Rebecca Carroll: I’m Rebecca Carroll and this is Come Through, a podcast that brings you 15 essential conversations about race in a pivotal year for America.
My white adoptive parents are what you might call “recovering Catholics” — the products of devout religious families who grew up bound and tethered to the church.
They were both raised to believe that they would burn in hell if they gave in to any personal desires outside of the Bible’s teaching.
And so what did they do? Well, after they found each other at an art school in Boston, they left the church and rode off into the sunset with dreams of living a bohemian life together as artists in rural New Hampshire.
And that’s just what they did.
They lived as existentialists and atheists, and after they had two biological children of their own, they adopted me.
Subsequently, I was raised thinking that God is a whole lot of bullshit and that all organized religion is destructive, and controlling, and backwards. And I never really questioned any of this, because I didn’t see any reason to.
The one time I went to church with a friend, I was stunned by how cult-like it felt to me, as people moved toward the front of the church to receive “the body of Christ” – which is this round wafer that my friend told me tasted like cardboard? None of it resonated with me. At all.
It wasn’t until I became an adult and surrounded myself with black friends and chosen black family that I began to realize and really think about how so much of black culture is historically rooted in the church. And then I felt kind of bereft that I’d grown up without this sense of legacy and connection and community.
But I also still felt kind of dubious, because what even is God? And for the love of whomever or whatever God is, how do we keep the faith in Him -- or Her, It, Them -- right now, when the world is falling apart?
For a non-believer with an open mind and a strong sense of self-reliance and resilience, can God sustain us when the survival of our community requires us to isolate ourselves from each other? And once this pandemic passes, can God help us repair the damage in its wake? And what about the damage done by the current presidential administration? Can God guide us toward electing our next president?
For some guidance, I reached out to one of the most famous and influential voices of faith in the world... Bishop TD Jakes.
Keep the faith, if you lose your job keep the faith, if you lose your spouse keep the faith, if you bury your child keep the faith, if you have to downsize keep the faith, if you have to move in with your mama keep the faith, if your at your wits end keep the faith, if you have to catch the bus keep the faith, if you lose your kidneys keep the faith, if you got heart trouble keep the faith, you might not get a new heart but you gotta keep your faith.
Bishop Jakes is the pastor of The Potter’s House, a nondenominational megachurch in Dallas.
But he also has millions of followers on Twitter and Instagram, a YouTube channel and his own App. He’s been an advisor to George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Oprah Winfrey has called him a treasure.
He also recently launched the T. D. Jakes Foundation, which focuses on creating jobs for folks from underserved communities.
And lately, he’s been outspoken in urging people to stay home from church and protect themselves from the coronavirus.
Here he is on CBS This Morning:
Interviewer: You say that believing in God does not mean negate using common sense. Why is that so important?
Jakes: Oh you know I think it’s very very important, people sometimes confuse what it means to have faith. And I think that we still have to use wisdom as well and one does not negate the other. We can still believe in Gd and still practice distancing, and still have faith. We don’t want to tempt faith. Jesus during the 40 days in the wilderness, was offered by the enemy chances to tempt faith: if you’re really the Son of God, throw yourself off the cliff. And that type of mentality is not very helpful during this time. So we don’t need people to teach the sort of faith to the peril and the destruction of others. We want to use the kind of faith that unites us and connects us and builds continuity and love, not extremism.
A couple months ago, long before coronavirus hit, I got to meet and talk with Bishop Jakes.
And it turns out that in-conversation, he feels more like a family member than a pastor. Although what do I know, maybe that’s what pastors are supposed to be like? But he was game for a difficult conversation and willing to go beyond his comfort zone. He came through and we went there.
Rebecca Carroll: So, I have just shown up at your congregation. Why should I stay?
Bishop T.D. Jakes: Wow, I don't think you'd come to a congregation, uh, because you have epitomized all truth. I think we all are seeking to know. God in his fullness and power. And, and none of us have mastered that course So it's seeker friendly in terms of our welcome mat is still open to you.
To hear what I share and to weigh it against your own ideas and draw your own conclusions. Nobody forces you to go to church. And as one of those institutions, it is incumbent upon us to remain relevant and yet true to our core message.
Rebecca Carroll: Seeker friendly. So that could mean seeking safety or faith or?
Bishop T.D. Jakes: It could mean anything, but in this case, it meant you're welcome. Yeah, It means that our doors are open and you're welcome to come. And, uh, regardless to your background, it does not mean that you would, you can't come in because you're not settled in your convictions about your faith.
Rebecca Carroll: And were you always drawn to God?
Yes, it's one of those nebulous things to describe. It's almost like attraction. How do you explain the attraction? Uh, because there's just an inner drawing and an inner craving that they introduced me to my faith and personalized it and took it away from just being the tradition of our family to a personal experience with God.
Rebecca Carroll: I mean, I guess I feel like attraction, I mean, you can probably list a few things that are tangible, that you're attracted to.
Bishop T.D. Jakes: You know, the funny thing about Christianity is its branding is a cross, which is not a necessarily a very attractive branding. So, you know, it does not hide suffering. And I think suffering is a part of life. And the fact that suffering is on open display is the gateway into our belief system is to understand what opens up the gate to God. It's this horrific scene of an unjustifiable, slaying of Jesus Christ. Jesus himself did not hide, he said: “if any man should be my disciple, pick up his cross and follow me.”
So that, right off of the top, lets me know that there's going to be suffering and there's going to be moments in your life of peril, but you can rise above them all. That epitomizes the death, burial, resurrection story of Jesus Christ, and that really, it really describes my own life. You know, there's been many times that I've been uh, submerged in grief or submerged in joblessness or submerged in whatever, and had to be, uh, resurrected. I think we continue to renew ourselves, mainly continue to have born again, experiences, uh, over and over again. That really resonates with me in a very profound and provocative way.
Rebecca Carroll : How is that different from. Just regular resilience? Like, I absolutely feel that I have had to renew, but I've done it sort of what I feel of my own tenacity of my own sense of self and wanting to live in the, for lack of a better word, the best possible way that I can.
So if it's, if it's resurrection with the help of faith or God, how is that different?
Bishop T.D. Jakes: Well, you say, I've done it on my own, but what do you really own?
You know, that's an assumption. I've done it on my own, really? Are you sure?
Rebecca Carroll : Well, right.
Bishop T.D. Jakes: I mean, you understand.
Rebecca Carroll : I do understand what I mean is I am not aware of any God helping me to do that. Of course, I have family and friends and support. But in terms of pulling something out of yourself, you know that kind of sense of resilience - I feel like comes from within yourself.
Bishop T.D. Jakes: Have you ever gotten into a situation where resilience was not enough to get you out of and you couldn't take credit for your own comeback?
Rebecca Carroll: I don't think I would be here if I hadn't
Bishop T.D. Jakes: Oh, I have. I have many times been in situations where I knew it was something beyond me that made that work out. That I couldn't take credit for, that somebody else was involved in. I was guided to be at the right place at the right time to have the opportunity and didn't even know why I was there.
Rebecca Carroll: Like what?
Bishop T.D. Jakes: I've seen people come into my life and jobs come into my life and, and my spouse came into my life that way. And it wasn't the result of something that I had orchestrated. Having come from a tempestuous background, there's a deep appreciation for that pull yourself up and make it anyway - I get it. I got that too.
That's down inside of me too, and I am a fight-back sort of person. However, there are some things that I can not give credit to my fight- back, and yet I made a comeback. And in those cases, there's always that space for God.
Now, I'm not saying that every person who's listening, or even you has to ascribe to my theology, but I'm just defining for me that there is a sharp distinction between willpower and providential power.
Rebecca Carroll: Yeah, I would. I mean, that's the whole question for me. That's what I'm trying to figure out. That's what I'm sort of grappling with. Like what is the difference? How do I know?
Bishop T.D. Jakes: I think the mystery lies in “how do I know?” For the rational, reasonable person who seeks to know, and to know for sure, faith does not make sense. Because faith does not ask you to know. It asks you to believe.
Rebecca Carroll: So let's talk about where the world is going.
Bishop T.D. Jakes: Okay.
Rebecca Carroll: The day after Trump was elected, you were a guest on MSNBC and you said - and I'm quoting you - “We can't go into a forgiveness mode because we have so many questions that have not been answered. What does a Trump administration look like and how will it affect us?”
So, it's been a little over three years. What does it look like?
Bishop T.D. Jakes: It looks like a lot of things. I mean, it looks like, there's been some advancements in prison reform on a federal level. There's been some opportunity zones that could be a help to us. But on other hand, it depends on who takes advantage of the opportunity zones, whether they exist or not.
There's been a barrage of statements that were offensive and obnoxious and unnecessary. There've been some policies that were detrimental to us as African Americans. There's been some advancements for the country, whether they were directly attributed to him or his predecessors, an argument for somebody smarter than me to have. But it looks to me like we have a deeply divided nation right now, that is a bigger concern to me than the person who's at the helm of it.
Rebecca Carroll: But wouldn't you say that he is the one who has perpetuated it?
Bishop T.D. Jakes: I think that's unfair. I think that it existed before him. I think it helped to create him. I think it helped to elect him. I think he's a symptom of it, but I don't think that he's a cause and the progenitor of it. I think that he, in some of his verbage, has helped to escalate the conversation and made it permissible to say things that used to be whispered are now shouted in a way that has escalated the conversation.
Having said that, I think we need to attack the ideology and not the individual. And when we can circle the ideology as opposed to the individual, we open our doors to a lot of people from a lot of colors to come in and help us fight this issue. We cannot fight this fight alone just as people of color. I need to take the relationships that don't look like me.
And whatever president Trump does, positively or negatively, his term will soon be up. Either way may go on another term.
Rebecca Carroll: So you say that, but so how can you be nonpartisan if you believe that he's not going to have a second term?
Bishop T.D. Jakes: No, no, no. You didn't hear me out.
Rebecca Carroll: Okay.
Bishop T.D. Jakes: He may get another term, but that's the most he can get. So whatever he does, good or bad, we got five more years of that. What I'm talking about is an agenda for the next 50. So it's easy to point at one person and say that they're a problem. They're a symptom, not the problem. Uh, aggravating at times - absolutely. But not the sum total of the problem that I spent the first 43 years of my life working to fight.
It cannot be dumbed down to this one person.
Rebecca Carroll: Okay, so you said something, in a 2016 Washington Post article that really stayed with me. You said that racism is our grandfather’s problem, and yet we're still dealing with the same issue.
And you were just saying how, it's, it's very close to us still. Is that part of a plan? Is that part of God’s plan?
Bishop T.D. Jakes: No, I don't think, I don't think that's about God. I think that's about people. I am named after my grandfather. My grandfather was murdered by white racist at 22 years old. And, uh, drowned in the barbwire that they put in the Lake and bled to death while my grandmother was pregnant. So, please. I clearly get racism, you know. My father's from Mississippi, my mother's from Alabama.I clearly have a history. Some of my relatives, I don't know today because they were runaways. Uh, and, uh, so I clearly get the atrocities.
Rebecca Carroll: I'm not suggesting at all. Uh, and I wouldn't for a minute disrespect your experience. Um, but I guess what I'm grappling with is what role does god play in our choices? And the choices that we make as human beings?
Bishop T.D. Jakes: Let me let, let's, let's weigh into it.
I think we're trying to have a sociological conversation with somebody who has a theological interest, and so it's the, it's the kind of feeling like this...
Rebecca Carroll: But it’s really interesting!
Bishop T.D. Jakes: Yeah, okay. We'll go down this road with you. Um, here's the thing about it. Well, I'm living in a house my father used to brag about cleaning. You cannot say things aren't better.
Many slaves,I've been, I stuck my fingers in the scratch marks in the slave castles in Ghana. And I smelt the stench of the feces of the slaves that were waiting on the ships to come. I stuck my hands in the bullet holes of Winnie Mandela's house. Many slaves died at sea. The very fact that my ancestors survived the atrocities - is God. Raped and abused and ostracized and decapitated, and all of the atrocities of, our history. The very fact that we survived them and sang, and rose above them and stitched our own clothes and drank pot liquor from the collard greens to get the nutrition to stay alive.
The very fact that, we ran through the woods and escaped through the waters, and hid in the basement of churches and made it to the North. We are strong, resilient people, and we have benefited from the mercies of God. And a lot has changed. There's still much more to be changed, but, but you cannot look back at our history and not see.
I cannot look back at our history and not see the hand of God pulling us through some of the most atrocious moments of life. That's the takeaway from me.
Rebecca Carroll: Right. I'm very, very much open to believing in something. I don't know that it has to be someone, like for, I'll give you an example. When I was six years old, I wrote my first essay. And it started with, my name is Rebecca Ann Carol. I am a black child. Nobody had ever said that. Nobody talked about it. And I felt like in retrospect, like that was a moment where the ancestors dropped in
Bishop T.D. Jakes: mm-hmm
Rebecca Carroll: to let me know and look out for me. So I believe that. Is that like, God?
Bishop T.D. Jakes: When you say it was the ancestors, you identified who it was. So...
Rebecca Carroll: God has to be God?
Bishop T.D. Jakes: Yeah, God has to be God, the creator, beyond explanation. And my ancestors are my ancestors, and I love them both dearly. I think so many people are sitting in this chair. It's a wonder it doesn't break.
All of my grandmothers and my great grandfathers, and everybody I can remember and everybody I cannot is sitting in this chair with me. I did not get here by myself. And the changes that I'm talking about that have been made that we ought to applaud while we fight for the changes that are yet to be made and that we ought to fight, march and do whatever we can to produce does not negate the fact that we have come this far by faith. And that God has brought us through tests and trials. And I will even argue that in some ways we were the richer for it.
Now we lag behind economically. But we don't lag behind as it relates to tenacity and resilience and a sense of self pride and dignity. And I've seen us heal in a lot of ways, all the way back to the 60s. I'm black and I'm proud. And your statement, “hello, my name is Rebecca, I am a black child” is symbolic of that pride and that embracing of our culture. And we have come a long ways from bleaching our skin and wanting to straighten our hair in order to be validated by another culture. Having said all of that, there's still a long ways to go and a lot to be done.
I’ll be back with more from Bishop T.D. Jakes in just a minute
I’m back with Bishop T.D. Jakes
Rebecca Carroll: This particular moment in history, How do you describe it in a spiritual way?
Bishop T.D. Jakes: It’s unsettling. It's frightening. It's disturbing. It's depressing. And, that is because I'm old enough to remember how hard it was to fight, to get to where we were. And I see the deterioration of some of the opportunities for which my parents and their generation fought and bled and died for.
As an African American, I'm alarmed. As an American, I'm alarmed. because we're better together than we are apart, and I desperately crave someone to call us together, Not further apart. But, where spirituality comes into it. It's that I am used to believing against the odds and in spite of the facts. And faith flourishes in the presence of adversity, and because I am a spiritual person, I have not given up hope that as Dr. King said, truth smashed down to the ground will rise again, undaunted. this is a smashing moment. So the rising moment has to be coming soon
Rebecca Carroll : Amazing, this the smashing moment.
Bishop T.D. Jakes: And that is why I started the foundation because I feel like I had been too blessed not to leave something behind. That, in some fashion, helps others to escape through the holes of the relationships I’ve made. The people that I have met around the world who are decision makers, I am just calling them to sit around the table and say, this is everybody's responsibility.
And I want you to help me lift this because you need a workforce, and we need an opportunity. Because we are bright minds being wasted. And the investment is cheaper than importing people from other countries, at the expense of ignoring people that are already here.
Rebecca Carroll: One of the things that I really admire about the foundation is that it’s about helping the new generation embrace new options.
Bishop T.D. Jakes: Oh, yes. And it's about exposure.
Rebecca Carroll: Right?
Bishop T.D. Jakes: So, I'm in a meeting, with a fortune 50 company, and they're trying to create jobs.
They're primarily STEM jobs. They're trying to create jobs ,and to try to help it make a difference. But when I go back in our neighborhoods, I don't see many little kids who say, “I want to come to New York and listen to their work for a fortune 50 company or a fortune 100 company.” No. Why not? Because they don't see it.
And if you don't see it, you can't be it. I thought, how can I bridge these two worlds so that they can see it so that they can be it so that they can maybe enter into technology because they like arts and they like music and they want to produce and they want to do film and then they learn how to code and then they learn all this technology thing is a good thing.
Those kinds of conversations. I want to work on the front end of destiny rather than the backend of history. I can't change what's behind me, but I might could change what's in front of me. And I started the foundation because wow, what's behind me is, is horrific and was difficult. And I wish I'd have known the first TD. I wonder what he looked like. There's not even a picture of my grandfather. I've never seen him in my whole life, and I'm named after him. When I look back at my history of my, and my grandmother, my maternal grandmother was a sharecropper. That ended up with property that's completely worthless now in the middle of nowhere.
I can't do anything about that. Nor can the 15 kids they head, nor can the countless cousins I have behind them. We can't change that. What we can change is what's in front of us, and that means that all of us have to come together. And us being black, white, and brown, people of influence and affluence and leverage what we have to lift the future, because we cannot change the past.
Rebecca Carroll: How will we know when we get there?
Bishop T.D. Jakes: We will know when we get there, when it ceases to be the object of every conversation. When we stop having the first black mayor and the first black female in the first black so and so. When that becomes normal and not an article, we will be there. When it becomes normal to walk out of your front door and see black kids and white kids and brown kids playing around together and laughing together and interacting with each other and fallen out with each other about something other than race.
When we know that a police officer who pulls us over isn't going to beat us to death because we ran a red light. That's how we know we got there. When we're not scared, when we see blue lights, we'll know we have gotten there. We will know that we have gotten there when black women are respected, and treated on the level of their worth and their integrity.
We will know that we have gotten there, when our sons have a future and have an opportunity. And we will know we have gotten there when there is this much emphasis put on our schools as there are on other people's schools.
Rebecca Carroll: We have a lot of work to do.
Bishop T.D. Jakes: We got a lot of work to do.
Rebecca Carroll: I love it. Thank you so much
Rebecca Carroll: You just heard me talking with Bishop TD Jakes, and you can learn more about the T.D. Jakes Foundation at TDJfoundation.org.
Come Through is a production of WNYC Studios
Christina Djossa and Joanna Solotaroff produce the show, with editing by Anna Holmes and Jenny Lawton. The show is executive produced by Paula Szuchman. Our technical director is Joe Plourde, and the music is by Isaac Jones. Special thanks to Anthony Bansie.
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I’m Rebecca Carroll - you can follow me on twitter @rebel19 to stay up to date on all things Come Through - until next time.