Bishop Jakes is ready. Are you?
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."
Jakes shakes off the criticism, saying cultural differences and subtle racism could be at the root of pious accusations of excess.
"In a state that is only 3 to 4 percent black, it is more polite for critics to deal with the occupational aspect, but there is a degree of racial undertones," Jakes says. "Two successful white businessmen lived in the houses before me, and it never made the papers."
Jakes also thinks the backbiting amounts to "occupational discrimination."
"This society pays thousands upon millions of dollars to watch men get out on a field and run into each other with helmets on, and that is completely acceptable," he says. "You can put on a silver glove and moonwalk across the stage for millions, and that is acceptable. But to reach into the gutters and help hurting people and strengthen them, and then be blessed by that, is not acceptable."
Besides, Jakes says--during an interview and in his sermons--Jesus was a rich man. He had to have been, in order to have supported his disciples and their families during his ministry.
Perhaps the best that can be said about the odd notion of Jesus as mogul is that Jakes has found a biblically based example for his belief that being a good businessman and a good Christian are not mutually exclusive. And whatever you think of Jesus as CEO, the point is well taken. Spend time with Jakes, and you find yourself in the presence of a man who seems both profoundly spiritual and profoundly savvy.
It's not a recent development. The earliest stories about Jakes are of a child dedicated to God and who always had an angle and a head for business. Perhaps he has spent his entire life preparing himself for a major ministry in a major city.
Certainly Jakes has always been getting ready, getting ready, getting ready.
Jakes grew up in a hillside neighborhood in Charleston, West Virginia. The official name is Vandalia, but to locals it's known as "up the hill." To get there, you drive up Mountain Road, a steep, winding pathway that branches off into tiny dead-end streets. The neighborhood is a mixture of split-level wood-frame houses, grand and not so grand. Children still play in the street here, their toys scattered in overgrown front lawns. Folks still visit on comfortably worn front porches.
Mixed now, during Jakes' childhood and adolescence the neighborhood was divided racially by a large green water tower on Mountain Road: whites lived on the north side, blacks to the south. The black neighborhood was a close-knit place, at least in part because there were only about 50 families. Charleston, a community of 70,000, has always been between 3 percent and 5 percent black, and opportunities for blacks throughout the town have been limited. The luckiest members of the old neighborhood, including Jakes himself, have worked at Union Carbide, Rhone-Poulene, or other plants in the area that manufactured chemicals for industrial use. The unlucky left the area to find work.
It was a place where every grown-up was your parent, and the network of sources for reporting misbehavior was vast. It was also a breeding ground for preachers: Nine have come from the neighborhood through the years, residents say. It almost goes without saying that none of those is as wildly successful as Tommy Jakes.
Jakes is still Tommy up the hill. Fame and position have caused old friends and family within his ministry to call him Bishop, but the old neighborhood vividly remembers the opinionated, stubborn, determined boy who used to try out his preaching on imaginary congregations.
"I used to hear him practicing," says Bobbie Tolliver, who lived next door to Jakes for several years and who took care of the boy when he was 10 and Jakes' father fell ill. "He had quite a voice then, too."
Tommy grew up the pampered baby, the last of three children in a close family. Mother Odith was a home-economics teacher who instilled self-reliance early on in her children--they could cook, sew, and clean for themselves. Father Ernest owned a janitorial business at a time and place when being black and in business for yourself was an anomaly. He was driven, as driven as Tommy became. He started out with a mop and a bucket and ended up with 42 employees who cleaned businesses around the city.
From the beginning, Tommy Jakes was taken seriously by his family. His opinions were valued on diverse issues including gardening and family spats--and his opinions often were offered. Odith says that when she took Jakes shopping, he told her what food to buy and why. Odith says she usually listened.
"I would always allow him to express himself," she says.
This encouragement apparently had an effect. "He was an aggressive kid," says neighbor Tolliver. She remembers that Jakes' father, Ernest, moved the family house to Jakes Street--later named for Odith--and that Tommy was often at the work site "making sure those men earned their money."
If the family took him seriously, this doesn't mean that Jakes was always serious: His friends knew him as a prankster and a scamp.
Lorraine Smith, a childhood friend who sang with Jakes in choir, remembers that Jakes was always the cowboy when the neighborhood kids played cowboys and Indians. And that he tied his comrades to trees. And that he left them there.
The devilish boy was a hard worker, though, with an entrepreneurial desire that appeared early. When most children were playing and hanging, Jakes had a paper route. He sold Avon. He sold greens from his mother's garden for $1 a bag, and gave customers receipts.
"He was ambitious," says childhood friend Wyatt Tolliver. "He was always thinking on another level than kids our age."
His uniqueness manifested itself in matters religious, too. A childhood churchgoer, Jakes took to the Bible with an ease and thoroughness that seemed preordained. While other children memorized popular verses, Jakes memorized the entire chapters. He brought his Bible to school, earning the nickname "Bible boy." Sister Jackie recalls that he was introspective, exuding an understanding beyond his years. Although five years his senior, she says she often sought his counsel for problems and major decisions.
"He was always so wise, so settled, even as a small child," she says.
But life for Jakes wasn't all a matter of natural gifts. Not that he let that stop him.
He possessed handicaps as well, the sort that could certainly have derailed his future as a preacher. He was born with such a profound lisp that Lorraine Smith says he seemed to be speaking with a foreign accent. He possessed no aptitude for music, although he is known today for his soulful singing during services. On his own and against the odds, he worked at the lisp and learned to sing and play piano, Smith says.
During adolescence, Jakes was becoming a leader and a perfectionist. He began marshaling the neighborhood children into church for long youth-choir practices. West Womack, a self-described "hard head," was someone whom Jakes had to literally track down in order to make sure West attended. And he did track him, too, every night, to the basketball court.
"West, it's time to go," Tommy would say.
"Sure, one more game," Womack would say.
And Jakes would wait--wait until Womack became so guilty that he was put off his game. Womack went along then to choir practice, and says he was glad he did. "He built character in you," Womack says. Later, when Jakes established his first tiny church, with a congregation of 10, half of it was Womack and his family.
But the path to preaching wasn't yet Jakes' goal. His religious life was primarily one of music, leading choirs, and singing. It took the death of his father to push him into the arms of God.
Jakes recalls that his father was absent a great deal--if not physically, then mentally, distracted by the pressures of his business.
"There was hurt along the way because my father was gone so much," he says. "I felt his absenteeism was a form of rejection. So I hungered for his attention."
Jakes eventually got it, but the price was high: Ernest's life. Jakes' father developed kidney disease when Jakes was 10. Ernest spent his last years on dialysis, attended to by his wife and young son (Jackie and Ernest Jr. had already left home). Now Jakes could at last dote on his father. He bathed him and twice a week hooked him through shunts in his wrist to a clunky dialysis machine. At times, father and son would talk, about school, family, regret.
Jakes became used to sleeping on hospital-room floors when his father took a turn for the worse, and riding the bus into town to make utility payments when Odith couldn't leave Ernest. He watched his father waste away from a tall strapping man of 280 pounds to a shadowy 130.
"At the height of this bonding, he died," Jakes says.
Jakes had a hard time with it. "To some degree, I felt like a failure because I wanted him to live so bad, and I had dedicated most of my youth to trying to keep him," he says. "When he died, I was devastated."
Jakes was 16 and at a crossroads. There were so many questions about himself that he still wanted to ask his father. Instead, he turned to God.
"The whole concept of God as a supreme ruling being fascinated me," Jakes says. "I think a lot of this was born out of not being able to sit down with my father and ask him things."
Maybe it was always inevitable that Jakes would feel the call to preach. Preachers have always been regarded as professionals by the black community, and Jakes craved respectability. His leadership ability, his knowledge of the Bible, his love for the church, his desire to succeed in an area of the world where not much success was possible for blacks--everything pointed him in that direction.
He says the call came when he was 17. He describes it as an "inner illumination," a sense of purpose that meant "nothing would be as fulfilling or satisfying or meaningful than to do it." And in true Biblical fashion, he ran from it.
"I was terrified," he says. "I thought, nobody is going to believe that the Lord has called me to preach. I was just getting out of high school."
As with other men who have fled from the call of God, there is deliverance in Jakes' story--something that turned him back to the source of his calling. For Peter, there was the cock that crowed when he denied Jesus three times; for Jonah, there came a whale; for Jakes--a man in a bar. Jakes spent a year and a half "in hiding," he says--figuratively far away from the church, attending school at West Virginia State College. He says he wandered into a club one night in 1975, and that the man on the bar stool next to him told him, "You know, I had a dream that I saw you preaching."
Jakes laughs about it now. "I couldn't even escape there," he says.
So, after all that childhood practice and much denial, Jakes returned to Charleston and preached his first official sermon at Greater Emmanuel Apostolic Church, a Pentecostal church. He walked up the long aisle with his heart in his foot. He wept as he faced the congregation. He pulled up the microphone stand until it reached his mouth. He clenched his hands behind his back to hide their trembling. He took a deep breath. He began.
At first, he was an itinerant preacher, going wherever a pulpit would have him. He preached for a meal or a tank of gas. He built a small reputation, and it was enough. He wasn't looking to minister full time.
Fact was, he had a good job at the Union Carbide plant. He worked with oxygen, argon, and other chemicals used in welding and mining work. He made sure the process that separated the elements from compounds went smoothly, and he rolled the tall collection tanks into place. He had health insurance and was making good money. He had flash: a 1979 Trans Am silver anniversary model with mag wheels, an infrared dashboard, and a T-top. "You had to see this car. It was the bomb!" Jakes says.
He also found quite a wife. He began receiving anonymous notes from a woman in a congregation in Beckley, where he was preaching, and he was intrigued.
Serita Jamison says now that she had to approach him secretly in the beginning. She thought Jakes was so spiritual that "it wouldn't behoove me to come at him in a carnal light."
She need not have worried. When the two finally met, Jakes couldn't draw any sort of carnal bead on Serita because of her voluminous clothing.
"He thought I was fat," Serita says.
"Well, it was the sweater and the skirt she had on," Jakes explains. "It was a big cowl-neck sweater and a straight skirt. So I couldn't see her like I wanted to. I was trying to figure out where the sweater ended and she began."
Apparently, he eventually figured it out. Today, where Jakes is all storming voice and high energy, Serita is more controlled, with the diction of an opera singer. Her clothing is understated and elegant in contrast to her husband's showier suits. ("I never really had any interest in shopping," she says. "Bishop likes that.")
Where Jakes is the crisis manager, Serita is the meticulous daily worker. She hires ministry staff, takes care of payroll and employee benefits, and addresses employee grievances.
She lets her husband do the talking mostly, even about her, as if she knows he is the better storyteller.
She is asked, Who proposed marriage? She looks to Jakes, who confesses that it was hard for him to force the words out. "But one day I got close enough to it that she seized it," he says.
She pipes in: "He said, 'I'm assuming you'll marry me.'"
They tell together the story of how he helped her walk again. It was 10 years ago, and they had been married a few years. They were on their way to church in the silver Trans Am when they were rammed by a car making a late turn. Only Serita was hurt, but badly. Her ankle was so severely broken that her foot was completely twisted around.
At the hospital, the doctor pronounced that Serita would never walk normally again. At best, she would go through life with a profound limp and need to wear a metal brace.
Jakes carried Serita home from the hospital days later. While her head hung over the couch, he washed her hair in a pail of water. And when the cast came off, he taught her to walk.
At first, Serita had a terrible limp, as doctors had predicted. "It was a thump," Jakes says. But Jakes said his response was to stand a few feet away from his wife and hold out his hands.
"I believe you can walk," he would say, arms outstretched, voice cajoling. "Take a step."
And she would try to pick up her foot and stand on her injured ankle. The effort was exhausting. Nonetheless, Jakes would make her take one more step before he let her rest. This went on for months.
She is crying now, delicately dabbing tears behind her sunglasses. "It took a year and a half. He didn't let me give up," is about all she can manage.
Little by little, as the quality of her steps improved, her shoes changed: First she could manage sneakers, then flat shoes, next shoes with tiny heels. Finally, she got back into her pumps. Today, when Serita walks, hers is a slow, elegant gait with no trace of a limp. She is the benefactress, blessed by her soldier in full armor, who is at his best during a crisis.
From its inception, Jakes' church has been Pentecostal. Although raised Baptist, Jakes says he was looking for a deeper, more passionate understanding of God that didn't include discussions about whether the choir should sway during a song or march in before or after the congregation was seated. He found what he sought in the Pentecostal tradition.
The modern Pentecostal movement was born in a former stable in a poor neighborhood in Los Angeles, around the turn of the century. Its founder, William Seymour, was a poor black itinerant preacher searching for a personal encounter with the power of the Holy Spirit. The movement he started drew from the disenfranchised of all races, attracted by the deep feeling of contact with a living God and the movement's apocalyptic visions. Worshippers felt the Holy Ghost descend on them literally, causing them to dance, sing, and sometimes speak in a language only God understood. Adherents said the uniting of the races was a true sign of the Spirit's presence. But the social pressures of turn-of-the-century America eventually proved greater than the pull of the Spirit, and the initial Pentecostal revival split along racial lines.
The ministry of T.D. Jakes has, like the Pentecostal church of old, reached beyond racial barriers. His congregation in West Virginia is a mixed crowd, nearly 40 percent white. Jakes has also crashed through denominational barriers. His seminars have routinely drawn Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists.
But all this happened very slowly. Greater Emmanuel Temple of Faith, Jakes' first church, opened in 1980 in a storefront in Montgomery, West Virginia, about 45 minutes north of Charleston. Its roster showed only 10 members. At that point, Jakes was still preaching in other churches, but Sherman Watkins, general bishop of Higher Ground Always Abounding Assembly, says it was already clear that Jakes was destined for greater things. (Higher Ground is an 8-year-old organization of more than 200 Pentecostal churches, founded by Watkins. Jakes is second in command.)
"He had a gift he didn't recognize," Watkins says. "A lot of it was in his voice."
It took a financial crisis to force Jakes into the ministry full time. In 1982, the Union Carbide plant closed down. Eventually his unemployment pay ran out. He dug ditches for his brother for $100 a day when he could get the work. He and Serita collected and returned bottles to raise grocery money. They alternated paying the utility bills. When the lights were off, they lit candles. When the water wasn't running, they went to Odith's for bottles of water. They lived on the odd preaching assignment, the odd job, and grace.
"We went to nothing," Jakes says. "We got a borrowed car, a 1967 Valiant with a floorboard that lifted out. We called it the Flintstone-mobile. It had 'maypop' tires on it. I called them maypop because they may pop at any moment."
At last, preaching seemed to be Jakes' only career option. And this new career was turning out. Preaching assignments grew steadier and more lucrative. Jakes gradually outgrew two churches in tiny towns outside Charleston and found he possessed a membership of just more than 200. A new reputation began to hum around him: that he was a man truly anointed.
The doctrine of the anointing, a belief that the Spirit of God literally lives within and empowers the faithful, is crucial for Pentecostal Christians. It means that God still works miracles, still manifests himself physically in the lives of believers through song, dance, and teaching. ("When you listen to how [Jakes] talks...how he takes familiar passages and works them over like an artist, only an anointed person could do that," says the Rev. E. Alphonso Heyliger, pastor of Ferguson Memorial Baptist Church in Charleston.)
And something else unusual began to happen when Jakes moved his congregation to South Charleston.
White folks started attending Jakes' church.
Sunday is still the most segregated day of the week in many communities, including Charleston and South Charleston. The combined population of the area is nearly 100,000, and churches adorn nearly every street corner. Historically, the churches have divided along racial lines. Although blacks have been known to worship under a white minister on occasion, the opposite is very rare. "It is very, very unusual up here," says the Rev. Ricardo Flippin, pastor of Shiloh Baptist in Charleston. Of Jakes' ability to attract whites to his sermons, Flippin says, "It's a phenomenon."
Today, Jakes' congregation--on television and elsewhere--is a multicultural dream. Temple of Faith in Charleston is nearly 40 percent white, and in Dallas, services at Potter's House have been drawing whites and Hispanics in increasing numbers.
Perhaps there is no greater evidence that Jakes' message is universal than his successor, the Rev. Stanley Miller. As Jakes is pulling out of Charleston Temple of Faith for God's larger pastures in Dallas, Miller is assuming Jakes' duties in West Virginia. Miller is white. He met Jakes when the two worked together at Union Carbide. Jakes was the first black friend Miller ever had. "I became colorblind," Miller says of his friendship with Jakes.
About six years ago, Jakes stepped over a precipice into the free fall of fame.
The neighborhood surrounding the Charleston church was impoverished, filled with broken homes and broken lives. Many members were neighborhood women. To Jakes they brought their ugly secrets--stories of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of relatives and friends; of beatings from husbands and lovers; of feeling less than worthy even though they had given their lives to God. Their collective pain touched his heart, Jakes says.
"There were hurting women in my church and they needed real answers," Jakes said. "They were devastated and broken."
Jakes created a seminar for these uncomfortable women called "Woman, Thou Art Loosed." It is what Jesus had once told a woman when he healed her disabilities. Jakes was comparing physical suffering to the emotional traumas suffered by women in his congregation, and saying they, too, could be healed.
"There is a double standard in the ministry where women are concerned," Jakes says. "If a man has a past and a few babies, it was OK to come back to the church to be a deacon on the board. But if a woman had two or three illegitimate children, she was almost viewed as a tramp."
The Christian Church in general, and Pentecostals in particular, have always sent mixed messages to their women. Yes, women are encouraged to fill pews and receive grace, but they are never to forget that man's fall from grace is their fault. Now a man, a pastor, was telling women to throw off their guilt--that whatever they had heard before, God didn't condemn them. The message took root and grew like kudzu.
"The churches only want you when you are pasteurized, homogenized, milk-same Christian women. But some church is going to have to go out on a limb and say I love you anyway. You have a slit in your skirt three feet long, but I love you!" Jakes told a female audience during a seminar in Dallas last year.
Dicloria Eddington of Dallas said the seminar was an affirmation for her. After years of blame from ministers for everything from man's fall to marital problems, this was an entirely new take."He was releasing us," she says of Jakes.
Women couldn't seem to get enough of empowerment and equality. Jakes' seminars outgrew the South Charleston church, and he moved them into hotel conference centers. Tapes of the seminars sold as easily as fresh doughnuts. His book, Woman, Thou Art Loosed--which he published personally with $16,000 that he claims was all of his and Serita's savings--sold out in two weeks. To date, the book has sold more than 200,000 copies. It has stayed on the Publishers' Weekly Christian best-seller list since its publication in 1993, and was the top-selling nonfiction Christian book last year.
And soon Jakes found even more profit to be made from pain. Men, too, were suffering en masse. Many felt emasculated by changing roles in society. Many were filled with rage that often expressed itself in abuse of themselves or loved ones. Jakes created MANPOWER, a group of seminars to minister to men. Again, he attracted a racial cross-section.
"Pain isn't prejudiced," Jakes says.
Pain paid well, however. The three-day seminars were reasonably priced at $20, but with income from tapes and books, Jakes was becoming wealthy. His church moved again, this time to its present location in an unincorporated suburb just outside Charleston.
If his personal style is flashy, his professional style is practical: Temple of Faith is an inauspicious building that resembles very much what it once was--a bank. Members of Jakes' staff say the building has been kept deliberately unchurchified: If they need to sell it, it's marketable.
The sanctuary is located in what used to be the lobby, a low-ceilinged room that seats about 500. It looks more like a multipurpose room than the cradle for a radically expanding church. The offices are ordinary, with nondescript carpeting and bland office furnishings. Just about the only unusual feature in the building is the shower in the back of Jakes' sizable, upscale office. Some might say the shower is a necessity, given Jakes' prodigious production of sweat during impassioned services. He keeps a towel handy to wipe the sweat rolling from his brow and neck as he preaches, and he often sweats through his suit.
Some might call the shower a luxury. Whatever you call it, Jakes can afford it.
Jakes' growing prosperity has earned him enmity in his hometown. Many Charlestonians haven't been able to justify a preacher having so much money and flaunting it. Jakes was lambasted in the local press when he bought the local Martin Mansion and its adjoining property, which he uses as a guest house, for nearly $1 million. He took a drubbing not only for the lavishness of the spread--it is a shock of sprawling, light-colored brick in a relatively modest neighborhood--but for its opulent features: the swimming pool and bowling alley.
He has been called a charlatan by the local press and been criticized for linking in his sermons financial rewards from God to generous church contributions.
It is understandable that he's been the target for bile, given the literally rich examples of televangelists who precede him. Consider PTL founder Jim Bakker, who went to jail for bilking thousands of his followers of thousands of their dollars, and who has nonetheless rebounded following his prison stay to preach and conduct seminars again. Even the former owner of Jakes' building in Dallas, W.V. Grant, faces jail time for using church money to buy an expensive house in order to evade taxes. Someone like the flamboyant T.D. Jakes is bound to attract suspicion.
And to some extent, perhaps he deserves it. For instance, asked whether he could afford to personally retire a sizable portion of the $1.9 million mortgage on his new church property in Dallas, he acknowledges that he could. He points out that he has given $8,000 toward the mortgage during the past two months, but claims it isn't wise for him to settle the portion of the debt that he can afford. Tax reasons make it difficult, he says, to mix personal monies with ministry money.
This is a confusing answer. John Bargman, a Dallas accountant with Bargman, Conn and Co., routinely audits the finances of large churches. He says that, taxwise, ministers are like any other Americans when it comes to donations: They can give whatever they want. "It is handled like a normal contribution," Bargman says.
And there is the rationale that Jakes summons about Jesus as an example of a rich Christian. Jesus "employed" 12 people to help spread his message, Jakes says, as though the apostles were on salary. (The more common interpretation is that they lived from day to day, often dependent upon the largesse of sympathetic, often wealthy hosts.) Jakes asks, Why else would Roman soldiers have gambled for his cloak as Jesus lay dying on the cross, if the cloak hadn't been unusually valuable?
The espousal of a rich Jesus isn't new: It's a theory that has gained some currency among black Pentecostals. And although it may seem wild to white onlookers, it underscores a very basic difference between the attitudes of blacks and whites when it comes to their ministers' financial fates.
It is the white Christian tradition, perhaps established most powerfully among Catholic nuns and priests who make a vow of poverty, that those who undertake the work of God should require nothing in exchange beyond bare subsistence and the satisfaction of sacrifice. African-American Pentecostals, however, look upon poverty as a spiritual curse. They believe that those who serve the Lord will receive greater prosperity. There are few among Jakes' followers who begrudge him his personal success or expect that he will pour all of his profits back into the church: Instead, they take his wealth as a further sign of God's blessing, as does Jakes himself. They see it as an extension of the biblical principle that you receive by giving.
If the invention of a rich Christ is the only way Jakes can explain this belief to white onlookers, perhaps he is simply articulating the devout religious beliefs of black culture. Perhaps he is spreading a message of hope. Perhaps he is expressing his own disbelief that someone with the spiritual power of Jesus did not--as does T.D. Jakes--also possess business savvy.
"The myth of the poor Jesus needs to be destroyed, because it's holding people back," Jakes says.
Whatever the cultural differences, Jakes does not open the financial records of his church and will never give a direct answer to the question: How much is enough? He does say that he tithes 10 percent of his income to his church, and gives additional donations. He says, "If I were an entertainer and were involved in alcohol or cocaine, this would not even be an issue."
At Jakes' sermons, the collection is a highly visible ritual, with a little begging thrown in. During a recent service at Potter's House, he talked about the high mortgage and asked everyone in the congregation who was able to give more than $100 to stand and be recognized. (He says during an interview that his goal is to get at least 1,000 worshippers to give $100 apiece at offering time in order to quickly pay off the nearly $2 million debt.) He added kindly that he did not expect everyone to give so much, and pledged $1,000 from his personal funds. As his staff members circulated through the large congregation wielding huge, gold-toned buckets, he did not say that his own thousand bucks is only a drop in them.
The Holy Ghost has entered Jakes and quickened his pace. As he moves across the stage, he no longer tugs at the back of his coat. His powerful voice rumbles faster, like a storm moving in. He explodes frequently into showers of words.
"Give-me-my-joy-Give-me-my-peace! Give-me-my-anointing!" he cries. "Give-it-to-me, give-it-to-me, give-it-to-me!"
He's as wet and glistening as though he were standing in the rain. Many worshippers are also full of the Spirit and have lapsed into tongues. Others are seized by a "running spirit"--and they do run with it, back and forth, and in circles.
"The devil is a liar!" he cries. "He is holding you back by how you think, by warring with your mind!"
He is what you see and what you get. He is gripped with concern; no matter when you meet him, he appears to be completely genuine. If the T.D. Jakes of the stage is a great performer, he is a performer with true heart...and soul.
He is still Tommy from up the hill.
As if on cue, the organ blasts a scorching chord. The choir hardens its singing into frenzy, and Jakes steps off the stage into the crowd.
He is among his people, touching their foreheads and moving past them as they faint dead away. He stops a moment, his hands in the air, trembling as though an electric shock has just run through him. He continues on his way, blessing all those who clamor for him.
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