From humble beginnings in hardscrabble West Virginia, T.D. Jakes has become an iconic preacher who ministers to a flock of 30,000-plus.
More and more, Bishop T.D. Jakes‘ influence begins to resemble that of another contemporary African-American icon — Oprah Winfrey. His spiritual empire recently has grown to include Mama Made the Difference, his latest inspirational tome, which hit The New York Times best-seller list a few weeks ago. There is his national television ministry, too; his counsel with American presidents and star athletes, including former Dallas Cowboy Emmitt Smith; his work with hurricane victims; expanding missions in Africa; and revivallike conferences around the globe that draw hundreds of thousands.
But for this 48-year-old evangelist, who will speak in Orlando on Friday night, 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, 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 this 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.”
– Concerns About The Teachings Of T.D. Jakes
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 said, 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 said. “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.
An early life of pain
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 he will never forget the virulent racism experienced in his native West Virginia and on 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. 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 family, which in the early years included his wife, Serita, and twin boys. (The couple now have five children).
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.
Word of his talent quickly spread, forcing him 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 a while 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.)
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 a $5 million estate in east Fort Worth that was previously owned by novelist Sandra Brown.
It is that lavish lifestyle that also includes luxury cars and a private jet, that is 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.”
Recently, Jakes sat down with the Star-Telegram for an interview. Some excerpts:
Question: You’ve been criticized for not being more militant about racial issues. Along those lines, [Princeton University professor] Cornel West says he believes you’re “in process,” evolving into someone who might become more outspoken. How do you respond to that?
Answer: 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.
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?
A: 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.
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: Your sister says you’ve been preaching the same way since you’ve been a teenager. How did you learn that?
A: 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. 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.
Q: But there has to be a process. Do you start thinking about your sermons on Wednesday and write them down on Saturday night, or what?
A: 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: With all the success and adulation, how do you keep from feeling like a deity yourself?
A: [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’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. To me, what makes life wonderful is exploring everything that God put inside of you before you die.