Johannesburg, South Africa
The crowd is electric even before he walks on stage. They’ve been dancing and cheering, singing and praising. They’ve been loving the Lord and reaching to heaven, up in that cobalt blue African sky, far beyond the mine dump that looms next to this arena as a reminder of the bad old days, back when black South Africans were expected to toil and sweat to make white people rich.
They came in minibus taxis and shiny BMWs; with lawn chairs and blankets and babies and boyfriends; with $3 tickets and VIP passes. They woke up at 4 a.m. to arrive early, lining up hours before the gates of the Expo Centre opened. They didn’t want to miss “T.D.,” as he’s known here – the American author, preacher, and religious television star, Bishop T.D. Jakes.
“I love his preaching,” says Thongie Nduna, a flight attendant turned stay-at-home-mom who is trying to shade herself from the punishing sun with oversized sunglasses and a program pamphlet. “When he preaches, he can see you. And he might be on the TV, but it’s like he’s talking right to you. I love him.”
Bishop Jakes is a renowned figure in the African-American community. His Potter’s House in Dallas is one of America’s fastest growing megachurches, with more than 30,000 members, 400 staffers, and 60 outreach ministries. His books, such as “Mama Made the Difference” and “Reposition Yourself,” are bestsellers; his TV sermons attract millions of viewers. In 2004 Jakes launched a nondenominational Christian festival called MegaFest which became one of the most widely attended religious festival in the US.
But here, under the blinding sun, it’s clear that Jakes is more than just an American phenomenon. Initial gate counts show that more than 100,000 South Africans came to the first day of the event – breaking attendance records for this venue, one of Johannesburg’s largest.
“He is our bishop, too,” says Ntombi Sibanyoni, a teen from Pretoria. “We are just so excited.”
This weekend’s gathering was Jakes’s first MegaFest International – an attempt to reposition the event as a world celebration.
“It is important for all people to think much more globally than we ever have before,” Jakes said at a press conference before the festival. “The prayer in our country has been God Bless America. But we have come to learn that it’s not enough to ask God to bless America if he does not bless the world.”
And the world – this part of it, at least – was ready to be blessed.
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On radio shows last weekend, hosts quoted Jakes’ book and took dozens of callers sharing stories of connection with the bishop. One popular actor and gospel singer, Nkanyiso Bhengu, said that local preachers are now trying to copy Jakes’ style. Local dignitaries, such as Sibusiso Xaba, director of economic development for the province, and tycoon Patrice Motsepe, praised him, saying that people across South Africa revere him.
“It’s just a huge privilege for us,” Mr. Motsepe said. Jakes “is an inspiration not only for young people in America but for young people on the continent.”
Religion plays an important role here. Eighty percent of South Africans identify themselves as Christian. The nation’s fastest growing church is the Zion Christian Church – one of 4,000 “African independent churches” that blend charismatic Christianity with traditional African beliefs. On Sundays, members in robes of various styles and colors walk through the streets to their services.
Somehow, the noise in the open-air arena gets louder when Jakes walks on stage, his full frame cloaked in white, his image broadcast on the huge screens around this convention center, his rich, baritone sounding awe-struck at the size of the crowd. “Lord, God!” he gasps, and the crowd cheers louder.
“Wow. I’m so glad you came. Touch somebody and say, ‘I’m so glad you came.’ ”
The crowd obliges. Even his announcements take the run-on sentence, practical-meets-prayer style, rocking the crowd toward enlightenment: “We’ve got some great things in store for you today. We’ve got great words for you; speakers, great ministers, great music; then tomorrow we’re just going to rock this place, we’re going to pull out all the stops and shout and leap and praise God and get the deliverance that the devil doesn’t want you to have, we’re going to have a great time in here, amen. Touch somebody and say, ‘Don’t miss tomorrow.’ It’s going to be higher it’s going to get better it’s going to get richer it’s going to get fuller.”
More cheers. He slows the tempo to read a Bible verse; hushing his voice to draw people near; speaking faster and louder until the organ comes in behind him, increasing the tension, only to crash into hushed tones again, leaving the crowd frenzied and in tears. He has people walk around to symbolize movement in their lives; he has people hold hands, squeeze them, bless the next person over, and pray for them.
Men cry, women are overwhelmed. A woman in a wheelchair stands up and marches on stage to dance.
His sort of service is popular here, where more than a third of South Africans identify themselves as part of a Pentecostal or related charismatic Christian movement – an evangelicalism that usually believes in the real-time presence of the Holy Spirit, as well as healing. But attendees say it’s Jakes’ message that makes him a superstar, as well as his presence on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. Jakes is a multimillionaire from his TDJ Enterprises, which, separate from his church, produces books, movies, and plays. And he uses Biblical passages to encourage followers in their financial as well as spiritual lives – which sits well with a new generation of entrepreneurial blacks here.
“He is straightforward,” says Sibanyoni, the Pretoria teenager. “And he says ... you can have money and still love God.”
Jakes is also known for talking openly about issues such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, and divorce, and offering the sort of emotional life advice one might expect from Oprah or Dr. Phil (on whose show he is a regular guest).
Although he has counseled politicians on both sides of the aisle, including President Bush, Jakes refuses to endorse candidates, and has said that the US is not meant to be a Christian nation.
“There’s religion, but there’s something about how he portrays the Bible that’s practical and very much current,” says Sello Ramorola, who brought his two children to the festival. “It’s not gospel written for ages ago; it’s for today.”
It was with that in mind, Jakes says, that he added a new component to the international festival – MegaCARE, a philanthropic effort that is focusing on healthcare and poverty alleviation. It was one hall over from the vendors’ hall, where booths sold everything from Jesus T-shirts and carpet cleaners to gospel CDs and cosmetics. During the celebrations, volunteer health-care workers offered free HIV/AIDS testing and counseling; in other parts of the country MegaCARE helped build houses, wells, and day care centers for AIDS orphans. On the first day of the festival, 394 people took HIV tests at the MegaCARE center; 92 were positive, says Potter’s House spokesman, Curtis Coats III.
“The real thrust of what I came to do had nothing to do with a microphone,” Jakes says. “I didn’t come to preach. I don’t mind preaching. I came to help.”