“I can still see his cracked, parched lips, fever blisters and all that.”
Bishop T.D. Jakes is silent for a moment, struck by the memory. “It hurt me a lot. I even got to a point of wanting-to-die painful.
“But if you took that away from me, I wouldn’t be sitting here.”
When Thomas Dexter Jakes was 10 years old, his father got sick with kidney disease. He was the youngest of three kids, living in South Charleston, West Virginia. Until this point, Jakes’ life had looked much like the lives of other kids in the neighborhood. His mother was a home economics teacher, and his father owned a janitorial business. He went to school. He sold vegetables from his mother’s garden to earn extra money.
But when Jakes’ father got sick, the world tilted on its axis, and childhood all but disappeared. The family traveled back and forth to Cleveland, Ohio—a five-hour trek so his father could receive treatment—twice a week for years while his mother struggled to hold down a job.
“I had to be self-sustaining,” Jakes says. As a child, Jakes learned to take care of himself. He was the one who got himself up in the morning, went to school, cooked and watched over the house. He even had to help his father with some of his business affairs. “So I wasn’t like a normal kid. I really never had a childhood.”
Over the next six years, Jakes learned to help as much as he could. He cleaned up after his father, shaved him and ran his dialysis machine.
Watching his father suffer and weaken had a life-altering impact on the boy who would grow into one of the world’s most impactful faith leaders as a man.
One of the common threads Jakes weaves through his sermons is the idea that, as he says, “The blessing is in the breaking.” He believes that the trials of life—the struggle, trauma, disappointment and pain—become the tools we need to build greatness. He believes the most successful people are often the ones who have been the most broken.
When Jakes was 16, his father died of renal failure.
“Had he not gotten sick, I might not be responsible,” he says. “I might be sitting under a bridge, smoking a joint…. Had my father lived, I might not have been me.”
More Than a Preacher
Today Jakes is the bishop of The Potter’s House, a 30,000-plus-member church headquartered in Dallas, and another large congregation in Denver.
Sitting at a shiny conference table in his office, a plush and colorful room with no windows, he tells me that when they designed the new church, they gave everything else a place in the building before they picked the remaining spot for his office. With no outside view in the leftover room, he did his best to brighten it up by raising the ceiling, bringing in his favorite artwork, and creating a space that’s welcoming while uniquely his own. It’s a symbol of his approach to just about everything: Serve first, then make some space for yourself.
In the heart of the building, the office feels like a home-away-from-home, although the barber’s chair off the main room is a reminder of his constantly in-demand public persona. His real oasis is the home he shares with wife, Serita, where his five grown children and their families visit. His success extends far beyond his ministry and into film, music, books, and other entrepreneurial ventures that have afforded him the income to live in a house, he says, his father would have bragged about cleaning.
Jakes started TDJ Enterprises in 1995 and has written more than 40 books, several New York Times best-sellers among them. His next book, Soar! Taking Your Entrepreneurial Passion to the Next Level, is due Oct. 10. He has produced films as well as written and produced musicals. Through his recording label, Dexterity Sounds, he has released nearly 20 records.
His projects have earned him a Grammy, a Quill Award, multiple NAACP Image Awards, Dove Award nominations and independent film festival awards. He has been honored by an Essence magazine All Star Gospel Tribute and is in the International Gospel Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Jakes has received the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award by the Congress of Racial Equality and the NAACP President’s Award, given to “an individual or group to recognize special achievement in furthering the cause of civil rights and public service.” For his leadership and educational reach, he’s received the BET Honors Award, and he’s received 13 honorary degrees and doctorates. He’s been named by Time magazine as America’s Best Preacher.
In an age when scandal leads the news—and preachers aren’t exempt—that kind of recognition is a public stamp of approval on what his parishioners and loved ones already know: T.D. Jakes is the real deal.
Despite his high-profile success, Jakes has an often surprising approach to what are usually taboo topics such as sex, drugs and abuse. He originally gained public recognition for his first book, Woman, Thou Art Loosed: Healing the Wounds of the Past, addressing trauma in women’s lives. Today his willingness to speak about the most difficult aspects of life—to people at their lowest point—continues to inspire loyalty among followers. His conferences and events draw hundreds of thousands of people in need of help and hope all over the world.
But it all started because he himself needed help and hope.
As a child, Jakes loved music. He says his mother and grandmother were always singing. Music was a part of everyday life. So was faith.
“I almost cannot remember ever not having faith,” he says. “It was like a given in our house.” He says his family wasn’t about religion as much as about relying on God on a daily basis. He says his fondest memory of his mother’s mother, a sharecropper in Alabama who had 15 children, is “her sitting in a rocking chair with her quilt over her legs and her Bible in her lap…. It was how our culture survived the atrocities of our history. We couldn’t afford not to have faith. We didn’t have anything else.”
By the time Jakes was in high school, he turned regularly to his faith to deal with the emotional turmoil at home around his father’s illness. “I used to sneak my Bible over the top of my science book and read it because I was just enamored by it in a weird, uncanny, unnatural way that was a clue for where I was going.” His fascination for reading the Bible so often earned him the school nickname Bible Boy. Jakes says he wasn’t a “goody-two-shoes” but he was always enthralled by Scripture, history, theology and “the way the world turns somehow.”
“The really emerging, powerful, life-changing, intimate moment that kept me on the course to destiny, that went beyond, happened after my father died,” Jakes says. “I think it happened out of the groping and clutching of an adolescent boy trying to find my daddy. And all that was left of him was embodied in saying ‘Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.’ I was looking for Daddy. And that never goes away.”
Rather than an opening for corruption or decline, as it might have been, Jakes’ teenage loss was a driving force in his life for good.
“I think that the throttle of what drove me into ministry, what started the passion for me was trying to find healing for my own wounds,” Jakes says. “And then growing up in the tumultuous environment that I grew up in—being suspended between life and death—made me take life much more seriously than most teenagers would. And I think that thirst created a cavern inside of me through which an artesian well erupted, from which I continue to talk to my generation to this day.”
All of this sounds heady and serious, but as soon as Jakes recalls his first sermon, he bursts out laughing. At 19, he delivered a trial sermon on Ezekiel 37 to a church about the size of the office we’re sitting in now.
“I can’t remember much of what I said because I was blinded with terror. Blinded, I mean absolutely blinded,” he says. “They were not that impressed. Nor was I.”
He was so terrified, in fact, that in the first few years of preaching he couldn’t hold a microphone because of his trembling. He used a mic stand and held his hands behind his back until he could calm down enough to move around. But he was determined, as he says, “not to let the fear paralyze the purpose.”
“I think that’s a good thing, not to be too impressed with yourself. Because I never approached ministry from the perspective of thinking I was good at it. So I threw everything at it because I didn’t think I was very good. I still preach hard today, not so much because of insecurity but because it’s about a level of excellence for me and being fully engaged in whatever you do.”
Jakes wouldn’t become a full-time preacher for nearly decade. In fact, he went to the same church for seven years and was asked to preach only two or three times. He enrolled in West Virginia State University but dropped out and went to work full time at Union Carbide (now a subsidiary of Dow Chemical). He began to travel and preach at other churches, becoming an itinerant minister when he wasn’t working a shift at the factory.
“To a degree I’ve always been bi-vocational,” he says. “I don’t know that I ever fully became one-dimensional, even to this day.”
At 24, Jakes married Serita Jamison. Later the same year, he became pastor of Greater Emmanuel Temple of Faith in Montgomery, West Virginia. The church had all of 10 members, but under Jakes’ nascent leadership, it slowly grew.
Then he lost his job at Union Carbide. They didn’t know it then, but he and his family were headed for the real dark times.
Jakes’ mother was financially creative. She sold Avon, peddled her homegrown produce, and saved her money to buy property and collect rents.
“She was hustling. It was the way we survived,” Jakes says. “My father started a business with a mop and a bucket and ended up with 42 employees.”
Jakes remembers watching his father fill out payroll or pick out business cards, and hopping in his dad’s red truck to go negotiate contracts to scrub floors in grocery stores.
“I never once heard the word entrepreneurship, but that’s all I ever knew,” he says. “Entrepreneurship is not an opportunity. It’s a mentality. It’s a mentality that does not accept the limitations of a salary. It says you don’t get to determine how much I make. You can determine how much you’re going to pay me, but you can’t determine how much I’m going to make. Because how much I’m going to make is only determined by the tenacity of my own creativity.” Jakes says his understanding of entrepreneurship didn’t become real until he lost his job at Union Carbide.
COOPER NEILL/GETTY IMAGES
At the time, the church was paying Jakes $300 a month with a $10 meal allowance. This wasn’t nearly enough to feed and house his wife and two kids.
“My utilities were off and they repossessed my car,” he says. “I was scared to death. We lost absolutely everything. Everything.”
To furnish the house, Jakes picked up an old, discarded couch with three legs, put a brick under one end, and covered it with a sheet. He found work digging ditches for his brother, who took odd jobs installing gas lines.
“I’d get $100 and run to the grocery and try to feed my kids,” he recalls. “My sister, who worked for Allied Chemical, would come every second Friday and bring groceries to the house and split them with me.”
He pauses. His eyes fill with tears.
“I can’t go there. I can’t talk about that too much.”
He blinks and looks away.
“Wondering if we would ever get up. Sleepless. Distraught. My daughter was born on WIC. And my prayer was, ‘God, let me make it to something better before my kids grow up so that they can see there’s more to life than this.’ ”
During this time, the church moved a couple of times and ended up back in Jakes’ hometown of South Charleston, where membership grew to 300 people and was multiracial—no small feat in the South, even in 1990. Jakes’ appeal as a speaker and preacher gained local awareness. But it still wasn’t paying the bills.
“I had nothing but creativity, and I had to think of something,” he recalls. “And that’s why I say entrepreneurship is a mindset. It’s a mentality. It’s thinking of something. And in order to think of something, you have to always believe that you have something inside.”
For Jakes, that something was a message for women who were hurting.
The Feeling of Success
His message was controversial in a church setting. Jakes saw a need to help women who had experienced trauma and abuse to find healing through their faith. He planned to address sensitive and even off-limits topics such as rape, incest, drug addiction and physical abuse—not your typical sermon.
The first week, Jakes taught his message as a regular Sunday school class for women at his church. The next week, attendance doubled. Jakes says he covered everything he’d planned to cover in those two weeks, but when the demand for a third week was evident, “I was just adding stuff to it because clearly I was onto something.”
“I never once heard the word entrepreneurship, but that’s all I ever knew.”
By the fourth week, women were standing outside the door trying to get in. He told a preacher at another church: “I’m teaching this class, and they’re going crazy about it.” His friend invited him to come teach at his church and asked what Jakes called the class. He thought about a verse he was using as part of the lesson and named it on the spot: “Woman, Thou Art Loosed.”
So many people signed up to take the second series, they had to move it from the church into a hotel.
“It was amazing,” Jakes says, shaking his head. He took the lessons he’d taught at both churches and put them together into a book.
But nobody wanted to publish it.
“There was no precedent for a man providing biblical answers to sociological ills addressed toward women. It was taboo. Women talked to women, and men talked to men. Nobody would invest in it.” Jakes decided to invest in it himself. He emptied his savings and took $15,000, money he was saving for a house, and poured it into the book.
“I think that the throttle of what drove me into ministry, what started the passion for me was trying to find healing for my own wounds.”
All 5,000 copies sold out in two weeks. He ordered 5,000 more and sold out again. Then they started ordering 10,000 at a time. Today the book has been translated into multiple languages and has sold more than 5 million copies worldwide.
Jakes spoke to bigger and bigger rooms full of women about how to survive the traumas of life.
“The church at that time didn’t really treat women that well. It was almost misogynic in some ways,” Jakes says. “So it caught on like fire.”
By 1999 he was speaking to more than 80,000 women in the Georgia Dome, breaking NFL and Billy Graham’s previous attendance records. All with what started as a Sunday school class. Jakes had already moved the church to Dallas and founded TDJ Enterprises, combining all of his creative, entrepreneurial and entertainment work together into a single company.
One day producer Reuben Cannon saw a production of the play Jakes created based on Woman, Thou Art Loosed in Los Angeles. Afterward, Cannon told Jakes he wanted to make the play into a movie. The first version was made for TV on a shoestring budget. Then Cannon brought in a few investors to each fund a small portion of what turned out to be a million-dollar, big-screen movie budget—when investors like Cedric the Entertainer and Oprah Winfrey pitched in, all signs pointed to a winner. The film went on to take top honors at the 2004 Santa Barbara Film Festival and several others. Released on only 408 screens, it broke into the top 10 in sales during its release week, the first movie of such a limited release to do so since Amistad.
Then Sony came calling. To this day, Jakes has a first-look contract with Sony Pictures that gives the company an initial first shot at any new project he conceives.
Jakes looks as exhilarated when he shares this story today as he must have felt more than 10 years ago when all of this snowballed.
“Let me tell you something that’s funny about feelings.” He leans in. “Feelings are, for me—I can’t say this about everybody—but my feelings of euphoric excitement are always delayed. Because when you’re doing it, you can’t feel it. Because you’re somewhere in the back of your mind thinking you’re screwing it up. You don’t get to the celebration until you look back at it. And I think that’s important to know because success doesn’t feel successful.”
He says that just like everyone else, at the time when all of this success was coming his way, he was saying to himself, Oh my God, can I do this? Do I have what it takes?
He refers to his 2014 best-selling book Instinct: The Power to Unleash Your Inborn Drive. “It is very much an instinct. It isn’t always the facts. You’re never going to know you can do it. You just have to believe you can do it and jump into your belief and go.”
Basically it comes down to faith.
Faith at Work
For a man who spends much of his time leading a church that touches millions of people around the world online and thousands each week in person, Jakes has an interesting take on religion.
“I personally think that it’s a shame religion surrounds God,” he says. “Because religion often stops people from having a relationship [with God]. And to me it’s much more about that relationship than it is about rules and religion. It’s much more about that personal vacuum in the human soul being filled with something that causes it not to ache so bad.”
Is that what faith is? Filling that vacuum?
“Yes, it is,” he says. “It fills the vacuum and it fills the question that facts cannot answer. The uncertainties of life, the ambiguity of ‘What will tomorrow bring?’ The answer to that question is faith. That whatever it is, I’ll be OK. Because I am not made whole by what happens to me. I am made whole by what happens in me. And to take that power back from all the people around you who are trying to mess with your head—that helped me as an individual.”
Jakes has preached on stages with translators from languages he doesn’t know. He has preached in nursing homes, homeless shelters and to kids dying of cancer. In that time, he says faith helps people from all walks of life for one simple reason.
“No matter what the group is or what the audience is, we all have something in common,” he says. “The rich and the poor, the white and black, Democrats, Republicans. It doesn’t matter how you describe yourself. That chasm, that void, that craving for something that makes everything make sense. Faith is the only answer to that. Wealth is not. Education is not. Faith is, to me, the only answer to that void, and I find it very fulfilling in a personal way.”
But no religion, certainly, promises a life without suffering, which is why Jakes says people struggle with their faith. Jakes says this happens because our expectations are not realistic.
“Expectations are often made out of misrepresentation,” he says, “the thought that if there was a God you would have no trouble…. Who made you think that Jesus was Santa Claus? And that God is a wishing well? Somebody says, ‘What good is God if he’s not going to deliver me from suffering?’ ”
Jakes says this results-first attitude is childish. “We mature to realize that we grow more in our suffering than we do in our success. Our success is just a distraction from the class of suffering, where we are developed as human beings. And I hate it as much as anybody in the world. But everything I ever learned that mattered, I learned it from failure and falling and suffering. I celebrated success, but I learned it in suffering.”
Related: Why Failure Is Good for Success
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.