(RNS) Bishop T.D. Jakes is preparing for MegaFest, his four-day, faith-and-family gathering in Dallas, where he makes his home and built his megachurch.
The June 28-July 1 event he calls “a bit of a vacation in a spiritual atmosphere” drew 90,000 when it was last held in 2015 — a predominantly black crowd that also included whites, Hispanics and people from 40 other countries.
Jakes, an author, media producer and pastor of The Potter’s House, talked to RNS about bridging racial and political divides, coping with terrorist threats, and his approaching 60th birthday.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
At a recent faith leaders conference at your church, you cautioned against churches picking one side or another and becoming “prostitutes to politics.” Given that, how do you view the work of President Trump’s administration in his first few months in the White House?
I don’t really know how to view his first few months in office. I think it’s been a very tangled web that we’re all still trying to sort out, and figure out what’s being reported and what really happened. I think that the church has to develop its own agenda and not allow itself to be consumed by either party to the chagrin of the people that we seek to serve.
Earlier this month, religious leaders gathered at the White House hailed President Trump’s signing of an executive order that aimed to limit enforcement of rules against electioneering in the pulpit. Is it OK to use the pulpit even if you’re speaking about candidates?
I am not interested in endorsing a candidate. I’m interested in supporting policies. I think that when we start supporting persons over policies, inevitably over four to eight years, we’re going to end up with egg on our face about something. When you start talking about what would Jesus do as it relates to taking care of the hungry and the naked and people who are incarcerated, we have clear mandates regarding some social ills that we ought to speak about even when we cannot safely endorse the individual.
More than 20 people were killed in an attack in Manchester, England, this week. You commissioned a recent survey that found that 85 percent of Americans think another terrorist attack is likely on our soil in the near future. What do you think of that finding and, as a clergyman, what do you advise people about those concerns?
I think that all of us are concerned and there’s a certain anxiety that exists anytime we see one of our sister countries have to deal with such atrocities as what has just happened in Manchester. But what I encourage people to do is to be more watchful, to take the extra step to be our brothers’ keepers as it relates to being concerned about people other than the people that you came with.
When there is a sense of something that looks dangerous — we often say “If you see something, say something,” but even if you sense something, I think we’re living in a time now that we have to say something. And we have to take some level of responsibility for our own well-being in opening up our eyes along with the police department and all of the various Secret Service people that work to keep us safe. We cannot leave them to do the work without our participation in the process.
Speaking of police, it has been almost a year since the shooting of five police officers in Dallas. Since then, what have been concrete efforts by clergy or congregations to foster relations between the police and community members, especially African-Americans?
A lot of people are doing a lot of things in terms of meeting, bringing community leaders and people out of mainstream America right off the streets, just sitting them down with police officers trying to build a better sense of fraternity between the two. A lot of churches have taken on that process.
The part that I have been preoccupied with is working with the criminal justice system overall, through our Texas Offenders Reentry Initiative. I’ve been working with CEOs to get them to adopt and take in some of these people who have come out of the prison system for low-level crimes and allow them to rehabilitate and give them a chance at a job to get up on their feet.
In addition to political divides, you have concerns about the racial divides in this country that some people may think are intractable. Do you have hope in the future about this, or see possible ways to address the divisions?
Really when you get down to racism, in or out of the church, it’s a heart issue. It’s not a head issue. It’s not just a legislation issue. One of the things that I have been doing from my corner of the world to try to influence the narrative is to expose people of faith to other people of faith who don’t look like them or dress like them or come from their sphere of influence. My programs and conferences tend to be diverse racially and denominationally. When we actually get to experience each other’s ministry and each other’s struggle and each other’s pain, there’s a much greater sensitivity.
That’s why I think the whole notion of reconciliation within the church is very, very, very important. But then we need to use that reconciliation to create a better sense of unity. But we can’t effect change in the world while Sunday morning still remains quite divided.
Your MegaFest schedule features a session on robotics. Why have you decided to include this topic?
What we’re trying to do is expose our children to the same equipment and opportunities that other children in other communities have, and we can stimulate their interest in science and in arts. And on the heels of inspirational content like “Hidden Figures” we think that it’s a good thing to expose them in that atmosphere to an opportunity to tinker with toys and gadgets. There’s a deficiency in NASA and many other areas where we need more black and brown children who are not afraid to become involved and to become creative. We’re also doing entrepreneurial classes for junior high and high school kids for them to pitch ideas with an opportunity to launch a small business.
You’ve authored a range of books and created a variety of movie and TV projects. Do you have plans for something new in the near future?
I’m actually working on a book right now that should come out this fall. The book is called “Soar” and is about entrepreneurship. I come from several generations of entrepreneurs and I believe that entrepreneurship may be a way forward not only for inner cities but for Rust Belt America, which seems desperate to see jobs come back. While this administration is working to bring back jobs into the country, the truth of the matter is the vast majority of Americans work not for Fortune 500 companies but for small businesses.
You are turning 60 on June 9. What does it mean to you to reach that milestone, and do you have any thought at all of retirement at this point?
I am so blessed and honored to have preached the gospel for 40 years out of the 60 years that I’ve been alive and I’m thankful to be here to see a 60th birthday approaching. Where do I go from here is something that I’m reflecting about and praying about. I doubt seriously that retirement anytime soon is in my purview. Even if I don’t continue to do it the way that I did when I was younger, I’m always going to be involved in trying to uplift my community.