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With Gifts From God

Bishop T.D. Jakes has made millions by reaching millions. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 25, 2001; Page F01

DALLAS -- ON A NIGHT LIKE THIS, cars trying to get to this house of God are backed up for a quarter mile at all the exits, frustrating commuters trying to get home. And that's just for Bible study, on a Wednesday -- nothing compared to Sunday morning rush hour. A few years back, the church had to hire the NFL's transportation consultant -- the guy who handles traffic for the Super Bowl -- to lean out the door of a helicopter and say, "They got too many people."

Right now, they're piled into the sanctuary, which looks like a minor league baseball stadium, albeit one with a gospel choir and an nine-foot-high replica of the Wailing Wall. Behind the stage, surrounded by security guards and handlers, his eyebrows freshly combed and his bald head powdered, the man with the golden voice sips water from a finely cut glass on a silver tray. The water -- and this is key -- is at room temperature, because coldtightens the man's vocal cords, those magic million-dollar muscles that have built one of the biggest, fastest-growing churches in the nation.

"How are they?" asks a member of his entourage, speaking of the golden pipes.

"Little tired, but that's okay," says Bishop T.D. Jakes, 43, a man with a million-plus income, a breathtaking lakefront mansion and a preference for fine suits and cuff links.

Five years ago, Jakes was a big fish in the small pond of Charleston, W. Va., with a television ministry and a Pentecostal church of 1,000 members. Then he pulled up roots and made a bold trek to Dallas, followed by 50 families of his faithful, with hopes he could transform the new headquarters into a national stage.

It was, like so much of Jakes's ministry, a canny investment.

Jakes's church now has 26,000 members. For the past two years, Jakes's women's conferences at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta have topped 80,000 attendees, breaking a record set by none other than the Rev. Billy Graham. He broadcasts four times a week on Trinity Broadcasting Network and Black Entertainment Television, has written two nationally touring stage plays, and has had one of his gospel albums nominated for a Grammy. T.D. Jakes Ministries sells 200 different tapes of Jakes's sermons. Over the course of writing 22 books, he's become one of the country's best-selling Christian authors. (Joel Fontinos, director of religious titles for Penguin Putnam, which publishes Jakes, says the popularity of the pastor's books rivals that of the Dalai Lama's.)

The church itself, the Potter's House, exhausts the power of superlatives. Its sanctuary seats 8,200 people and has laptop jacks in the pews so worshipers can download sermons. Headphones hook up to a simultaneous-translation room for those who don't speak English. Nurses are kept on call during worship, and funerals and weddings take place almost daily. Three years ago, the church purchased 231 acres near the church to create a residential and educational area to revitalize Dallas's impoverished southern sector.

Jakes's message -- self-help heavy sermons with names like "Spiritual Makeover" and "Seven Steps to a Turnaround" -- focuses on topics like economic empowerment, improving relationships, losing weight and getting over past abuse. He calls himself a Christian motivator. He is Norman Vincent Peale with a twist of Oprah and a lot of God talk.

But the money, the money. It is so big it almost threatens to overshadow the man. Among theologians and black community leaders, Jakes prompts some tart cynicism (not to mention an occasional spat of jealousy). In an increasingly commercialized black popular culture, they say, T.D. Jakes may just be one more brand.

"Is he any different from the football player from Louisiana who's got the diamond stud?" asks Eugene Rivers, a pastor and community activist from Boston. "Or the rapper from South Central who made good?"

Wealth and Worship

In the American consciousness, the televangelist is a shadowy figure. Say the word and you conjure names stained with corruption. You think of Jimmy Swaggart (sex scandal), Jim Bakker (sex scandal and fraud) and Oral Roberts (who claimed to have seen a 900-foot Jesus and once solicited money by threatening that he might otherwise die). Leave aside for a moment the untouchable and revered Billy Graham, knowing that there are always exceptions. Why, the very church that T.D. Jakes purchased when he came to Dallas in 1996 belonged to televangelist W.V. Grant Jr., who was forced to sell his headquarters when he was sentenced to 16 months in prison for tax evasion.

T.D.Jakes's career and lifestyle choices have long dogged him. From the moment he began his rise in West Virginia in the mid-'90s and purchased a $600,000 house with a swimming pool and bowling alley, suspicion has surrounded him. Who was this guy, the local papers asked. How could he be making so much money and be a man of God? One columnist wrote that he must be a "huckster."

Jakes says he left Charleston because his ambitions had become too big for the city. And indeed they had; his local conferences became logistical nightmares, with not enough buses or hotel rooms to accommodate visitors -- some people had to sleep in their cars. But Jakes had gotten too big in another sense. Charleston seemed unwilling to let this local preacher grow so far above his humble roots.

Still, those who've attempted to uncover scandal in T.D. Jakes Ministries have failed. Like most well-known televangelists, Jakes has been subject to scrutiny, and not only by the media. Ole Anthony, a former televangelist who has taken it on himself to keep tabs on those still practicing, has investigated Jakes for years and has never uncovered wrongdoing.

So, if there's no corruption, what's wrong with a wealthy preacher?

That's what T.D. Jakes would like to know. Countless times he's been asked about the money, and countless times he's pointed out that if he were a doctor or a lawyer, nobody would be making any fuss. It's discrimination, he says. He's proud of his success. He says his entrepreneurship allows him to be independent of the churchand leave a legacy for his children. Why, he's a role model for others.

"I think it's critical that our community see success in their color . . . success that is progressive and legal," he says.

Still, Jakes's lifestyle and his emphasis on tithing has prompted a few theologians to suggest that he borrows from prosperity gospel, the teaching espoused by the illustrious Frederick Eikerenkoetter, Rev. Ike. It promises that worshipers will become wealthy if they tithe their earnings and "get right with God." If so, Jakes would hardly be unusual. There is a link in certain facets of the black church between wealth and piety; parishioners have long taken pride in providing a comfortable lifestyle for their preachers.

"He is not distinctive from a whole class of clergy on the scene today who have linked individual piety with individual prosperity," says Robert Franklin Jr., president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. "Live right, live well -- as people deepen their relationship to Jesus they should also expect that they will become more affluent."

In his most recent book, "The Great Investment: Faith, Family and Finance," Jakes mixes high-minded spiritual advice with the most wordly of financial tips: "Pay your bills on time." "Take full advantage of your employer's 401(k) plan."

"Ultimately, God should be our financial adviser," he writes. "If we are generous, God will continue to be generous to us."

But Jakes rejects the assumption that the linking of faith and finance indicates a superficial spiritual message.

"I'm saying that the only solution to our generation, particularly in the inner cities where there are racial issues and academic issues and people are on their second and third chances, that if we don't teach economic empowerment, we will subtly create atmospheres that promote crime and drugs and pestilence in our community," Jakes says in an interview. "I'm not evaluating the integrity of your faith by the depth of your wallet."

But he is saying a fat wallet doesn't preclude religious devotion. Abraham was rich, he points out. In the past, Jakes has gone so far as to suggest that Jesus was a rich man, since he had to have supported his apostles somehow.

This is a sticking point for Ole Anthony, a believer who has taken a vow of poverty under which he earns room, board and $50 a week.

"As I searched the Scriptures, the only minister was the poorest of the poor, not the richest of the rich," he says.

Anthony keeps files on 350 televangelists across the country, and he's watched them arc toward fame and glory -- and down toward ignominy -- time and again. Several televangelists have fallen at his own hand. The work of his organization, Trinity Foundation, was instrumental in uncovering scandals in the ministries of Grant and Robert Tilton, another Dallas area preacher.

After years of studying Jakes's church, Anthony sees much to be optimistic about. He likes Jakes's willingness to minister to the broken, his work with AIDS sufferers and the homeless. But he says he worries, too, because -- from his own experience -- he suspects there's something inherent in the lifestyle that causes problems for even the most sincere of preachers. The pursuit of money, he finds, tends to overshadow everything else. Surrounded by yes men, many preachers lose perspective and think themselves gods, he says. Self-interest seems inherently at odds with being Christlike.

"I sincerely hope that he doesn't fall into the trap that all of those men have," Anthony says.

To illustrate his point, Anthony offers a brief tour. It starts at Trinity headquarters, a row of houses on a short block surrounded by Mexican restaurants and small, aging strip malls, in a neighborhood slowly undergoing gentrification. (The area still has a ways to go. Some years back, a Trinity member was stabbed there.)

Jakes's neighborhood in east Dallas is a 10-minute drive from Trinity Foundation, but the change is drastic. As Anthony drives in his '79 Caprice to Jakes's neighborhood, the houses get larger and the lawns greener. The streets are quiet, and joggers and ducks congregate around one of Dallas's most beautiful attractions, White Rock Lake.

Jakes's home overlooks the curving lake. Flanked by a row of elegant cedars and surrounded by a tall iron gate, the $2.6 million pink brick house with fluted cream columns and a four-car garage is imposing even in this affluent neighborhood. Next door is the former mansion of oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, once known as the richest man in the world. The Hunt house has been undergoing repairs, and its lawn has withered to beige. These days it almost pales in comparison with its neighbor.

Anthony does a U-turn.

"How can you meet the needs of the people unless you're among them?" he asks, as he steers the Chevy homeward. "You can't imagine any of the disciples living like that."

A Diverse Flock

Diversity is T.D. Jakes's strength. His church is economically and racially mixed; his worshipers are the educated and the ignorant, the accomplished and the oppressed. And he has an appeal for all of them.

In a recent weekly meeting with his seven assistant pastors, Jakes plans for the church's upcoming revival services. The event opens and closes with prayer, but make no mistake, this is a business meeting. It's marketing Jakes-style, and Lesson 1 is "know your audience."

"You must know your consumer," he tells his fellow pastors. "Any successful business [succeeds] because they have a brand that relates to their audience."

This is the mainspring of Jakes's success.

He has been able to maintain white membership -- 12 percent of his majority-black church -- by focusing on individual pain and victimization, rather than America's racist undertones.

When he wrote "Maximize the Moment," a New York Times business bestseller that last year landed him on "Larry King Live," Jakes targeted the self-help crowd with lessons on setting goals and delegating power.

In his women's ministry, he uses what Eugene Rivers describes as a "Barry White love-daddy pillow-talk" voice, to constantly remind women that they deserve "better." If they can't find suitable men, Jesus will be their lover. In his first book, "Woman, Thou Art Loosed!" (1993), which catapulted him into popularity, Jakes writes:

"The Lord wants to make sweet love to you. I'm not being carnal, I'm being real. He wants to hold you. He wants you to come in at the end of the day and say, 'Oh, Lord, I could hardly make it today. . . . Hold me. Touch me, strengthen me. Let me hold You. Let me bless You. I've set the night aside for us.' "

"He's a tremendous preacher, everyone knows that," says Zan Holmes, a Dallas pastor and political bridge-builder. "But he also seems to have a very good understanding of the human condition. . . . He does a very good job of speaking to the emotional needs that people have."

And it's because he knows how to angle himself that after this pastors' meeting, Jakes changes out of his beige suit into jeans, patent-leather boots and a shiny black shirt.

"I like to go into prison laid-back," he says.

He takes the church's blue Lincoln Navigator to Hutchins State Jail for one of a number of visits he makes as part of prison outreach, a major focus of his ministry. (The Potter's House also broadcasts to several hundred prisons in 29 states every Wednesday night, paying for satellite dishes in prisons that need them.)

In person, Jakes is subdued, happy in long stretches of silence. He is deferential -- waiting to sip from a glass of water until he is finished both listening to and answering a question. In the Navigator, accompanied by a driver and an assistant pastor, he studies his Bible. When he speaks, his voice is soft and husky.

Jakes is gaptoothed and has a slight lisp. He is a big guy, over six feet tall and rotund, despite having shed some 100 pounds before writing a 1997 book, "Lay Aside the Weight." The earpieces of his small rectangular glasses seem barely to reach his ears for the expanse they must travel. Still, he is attractive, his head shaved and his goatee trim, his laugh throaty and his eyes expressive.

But when he strides the stage in the prison chapel, he appears mighty. His manner is folksy, his style rhythmic. He calls Jesus "the big J." He turns often, to make sure he is reaching the margins of the audience. He sings and shouts but he also whispers. If you charted a sermon of his, it would look like a mountain range, starting low on the horizon and building slowly, steadily to a series of peaks. He sweats so profusely during sermons that he periodically runs a towel from the top of his head over his entire face, as if he's just stepped out of the shower.

"Doesn't matter where a man starts," Jakes tells the prisoners. "Matters where you finish."

He uses himself as an example that sinners can go far. He tells them about his father the janitor, and how hard he worked. He tells them that as a kid he -- like many of them -- used to sell drugs.

Drugs? That's never been written about before. Later, in the SUV, Jakes plays down that claim. He doesn't seem eager to see it printed. (When pressed the following day, he'll say he sold nickel bags of pot in junior high school, for maybe a year. It was the '60s, he says. "Believe me, that was not unusual at the time.")

The lesson, know your audience. Jakes is a salesman, tailoring his pitch.

All this effort brings its reward. Jakes's books sell briskly in mainstream bookstores. His national conferences are like mini-pilgrimages, drawing attendees even from around the world. For his crossover appeal, Jakes is constantly compared to Billy Graham.

"His genius is in his distributional vigor, and the kind of business plan that seems to be operating there is by far a new level of entrepreneurship and marketing savvy," says Franklin, of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. "With Jakes you can go into a local supermarket and find a rack with his materials. I'm sort of astounded by that."

Like a number of observers, Franklin says he's impressed by Jakes's message of empowerment, but uncertain about his pairing of ministry and moneymaking.

As for how that pairing plays out, the proceeds from videos and audiotapes (as well as contributions) go to T.D. Jakes Ministries, the nonprofit company that runs Jakes's church. (The Potter's House, incidentally, is named after a biblical reference to God as the mender of pots.) Last year the ministries took in $19 million, according to Jakes's publicist.

Meanwhile, Jakes himself reaps the profits of his books, music, plays and speaking engagements. In 1996, according to income tax returns obtained by Ole Anthony, the income of Jakes and his wife, Serita, was $1.6 million. In the years since, Jakes has acquired book contracts with advances of more than $1 million, he says. But whatever his current income is, he keeps it to himself.

An Early Calling

Jakes used to sell Avon for his mother. Imagine that: a chunky, serious boy going door to door in his poor neighborhood in Charleston, dropping off orders and hawking beauty products. Thomas Dexter, or Tommy, was the last of three children born to a mother who taught home economics and a father who was a janitor. The family had little money, and at various times Jakes had a paper route and sold vegetables he grew in a garden.

As neighbors remember, young Jakes didn't play outside like the other kids, and he liked adult company. In fact, in a community that placed heavy emphasis on churchgoing and worship, Tommy Jakes gravitated toward several deeply religious adults.

"He was a really smart boy," says Bobbie Tolliver, a neighbor who was close to the family. "He tried hard to prove to everybody that he was going to be someone someday."

Wyatt Tolliver, Bobbie's son, a best friend in childhood, recalls Jakes as precocious. "I remember once he got accused of doing something at school that I know he didn't do" -- turning up the thermostat in the cafeteria. "I think that what most kids would've done was told their parents," Tolliver says. "But he went home and called the superintendent of education." (Jakes says he doesn't remember that story but "that sounds like me.")

When Jakes was 10, his father developed kidney failure after years of untreated hypertension, and for the next six years until his death, Jakes and his mother, Odith, cared for Ernest when he wasn't in the hospital. Ernest had built his janitorial business from a one-man operation to a company with 42 employees, but now the business began to suffer. Some evenings, Jakes would go down and lock up his father's buildings. He'd take the bus downtown to pay the family bills when his mother couldn't spare the time.

Sometimes he bathed and shaved his father; sometimes he helped hook him up to the rudimentary dialysis machine the family kept at home.

"If my father was sick, we'd lay him in the back seat of the car and turn the emergency lights on, and my mother would drive and I would take care of him till we got to the hospital," Jakes says. "If there was an emergency and she screamed out my name, I came running -- she was clamping off his shunts. . . . I can still see it. I will always be able to see it. I can draw a picture of the kidney machine, virtually."

As Jakes tells it now, he knew early on he was called to the ministry. Bobbie Tolliver remembers the young boy preaching alone in his living room, so loud she could hear him in her house. But it wasn't until after his father's death that he turned to the ministry -- hesitantly at first, and then with growing fervor. In 1981 he married a young woman named Serita Ann Jamison, who had seen him preaching locally and sent him secret-pal cards telling him he had an admirer. They eventually had five children. When a local chemical plant where he'd been working closed down a year later, Jakes turned to full-time ministry.

His first church had 10 members. But even then, Jakes stood out for his insightful and rousing sermons.

"When someone is good, you kind of hear about him," says Holloway Gray, now Jakes's personal assistant, who went to see him preach in the '80s. "The spirit of the Lord just moved so mightily in the church that particular Sunday, and a friend of mine said, 'Well, you know, this is normal for us.' And I told my wife -- got back in the car -- I said, 'Ahh, I don't believe that.' You just can't believe church is that great every Sunday."

What a difference the years have made. Now Jakes pals around with NFL stars Deion Sanders and Emmitt Smith. Sanders credits Jakes with bringing him to God and says that, despite having had a father and stepfather, Jakes is the only man he's ever been able to call "Daddy."

Economics, Not Politics

In Jakes's growing Dallas empire, he is unquestionably the king. His name is branded on half the items in the church bookstore. All those close to him refer to him simply as "Bishop." Even with his growing influence, Jakes has carefully kept himself apart from politics, saying it gives him more independence.

In this, Jakes reflects a trend. Those who study the black church say that in ministering to a growing middle class, pastors are placing less emphasis on politics and social justice than their civil rights era counterparts. Today, says Russell Adams, chair of Howard University's African American studies department, black politics is increasingly the purview of black politicians, not religious leaders, although a great deal of crossover still exists.

Though then-Gov. George W. Bush attended a church ceremony and has publicly praised Jakes, and presidential candidate Al Gore wooed Potter's House members during a campaign stop there, Jakes remained unaligned with either.

"I am able to provide ministry without discrimination to both Republicans and Democrats because of my posture," he writes in an e-mail. "I have been able to access the current and the former administrations from a pastoral perspective. I am clearly -- and unapologetically -- a pastor, not a politician."

But Jakes is a force in the community. His project of the moment is revitalizing the impoverished and largely black southern sector of Dallas. His church has purchased 231 acres of old farmland, which will, according to the plans, have a hundred moderately priced homes, a retirement center, an amphitheater,subsidized office space for high-tech start-ups, a retreat for women in need and a retreat for pastors. It will also hold the church's school, which is currently housed in trailers.

"For someone who took a pretty high risk to move a successful ministry from one part of the country to the other, I think he's made a remarkable impact on the Dallas community in a short amount of time," says Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk. "People are beginning to recognize him as a fairly forceful advocate of community healing and community investment."

But some ministers in the black community wonder if this is enough. They see a man whose audience extends from cable TV to prisons to readers of business advice books. They see him contributing locally, but they see potential for social action on a grand scale.

"He never speaks on racism," says Cain Hope Felder, dean of the Howard University Divinity School, whose biggest criticism is that Jakes rarely discusses the root causes of modern-day troubles in the black community. "He never speaks on the brutality of the criminal justice system."

"T.D. Jakes is a great teacher and motivational speaker," says Rivers, the Boston preacher and activist. "As to his moral, theological legacy, the jury's out."

If Potter's House is a cult of personality, Rivers says, if its fortunes rise and fall with Jakes's appeal, what's the greater accomplishment? "Fifteen years from now what difference will this have made," he asks, "beyond making Bishop Jakes a very wealthy man?"

Jakes does not find this a difficult question to answer. The difference lies in every homeless person his church bathes and feeds, every mother counseled and prisoner given hope. If, in doing that, Jakes builds an empire that seems as much about self-promotion as the word of God, maybe that's a fair tradeoff.

At the end of the Wednesday night bible study, Jakes takes a question from a woman in the audience. She is getting a divorce, she says, and her 9-year-old son, Patrick, is so distraught that he thinks he'd be "better off never having been born."

Jakes calls the boy down, a gesture intended perhaps as much to stir the audience as the child. As 5,000 people crane their necks, a roly-poly boy in a white button-down shirt and sneakers toddles hesitantly down the aisle to Jakes, who's on his knees. The boy falls obediently into Jakes' embrace. The audience oohs.

Jakes asks Patrick about his heartache. Perhaps the boy is mesmerized by the powerful man, or embarrassed to be in front of all these strangers. In any case, he just stares silently.

"They're not divorcing you," Jakes says, holding the awed child. "I'm gonna tell you something else: It's not your fault."

At this, the audience explodes with applause. They have been moved by the personal touch of T.D. Jakes. As for the boy, he says nothing.

Staff writer Hamil Harris contributed to this report.

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