"You must prophesy for me." E. Bernard Jordan heard the words in a dream, and he knew it was God speaking. But he was only 15, he says, and "didn't even know how to spell 'prophesy.'" There was another hitch. He was raised in a denomination, the Disciples of Christ, that didn't believe the gifts of the Holy Spirit were valid for our time. It equated prophecy with the sedate, modern practice of preaching.
Jordan respected his church elders -- a Disciples of Christ preacher led him to give his life to Jesus Christ, on March 21, 1975 -- but somehow he knew that the voice in the dream meant just what it said, prophesy, and that if it meant preaching, the voice would have said preaching.
So Jordan began trolling Christian bookstores in Brooklyn, looking for anything he could find on the subject of prophecy. There wasn't much. Just a handful of books, by authors such as Kenneth Hagin and Dallas' Gordon Lindsay.
Jordan absorbed whatever information he could and rode that dream in search of his gift. Into the Pentecostal church, which believed God still spoke through prophecy -- words of edification, exhortation and comfort for the saints. As a young man, Jordan cut his teeth speaking such words to a congregation of 3,000 at the late Apostle Johnny Washington's Tabernacle of Prayer for All People in Jamaica, Queens. This was a traditional sanctified church, where the refrain was "holiness or hell." Women wore their long hair in buns, and they couldn't speak or pray before the church unless they wore a head covering.
They defined old-school, but their faith transcended tradition. Those saints put no limits on God. Young Bernard Jordan saw blind eyes opened, just like in the apostles' days. They lived in the realm of the miraculous, because Jesus was all this poor black congregation ever had.
Now Jordan had a restless mind, an exceptional intellect that would propel him beyond the bounds of simplistic holiness preaching. He saw miracles in the church, but he also saw bondage. Looking at the black Christian community as a whole, he saw heavy shackles, a poverty of the psyche that kept good church folk in dire circumstances, expecting little from Jesus besides managing to make rent. Jordan couldn't be satisfied with that. He knew there had to be more to following Jesus.
At the "mature age of 23," he pushed out on his own, starting a church in a hotel just across the street from the Waldorf Astoria in New York City with his wife, Pastor Debra. (He even calls her that in private out of respect and reverence, he says.) Jordan named it Zoe Ministries, from the Greek word for life, and here he began to experience the breadth and depth of his prophetic gift. "We didn't know how we were gonna pay the rent," Jordan recalls, "but we were using the same kind of crazy faith that all of the saints used."
Those were heady times for this young pastor. Diplomats and United Nations delegates visited his fledgling congregation -- the deputy ambassador of Trinidad, members of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). One day the prince of Swaziland slipped into a Zoe service. "I didn't know he was a prince," Jordan says, "and began to prophesy to him about some things that were going to take place in his nation."
Some time afterward, Jordan and his wife accepted an invitation to prophesy to the royal family in Swaziland, a small nation between Mozambique and South Africa. He told them that a coup would be attempted in November 1988 -- the prophecy was that specific -- and it happened just as he said, through the machinations of the prime minister at the time. "It was the first time they ever had high treason in government," Jordan says, "and it was forewarned due to the prophetic word of the Lord." (I tried to confirm that an attempted coup took place in Swaziland in 1988, but could find no evidence of it in the usual places or elsewhere. Nonetheless, Jordan's account is broadly feasible: Swaziland has a ruling family whose influence and wealth are resented by a significant chunk of the populace. And on its Web site, the U.S. State Department says that in 1988 and 1989, "an underground political party, the People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) criticized the King and his government, calling for democratic reforms.")
Jordan's influence among the mighty didn't end there. He was invited to pray at the general assembly of the United Nations, and he prophesied instead. It was February 1988, when the Sharpeville Six -- black South Africans who'd been framed for the murder of an official -- were soon to be hanged. Jordan boldly proclaimed to the assembly that they would not die. Then, 15 hours before the time of execution, President Ronald Reagan and Britain's Margaret Thatcher asked for clemency -- and, most unusual for the South African apartheid regime, it was granted. "All six of those people walk free today," Jordan says.
Through these experiences, Jordan says, he edged closer to the biblical role of the prophet. "We've always felt like the prophets of the Scriptures spoke to government leaders and nations," Jordan says. "It's more than just telling a person they're gonna get a new car. I mean, we do that, but we're supposed to look at the larger picture."
In 1990, Jordan wrote four volumes of prophetic oracles that he called Written Judgments. In it, he says, he foretold Hurricane Katrina. "We prophesied that in the year 2006" -- the exact year is recorded in the book, he says, though I couldn't get my hands on a copy for confirmation before posting -- "there would be a wind that would come up through the Gulf Coast, and it would cause devastation." (Well, he's off a year...but the book apparently has the correct year, 2005, according to a friend who owns a copy.)
Jordan claims he also correctly prophesied the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and the 2004 tsunami that killed 186,983. Today, he calls himself "Master Prophet" Bernard Jordan, operates a "School of the Prophets" in New York City and counts among his acolytes members of the hip-hop community, including the Reverend Run, one of the founders of Run-DMC and host of an MTV reality show entering its third season. Jordan has just released a book, The Laws of Thinking, that's being marketed to a mass audience, and he's in the process of traversing the country on a book tour. You can catch his late-night infomercials on BET.
Now the matter of prophecy is an explosive subject, even in Pentecostal-charismatic circles that sanction some form of the gift for modern times. But Jordan is probably right up there with Garland native Paul Cain -- whose prominent church patrons cut him off when they discovered he was alcoholic and gay -- on the scale of controversy. That is, right at the top. I was told by a knowledgeable national source that "no one" in the mainstream Pentecostal-charismatic community will have anything to do with Jordan. I also heard the word "heretic" bandied about.
What did Jordan do to burn so many bridges? It depends on who you ask. A visit to his Web site makes one thing abundantly clear: This is no ordinary "prophet." In fact, you can click on a button and purchase a year's worth of prophecies from Jordan and his custom-trained "Company of the Prophets" for $365, all major credit cards accepted. That's only a dollar a day, Jordan pointed out in a seminar he gave last week at the Hyatt Regency in Dallas. And $1,199 will get you admission to the "University of U & I," where you'll receive weekly instruction by Jordan via CD on things "the local church is afraid to teach." Other products are available too, like "Prophetic Awareness Soap" and "Prosperity Soap," only $7 each.
Is Bernard Jordan selling prophecies? Darn right he is, and you won't get any apologies from this calm, well-spoken man.
Jordan knows he's a pariah, and he's chosen to unleash his gift on the hip-hoppers and the unchurched instead. "My problem," he said, "is that the charismatic church has virtually chosen to ignore our prophetic work."
He says he knows exactly why.
"I believe that it is because of race. They hate to see a Negro get a dollar."
Oracles of the Prophet
"Have you seen Bernard Jordan's Web site?" a friend in ministry asked me. This man used to have an extraordinary prophetic gift, she said -- he'd prophesy to people he'd never known and come up with specific names, dates, facts -- but he'd gone bad. I checked out his Web site, and at the time it opened with an image of Jordan coming straight at you in a hooded black robe, like a spookier version of a monk's cassock.
Now I'm no stranger to the gift of prophecy. It is practiced in the Pentecostal circles I travel. The Apostle Paul wrote quite a bit about it, and clearly it was controversial even in his time. He tells his hearers to seek prophecy above all the other gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues, but at the same time counsels them to "despise not" prophecy. So evidently there was something despise-worthy about it.
And I can see that from my own experience. A good chunk of the prophecy in charismatic circles revolves around new cars and new houses. Yeah, they're words of "edification, exhortation and comfort," as Paul described prophecy post-Jesus Christ, but Paul seems to have a more expansive definition of those terms. His definition appears to encompass words of reproof and correction, which you seldom hear these days. Prophecy, in fact, is widely "despised" because so much of it seems me-focused instead of God-focused. Wide swaths of the church, of course, believe it's invalid altogether, that it passed away with the original apostles.
I did come to Jordan's seminar last week at the Hyatt Regency with a skeptical mind. I needed an answer: Is Bishop E. Bernard Jordan a prophet or a heretic?
The 125 or so people present at the Hyatt, the majority of whom I would identify as middle-aged black church ladies, had paid $35 to attend this seminar in the hopes, I'm fairly sure, of getting a personal prophecy. There was a well-dressed woman in a gigantic black hat with feathers that bobbed and fluttered as she walked in high heels. Jordan spoke to her several times, and it was clear she was a regular Zoe customer. There were preachers in synthetic-fiber zoot suits and a woman in a brown wig of preposterous height. The audience was sprinkled with younger women in hipper dress and a handful of whites and Latinos.
Jordan sat at the front on a stool in a Pentecostal bishop's garb -- a black suit and clerical robe and vest, with a gold-chained cross stowed in his front pocket. His fake dreads hung halfway down his back. He had a laptop queued up to the Scriptures and a copy of his new book, and most of the lecture consisted of him reading and expounding on passages from The Laws of Thinking. Jordan seemed almost bored, like he'd done this a zillion times.
Fairly often, doctrinal warning bells would start bonging in my brain. You are divine, Jordan told us. Too often people look for God in the heavenlies, he said, when actually he's right inside us. He spoke as though every person has the Holy Spirit. Evangelical Christians, however, believe that the Holy Spirit indwells a believer at the moment he surrenders his life to Jesus Christ and becomes "born again."
What church folks lack, he said, is an understanding of God as "I Am." (When Moses asked God to identify himself, God said, "Tell them that I Am sent you.") When we internalize the concept of God as I Am, he is whatever we want him to be. "I Am" could be the house or car that I desire. Prosperity or a husband. When I truly believe "I Am" that house or luxury car, it will materialize in my life.
It sounded like standard New Age mumbo-jumbo to me, with the focus not-so-subtly shifted from The Almighty God to The Almighty Me.
After about an hour of lecturing, punctuated by whispered cries of "Jesus" from the elderly women beside me, the seminar evolved into a hard sell for The Laws of Thinking. Jordan encouraged his audience to buy a dozen copies to distribute to friends -- no, make that disciples. If Jordan could get a million copies of his book into the hands of disciples, he said, "There's going to be a shift in consciousness" nationwide.
It took me a while to figure out what he was talking about. His book is intended to reverse generations of erroneous thinking in black America -- thought patterns that hold men and women in the shackles of poverty, self-hatred and hopelessness.
To the pastors in the audience, he offered this: "You'll never grow a successful ministry with poor people by your side -- I tried it," he said. "It didn't work. Poor people are not discipleship material. You preach the gospel to the poor and disciple the rich. You can't do anything with minds that are struggling."
We took a break so people could go in the back and buy boxes of a dozen books. More than 30 people responded, and only to these would Jordan prophesy.
One Latino woman got in line for her "word" from God.
"Where's your receipt?" Jordan asked quietly.
She mumbled some kind of explanation.
"Go back and get your receipt."
To those with proper proof of purchase Jordan offered words of comfort. A black couple walked up to him. "Are there three people in the house?" Jordan asked. The couple looked at each other and smiled knowingly. Sure enough, they lived in a household of three.
Most of the words he dispensed, however, were nonspecific and broadly upbeat -- not unlike the material you'd read in a horoscope column.
"I heard the word of the Lord saying, the thing you struggle with is going to become easy for you in the days to come," Jordan told one well-dressed pastor.
To another he said, "You have creativity in your hands -- when you work at this book, you're gonna dig into your talents...what's happening with marriage?"
This was not Swaziland, the tsunami or the Sharpeville Six. This was vague stuff, often preceded by questions. Jordan, in fact, admitted he dictates "1,000 prophecies" a day for distribution to paid customers via CD, and that his 16-year-old son Manesseh, who goes to boarding school, gets up each morning at 5:30 and rattles off prophecies for the first hour and a half of his day.
Jordan says he prophesies so much, it's easy for him.
But things got a little dicey when Jordan prophesied to an older white couple.
"Who's under a doctor's care?" he asked.
Both of them shook their heads. Neither one of them.
"Why am I seeing you on the road for long hours? Are y'all on the road a lot?"
They shook their heads again.
If these were prophecies, they were 25-watt prophecies. I left while Jordan was nearing the end of the line, and I took with me the impression of a once-gifted prophet for whom the light had slowly dimmed.
I didn't doubt that Jordan prophesied Katrina. I didn't doubt that he possessed a legitimate gift from God, or that he had a real Christian conversion experience at the age of 15. But something had gone awry since those heady days of early ministry, and I needed to find out why.
An Offended Brother
I admitted to the prophet that I struggled with his message. We sat in ornate chairs in the lobby of the Adolphus Hotel, with a piano tinkling somewhere in the distance. I had a problem with the "you are God" business. I had a problem with merchandising the gift of prophecy, when Jesus commanded his disciples, "freely you have received, freely give." I was disturbed that, according to the New York Press, he'd contemplated holding a "psychic summit" with the likes of -- are you ready for this? -- Dionne Warwick and Miss Cleo.
I questioned what seemed to be his universalist stance on salvation, a giant doctrinal leap from Jordan's roots in the holiness church.
I noted that Jesus Christ was seldom mentioned during the seminar. Was Jordan an evolved holiness preacher or a New Age shaman? Could he even accurately be termed "Christian" anymore?
"Do you see yourself as a holiness preacher?" I asked.
"No, I see myself more as a liberation preacher," he said. "For all people who are oppressed. To me, holiness is wholeness."
"Was that your purpose from the beginning?"
"It evolved to that," he said.
"Because I saw that the 11 o'clock hour was the most segregated hour in America on Sunday morning," he said. "And then our churches that are mixed, the pulpit does not reflect the congregation.
"When blacks are in leadership," he continued, "they look for us to preach in the pulpit and be entertaining. They look for us to be singing. But they never look to us for direction."
True enough, I thought. African-American church leadership and teaching are maligned in seminaries, dismissed as shallow -- "a mile wide and an inch deep." Mixed churches with white leadership always seem to take on a predominantly white flavor in worship and preaching. Black Pentecostals are held in suspicion by their white brethren, presumed not be doctrinally pure enough. I could go on.
Everything the prophet said about race was shamefully accurate.
I was starting to understand. Every time he talked about race, his entire countenance changed. His face hardened. His tempo of speech shifted.
Master Prophet Bernard Jordan is an offended brother. He is angry, because the white-led charismatic community has utterly rejected his gift.
"Do you feel like you've been demonized?" I asked.
"You're the one that told me I'm charging for prophecy."
"Well, you are, right?"
"The same way your preacher charges for services," he said. (In reality, my pastor started out by preaching on the street for nothing.) "But they write up that Bishop Jordan charges you a dollar a day and demonize what I do -- oh, my God! That's racism in America."
God had endowed him with this prodigious giftedness at an early age, and he'd proved its validity through a series of unbelievable prognostications. It should have taken him to the highest reaches of church and government, but instead people pick around for faults. They damn him for his Rolls-Royce -- a gift from the Reverend Run -- but won't say a word about the white televangelist's private jet.
If I have observed one thing that destroys ministry, it is the spirit of offense. Resentment, bitterness and unforgiveness will smother the light of the Holy Spirit each and every time. Bernard Jordan had correctly diagnosed the racial sickness of the American evangelical church, but he held his anger too close to his heart. Now the light of the Spirit had ebbed.
In the days following our meeting, I mulled the matter of heresy. No, I don't have a lick of formal theological training. I'm not one of those heresy hunters who can quote every chapter and verse. But I know that the "living creatures" who surround the throne in heaven cry out "Holy! Holy! Holy!", not "Whole! Whole! Whole!"
One word connotes a God who is immeasurably greater than us, who commands our reverence, our obedience, our very lives.
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Wholeness -- prosperity, a good marriage, spiritual health -- that's about me.
So is Bishop E. Bernard Jordan a prophet or a heretic?
Chew on this: He's actually both. --Julie Lyons
Dallas Observer Editorial Assistant Kaitlin Ingram contributed to the reporting for this story.