A thunderous chant, almost 17,000 men strong, shakes up MCI Center. It's that one-two, fist pumping kind usually showered on star athletes. Only this time it's for someone bigger.
"Je-Sus, Je-Sus," the crowd roars, growing louder and stronger with each repetition, until finally it conjures his messenger from backstage, the one Bishop T.D. Jakes, perhaps the greatest preaching phenomenon in black America and by some people's reckoning, all of America.
He strolls onto the stage, a bearish man in a stylish black suit carrying a microphone. He looks first to the right of the arena, then the center, then the left, and with each turn of his head the anointed section explodes in cheers. Then quietly, he describes the goal he has set for his three-day Christian conference for men, a more intense and mostly black version of the Promise Keepers: "After this," he tells the crowd. "You will never be the same again."
This was the challenge Jakes issued to his audience and himself on Thursday night, at the beginning of his annual "Manpower" conference, held in the District this year and ending this afternoon. The first night, the crowd was smaller than the 30,000 expected. But for those who came, he hoped to pound into them--with his musical rhythm and graphic real-life stories--a new conception of manhood. He wants to make them understand that only by giving in to their fears would they rise above them to be better husbands and fathers and, most important, better friends to one another.
A near impossible goal, but the 41-year-old Jakes is accustomed to shattering expectations. In the three years since its founding, his Pentecostal church in Dallas, the Potter's House, has already drawn 22,000 members, a fourth of whom show up each Sunday. Potter's House, say evangelical experts, is one of the fastest growing churches in America.
And Dallas is merely one corner of Jakes's growing empire. Millions of viewers see him four times a week on the television show "Get Ready With T.D. Jakes" or wait for the wandering preacher to show up at their local churches and conferences. At the Manpower conference, he announced his latest electronic venture: his own Web server that will automatically filter out pornographic and racist Web sites.
Although this week Jakes is speaking to men, he's been more famous for his preaching to women. Jakes's popularity exploded about six years ago with the publication of the title that's now his trademark: "Women Thou Art Loosed," a Christian self-help book based on an artful line from the book of Luke: "And when Jesus saw her, he called her unto him and said unto her, Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity."
The first of his 18 books, it sold 1.5 million copies. Since then he has adapted it into a play showing at the Lincoln Theatre this week; it also inspired a compact disc with a song of the same name that was nominated for a Grammy. The annual Woman Thou Art Loosed conference in Atlanta last month drew 84,000 people, and staff joked that the tears flew so freely that the cleaning crew needed more mops. The title made Jakes a multimillionaire who believes that being a model Christian is not inconsistent with prosperity, complete with expensive cars and fine clothing.
The book turned him into a household name--particularly in single-mother households--and vaulted him to the major league of preachers. He has baptized the likes of Dallas Cowboys Emmitt Smith and Deion Sanders, and he has shared many a late night prayer session in Texas with George W. Bush.
His style is talk show with a dose of hellfire. Unofficially, Jakes is known as Shepherd to the Shattered. "Unexposed, festering pains prevent many from ever coming to the light of their potential," he wrote in announcing this week's conference. "Unresolved, unshakable memories form barriers of lifelong pain and hopelessness. We want to crack the shells of enslaved, hurting women. They can be freed from shame, freed to release the beautiful vibrant women dying to get out. And this aims at men as forcefully as women."
But Jakes doesn't stop at the helpless victim part. After commanding the men and women to bare their souls and weep, he then reels them back in. The only way out is not to wallow but to come clean. Men have to apologize to their wives and girlfriends for any abuse they've inflicted or pain they've caused; women and men must apologize to their children for bad tempers and neglect.
There are no excuses; in his almost three-hour sermon on Thursday night, Jakes mentioned racism exactly once.
With the men, he is hard and direct. "Being a man is not about making money, being tough and having babies," he told his MCI audience. "Even a dog can make a baby. Being a man is about accepting responsibility."
Charles Jackson and Drake Johnson, two of the men in the audience, said they appreciate Jakes's "down to earth" and "practical" message. The two friends drove 10 hours from Florida to attend the conference. Even if you're sitting in the high balcony, you feel like "he's talking right to you, speaking to the problems in your own life," said Johnson. It's a gift known as "Rhema," they said, using the Biblical word for Jesus's gift for giving words double meanings and double dimensions, such that they come alive and transform your life.
With women he is more indulgent. "Have you ever seen a broken woman?" he asks in his latest book, "The Lady, Her Lover and Her Lord." "Look for the slight traces of scars beneath her makeup, a blank, dead stare that neither eye-liner nor shadow can give life to. Look for a smile that fades too quickly or a pained glance."
In his play, a combination kitchen sink and conversion drama, women are called to task for their sins. One faces the consequences of being a cruel, neglectful mother, another of having 12 abortions. But the real devil of the story is a man, Reggie. Reggie's talents are limited to perfecting his pimp roll, smoking crack and pretending to look for a job. His crowning achievement is raping his girlfriend's daughter.
For many women present, the message resonates. "I know 100 Reggies," said Shawna Hadley from Southeast Washington, who came to see the play Wednesday night with her mother, aunt and two girlfriends. "And I dated at least 10 of them."
At the men's conference, Jakes dealt with his audience as 17,000 potential Reggies. "In the book, Sally was a virgin when I married her, and I was a virgin, and we had 2.5 children and lived in a $185,000 starter home. This is the way Christians are taught that it's all a nice neat little package," he said. "But we need to talk about what to do when you marry Shawanda and she's got a baby by Willy, and you bring your daughter by Francine, and nobody's a virgin and nobody's wholesome."
Yet he made sure to avoid a divisive message. "Yes, he's the white man's God and the black man's God and the brown man's God and the women's God," he said, telling a story of his meeting with a certain rabbi who showed him how much Jews and African Americans have in common.
As he speaks, his voice is so powerful and his rhythm so seductive that people began to unconsciously move toward him. The crowd pressed against their seats, and the other preachers with him on stage tripped over each other.
Toward the end, hundreds drifted up to the stage to drop dollars on it, and left doing acrobatic feats: hopping on one leg, dancing a two-step shuffle, jumping about as if they had just scored a touchdown.
After the sermon was over, a man in a denim shirt and loose shorts roamed the concourse yelling "Je-Sus, Je-Sus, Je-Sus." Another crowd might think him mad, but here, as one man offered, they understood: "He's been touched."