By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Tonight the shoes of Bishop T.D. Jakes are a three-toned reptilian affair. They are dark gray around the sides and white on top; their laces are speckled prominently with red. Jakes himself is a big man, tall and wide, with a booming voice and perspiring presence that is vibrating through every square inch of Potter's House in southwest Dallas.
It isn't surprising that the worshippers who fill the church are giving him their complete attention.
What is perhaps surprising is the attention Jakes himself has given his outfit: Exquisite charcoal-gray suit, red-and-white pin-striped shirt, red patterned tie that so well points up the laces on his sensational shoes. The Pentecostal ministry is an emotional one in which the personal and spiritual merge, and Jakes' dapper wardrobe--particularly his footwear--may represent religious self-expression raised to an art form. The shoes may also be a quick look into the character of Jakes himself: They are unapologetic and up-to-date.
"I once tried to wear plainer shoes," Jakes has said. "But I couldn't do it."
T.D. Jakes, called Bishop by nearly everyone, says fashion dazzle helps him spread the Word of the Lord. And like haute couture popping up suddenly at JC Penney, he has brought to that Word something not routinely seen: absolute relevance and a fearless naming of social problems, such as the social inequality of women within the church and domestic violence. These and other here-and-now themes are the unusual backbone of his sermons, which have proven so popular that in four years he has gone from a country preacher to a nationally sought-after speaker. His conferences draw tens of thousands. His television show, broadcast on both the Trinity Broadcasting Network and Black Entertainment Television, reaches hundreds of thousands. He has spawned his own industry, T.D. Jakes Ministries, which sells his books--10 in all, with five best sellers--and videotapes, the income from which allowed him to spend nearly $1 million last year on a residence in his hometown of Charleston, West Virginia.
This month, he is moving his empire to Dallas to his new church, the Potter's House, where he has been conducting services since May. There, in addition to running his ministry, Jakes will establish a local restoration center that will house a church and programs for overcoming abuse: sexual, chemical, emotional.
Though fellow ministers say he's "just another preacher" in Charleston, the man on stage in lizard shoes is one of the most successful Pentecostal ministers today. And although he is all shoulders, barrel chest, and lack of neck, like a crooning Luther Vandross he is making his audience swoon.
"The anointing of the Holy Ghost is here right now! I'm swollen and pregnant with the Word of God!" He splays his fingers across his belly while much of the crowd shouts and other followers raise their hands, expectant.
"Get ready, get ready, get ready!"
And now they go wild, jabbed into frenzied cheering by Jakes' trademark cry, taken from his television program Get Ready with T.D. Jakes. He paces the stage, one hand behind his back, tugging on his coat, a holdover from his early preaching days nearly 20 years ago, when he was so nervous he kept his hands behind him to hide their trembling.
Tonight's lesson is about eliminating influences and desires that keep a human life from moving forward. "God doesn't halfway clean house!" he roars. "Tell God to take them all outta here."
He is teaching from the 15th chapter of I Samuel--the story of King Saul, whom God instructed through the prophet Samuel to annihilate Israel's ancient enemy, the Amalekites. Saul didn't listen, and he lost his throne.
Hearing Jakes arrive at a conclusion about personal spiritual housecleaning using a story about the annihilation of enemies is like watching a master chef create a tower of pastry. Jakes takes seemingly unrelated parts of the Bible, adds a dash of pop psychology and a lot of common sense, and bakes them in the crucible of fiery rhetoric. The result is what followers call "fresh Word": same old Biblical truths, new relevance.
It makes sense that this approach has caught on. In an age in which secular movements attempt, for better or worse, to help you nurture your inner child, cope with depression, and establish self-esteem, the church has been slow to address such needs.
Thus is Jakes' ministry based on crisis. Perhaps it's so also because modern life presents all participants not only with new problems, but with the chance to bring into the open ageless agonies that have been left hidden and unnamed. Jakes preaches to the wounded and their secret abuses. He says that through God you can kick anything: addiction, memories of childhood abuse, poverty.
For this wisdom, Christians have rewarded him mightily. He says he is not embarrassed by this, even though his extravagant lifestyle has caused controversy in his hometown that will likely follow him to Dallas. His suits are tailored. He drives a brand-new Mercedes. Both he and his wife Serita are routinely decked out in stunning jewelry. His West Virginia residence--two homes side by side--includes an indoor swimming pool and a bowling alley. These homes particularly caused the ire of local folks. One paper wrote at length about the purchase and made much of their unusual features. A columnist dubbed Jakes a "huckster."