Bishop T.D Jakes looked out over the crowd at the Georgia Dome Wednesday night and told his congregation, “A good square mile of Atlanta is covered with worshippers.” And the people said “Amen.”
With the outsize claim, Jakes embraced those audiences assembled for events at Philips Arena, at the Dome, at the Georgia World Congress Center, and those simply strolling between venues, who gave downtown Atlanta the air of a church picnic raised to rock festival proportions.
Called MegaFest, this gathering of the faithful began Wednesday and continues through Saturday with music, prayer, comedy, fashion, extreme sports, exercise, financial advice, barbecue and merriment.
Some 175,000 visitors are expected to participate in this smorgasbord, and more will take part from miles away.
Wednesday’s event at the Dome, a Jakes set-piece called Woman, Thou Art Loosed, was broadcast simultaneously to locations from Georgia to Toronto, and the video screens above the stage showed intermittent scenes from other facilities, including the Smith State Prison facility, in Glennville, Ga., where inmates read from their Bibles as they listened to Jakes quoting Scripture.
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The revival atmosphere began under a hot afternoon sun, when several thousand gathered on the plaza between the Dome and the Georgia World Congress Center to hear gospel music and see Mayor Shirley Franklin officially welcome MegaFest to Atlanta.
It continues today with the Livin’ It skate tour, emceed by actor Stephen Baldwin, which draws youngsters with demonstrations of skateboarding and BMX bike tricks, mixed with ministry.
Tonight the Woman of Purpose concert with Gladys Knight and Chaka Khan will be dedicated to Coretta Scott King, who Jakes praised on the Tom Joyner radio show Wednesday for paving the way for ministries such as his.
Jakes, who has been called the next Billy Graham by Time magazine, is pastor of the 28,000-member Potter’s House church in Dallas, Texas. Gospel superstar Kirk Franklin, who performed Wednesday night at Philips Arena, said such comparisons are a mistake. “We fail when we try to fill someone else’s shoes,” he said.
“Just let men walk in the calling that God has for them,” Franklin added. “We know the culture is going to try and define it, because the culture needs definitions. But just walk in the calling that God has for them.”
Certainly Jakes’ ministries (30 books, his television shows, his movie version of his Woman Thou Art Loosed presentation and his arena-sized revivals) have made him one of the country’s best-known preachers and a wealthy man.
His followers make no apology for this combination of worldly success and spiritual strength.
“If you gain wealth from that, it’s wonderful,” said Tina Campbell, half of the gospel duo Mary Mary, who also performed Wednesday.
Paula White, pastor of a megachurch in Tampa, spoke before the offering was taken Wednesday night, and made no bones about the fact that the contributions should be considered seeds planted to produce future wealth. “You are establishing your financial future,” she said. “You better get ready.”
But Carmen Gray, 59, a visitor from Silver Spring, Md., looked around on the sunny Wednesday afternoon kick-off, and said the best blessing of the festival comes from the surroundings, the thousands of like-minded people, the reinforcement of the soul that such an event brings.
“I’m here to have a hallelujah time,” she said.