get the sputtering of loose facts. Then, to pray yourself hot. I can't get you excited about something (that) I'm not excited about. Then, let yourself go. My whole body is an instrument. I preach with my eyes and voice and my hands, everything. If I couldn't speak, I could still talk.

Q: In your sermons, you often state your thesis, then take off on broad tangents. But you always come back to tie things up in the end. How do you do that?

I might go chasing a rabbit, but I'll never forget where I left my knapsack. And I'm going to come right back to it and tie it all up together because to me, there is an art to preaching, to communication in general, to writing.

Q: Wth all the success and adulation, how do you keep from feeling like a deity yourself?

(Jakes laughs.) That's not a problem. I know me. The gift is not me. The gift is from God. I'm a guy. I'm a very ordinary guy. I like to pick out my own chicken wings. If I didn't have to meet you today, I'd have on a jogging suit with a baseball cap turned around backwards. I love privacy. I love normalcy. I like playing with my dogs in the yard. I'm just a person. Nothing special. I'm just a person having a human experience. But when it comes to ministry, I have a gift for it. And when it comes to business, I have a gift for it.

I don't like to be purely defined as just a preacher, and have people put a period where I believe God has put a comma. I teach people that every one of us has more than one gift. People generally define you by the gift you were doing when they met you. I meet you now and I say you're a journalist. But I have no right to put a period. You may be a fisherman. You could be an astronaut. You could be a fashion designer.

To me, what makes life wonderful is exploring everything that God put inside of you before you die. I know I'm going to die. I can deal with that.

I may end up in a nursing home. That's OK, too. I just don't want to be sitting on a bedpan wishing I had done something else with what was inside of me. I just hate the idea of wasting my life, being compartmentalized into being what you expect, so that you feel comfortable about me. I want to do everything that's in me before I die, and my ministries are a reflection of that. My books are a reflection of that. It's hard to get your arms around me, because there's a lot of stuff in me.

But what I preach is that there's a lot of stuff in you, too, and don't you die until you get it out, because if you do, you're going to die with a tear in your eye. I really believe that.

Emmitt Smith and other former Cowboys worship with Jakes

On my first visit to The Potter's House, while I was stuck outside the church in the typical Sunday morning traffic jam, a huge white SUV pulled up next to me. The driver rolled down his window and pointed toward my front tire, mouthing the words, "You've got a flat." After muttering a mild expletive, I realized the man in the SUV was Emmitt Smith.

A few days later, I got Smith on the telephone, thanked him for pointing out my predicament and learned that the National Football Leagues' all-time leading rusher is in T.D. Jakes' congregation nearly every Sunday.

"In my experience, in some churches you don't get what I call feeding, you don't get a consistent message," Smith says. "When I went to The Potter's House and heard Bishop preach every week, every Bible study, the message was so strong and so powerful you could not sit in that house and not be changed."

Jakes' own celebrity also helps him understand the challenges of public life faced by Smith, Deion Sanders and another former Dallas Cowboy, Michael Irvin, who also belong to the church.

"He's a normal person," Smith says. "He laughs. He jokes. He likes to check out movies. We try to have lunch once in a while. Yeah, I love him. I mean, I love the man because spiritually he's right on, and he's definitely in touch socially, and he's even more impressive when you get to know him personally. To me, it's just like a father talking to a son, and I appreciate that." ---