– BCNN1 Editors
Bishop T. D. Jakes is one of the most famous pastors in America. His multi-thousand-member Dallas megachurch, the Potter’s House, is just one part of his platform; he’s recorded gospel albums, starred in television broadcasts, led several popular conference series, and published numerous books, including his latest, Don’t Drop the Mic. But all of that fame couldn’t prepare Jakes for the past year and a half, when his ministry has been upended by the coronavirus pandemic and racial tensions in the United States. Suddenly, he found himself inundated with calls and texts from desperate, grieving families. Meanwhile, he found himself making calls and sending texts to prominent white pastors all over the country who were stumbling through long-overdue conversations with their churches about race.
All of this has made Jakes think through his theology, he told me recently. The message of Christianity doesn’t align with “the contemporary theology of just blessings and gifts and promises,” he said. “Suffering is center stage to our faith.” This was a stark assessment coming from Jakes: Fairly or not, the pastor is often associated with a gospel of prosperity, which teaches that the faithful will be blessed by God with health and wealth. Jakes told me he’s spent the pandemic flipping through the Bible and reading about earlier times of disease and dying. This is how this feels, he thought.
Jakes has also had to think through who his allies are. Paula White, one of former President Donald Trump’s most prominent faith advisers, credits Jakes with building her reputation among Black Christians. For years, she was featured at his popular conference Woman Thou Art Loosed, and he spoke highly of her preaching abilities. Jakes told me he doesn’t consider her one of his mentees, and that she knows he takes a different view of politics than she does. Still, “I don’t think that we should stop talking to people because we disagree,” he said. “I honestly, earnestly believe that we can have civil dialogue without demonizing people for their views and saying, ‘Because you don’t agree with me, you’re evil.’” Perhaps not coincidentally, that’s what his new book is all about.
I talked with Jakes about the ongoing trauma of COVID-19 in his community, and whether white evangelicals have lost sight of Jesus’s teachings. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Emma Green: In the past year, how many members of your congregation have either gotten sick with or died from COVID-19?
Bishop T. D. Jakes: I can’t even answer the question, because the number would be so high. It’s hard to even tabulate, because a lot of people in our church, when they pass away, they go back home to be buried.
But I can tell you that there were weeks that I was inundated with phone calls literally every day about somebody who either was sick or had passed away. What was numbers to everybody else—and the numbers were horrific enough—was people to me.
Green: I wonder if there was a moment when you realized, Oh, this is going to be a really major thing in the life of my community.
Jakes: When New York was bad—the numbers were so inordinately high—one day, I literally just lost it. I’ve done a lot of book signings on Fifth Avenue at Barnes & Noble. I’ve spoken in New York since I was a very young man. And I just wondered how many of those people who were at my services or at my book signings were in those bags. And I just started weeping.
To all people, being close to your loved ones when they pass is important. But to Black people, being able to have a funeral and eulogy is sometimes the only time day workers and frontline workers get to be important. It’s the only day other than a wedding day that everything is about you. To be denied that celebration of life—we call them homegoings, rather than funerals—I knew we would be devastated for years to come. The numbers have dropped, but the trauma has not.
Jakes: Where do I not see it? Marriages imploding. Self-medication. Serious bouts of depression.
Green: I wonder how, theologically speaking, you guide people through a time like this, when so many people have gotten sick or know someone who died. What do you tell people about what God wants when there’s so much dark stuff happening?
Jakes: It’s funny, because it really makes you think through your theology. As a Christian, the one thing that is quite clear about the Christian message is that it does not hide itself from suffering and pain. When the emblem of your faith is a cross, it’s quite obvious. Suffering is center stage to our faith.
It isn’t the contemporary theology of just blessings and gifts and promises. It is also seasoned, frequently, with the stoning of the disciples and the killing of members of the early Church. Pandemics are all throughout the Bible. When I looked at those scriptures, it really, really took my empathy toward the text to a different level. It’s one thing to know something intellectually. It’s another thing to say, “Oh, that’s how they felt. This is how this feels.”
But the other part of my faith that’s important is that ultimately, we may see suffering on Friday, but we see resurrection on Sunday. That’s the blessed hope of the Church: that there’s better ahead than there is behind us.
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Source: Emma Green, the Atlantic