THE MORNING SUN RISES over the South Dallas hills and the big, unassuming church bearing a simple cross. A vinyl banner declares “The Potter’s House.” Late-model cars approach from both directions on Kiest Boulevard. In the massive parking lot teenagers wearing jean shorts, polo shirts, and orange reflector vests direct traffic. Believers in their Sunday best head into the sanctuary, where a choir dressed in white sings gospel songs accompanied by a small band. Lyrics are projected onto overhead screens, and soon the church is full of shouting, clapping, and singing. At eight-thirty Bishop T. D. Jakes calmly approaches the pulpit. He pauses to look across the large audience. “Put your hands together and give the Lord a praise,” he says. People clap accordingly. Then, with a crescendo, “I didn’t say, ‘The president.’ I didn’t say, ‘The pastor.’ I said, ‘The Lord!’” The crowd erupts with shouts and applause.
Jakes has been in Dallas barely two years, but he has made the Potter’s House, with more than 15,000 members, one of the fastest-growing churches in America. At three services every Sunday the spellbinding preacher rouses a congregation of 5,000, an audience that includes the famous (on this Sunday, several Dallas Cowboys) as well as the homeless. The 41-year-old preaches to millions more on his radio and TV shows and from his books—at last count he had written eighteen. Jakes is fast becoming one of the most well-known ministers in the country.
Just don’t call him an overnight sensation—Jakes has been preaching for years. As a sixteen-year-old in his hometown of Charleston, West Virginia, he became known among his friends as Bible Boy because he carried his Bible to school and preached, he says, “everywhere, all the time.” He would walk up and down the hills near his home and preach to himself. Eventually, after attending West Virginia State, where he took psychology courses, he became a Pentecostal pastor. His first church, in 1980, consisted of ten members. Two years later, he began preaching on the radio. Jakes’s popularity grew along with his congregation; soon he was organizing educational and self-help conferences, such as Manpower (Men Accepting New Powerful Opportunities With Endless Results). In 1993 he began preaching on his own television show, Get Ready With T. D. Jakes, which currently broadcasts on Trinity Broadcasting Network and Black Entertainment Television, with an audience in countries such as South Africa, Zimbabwe, and England. He also started writing books and found acclaim in 1993 when a women’s Sunday school series he had developed on overcoming a dysfunctional past became Woman, Thou Art Loosed!, which eventually sold 1.25 million copies.
As his fame—and his conferences—outgrew his Charleston facilities, Jakes looked to expand his ministry. He bought a building and 28 acres in South Dallas in July 1996 and moved fifty people—his wife, Serita, their five children, close relatives, and staff. Jakes liked the idea of operating out of a progressive, diverse city like Dallas, and the relocation offered him more space and a central site from which to travel to his many speaking engagements. Yet he ultimately attributes the move to someone beyond himself. “The honest-to-goodness truth,” he says, “is that God led me here.”
Since the move, Jakes’s ministry has grown further. Last year he set his sights beyond the Christian book market when he signed a lucrative two-book contract with Putnam, a division of Penguin Putnam, the world’s second-largest publisher. Joel Fotinos, Putnam’s director of religious publishing, compares Jakes with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Billy Graham: “They’re passionate about their message and able to communicate to large crowds. And that’s not easy.” Jakes is also spreading his message through a new medium, producing and singing on the album Woman, Thou Art Loosed: Songs of Healing and Restoration, which was nominated for a Grammy last year.
As singer, writer, and preacher, Jakes deals with issues he feels are often ignored by the Christian community—education, economics, and sexuality. His first Putnam book, The Lady, Her Lover, and Her Lord, concerns a woman’s earthly relationships as well as her spiritual ones. Jakes believes that the church has put too much emphasis on the “sweet by and by while we’re living in the nasty here and now.” As if to back this up, earlier this year he launched City of Refuge, a 232-acre rehabilitation and education community in South Dallas that will eventually include a senior citizens home, a youth center, a mall, and a grocery store. Governor George W. Bush attended the groundbreaking ceremony. Last year Jakes earned a key to the city for providing two thousand homeless people with clothes, coats, and shoes for the winter. The Potter’s House also offers ministries to prisoners, prostitutes, and AIDS victims and help for substance abusers through its state-accredited drug rehabilitation program.
Jakes calls himself the Shepherd of the Shattered and bases his ministry on the biblical concept that God mends and reshapes broken lives, as expressed in the Book of Jeremiah: “So I went down to the potter’s house . . . but the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.” Jakes says he considers himself broken clay in need of repair, like those he ministers to. He feels his role is to revive hope for the hopeless, particularly minorities: “Many in my audiences are people who need to see someone successful within their own communities before they believe that they can do it too.”
The pastor does not hide the fact that he has been financially blessed by his ministry. When he moved to Dallas, he bought a $1.7 million home in a prestigious neighborhood. Although his ostentatious lifestyle has drawn some criticism, Ole Anthony, the president of the Trinity Foundation (a televangelist watchdog organization), says he sees “no indication of fraud and ethics problems after conducting a surface investigation.” For his part, Jakes hires an outside accounting firm to conduct annual audits. He says 35 percent of his annual income comes from his church and ministry—half of which he donates to his church and other nonprofit organizations. He keeps all book and music royalties.
Jakes works hard for the money. But, he says, it’s not his ambition or his education or his locution that has brought him to this place. “My ministry,” he says with calm staccato, like the low rumble of a kettledrum, “is a result of loving God, loving people, and having experienced the love of God healing the broken issues of my life. I have an almost compulsive need to bring people into the presence that helped me to survive.”
Jadell Forman is a freelance writer based in Tulsa, Oklahoma.