Mr. T recently spoke to Beliefnet about how his Christian faith helps him help others on the show, the importance of prayer in his life, why he pities the fool, and going through his "Job test" when diagnosed with cancer.
Can you tell me a little about your spiritual life?
I was baptized when I was four years old. But when you’re younger you really don’t understand that stuff. Then I got rebaptized in 1977. As a Christian you forgive and you feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and you visit the sick, and comfort the lonely. If I’m a true follower of my lord and savior Jesus Christ, I got to do the things you’re supposed to be doing. You just can’t say, "I believe in Jesus" and then don’t forgive somebody [or] hold a grudge against somebody. Don’t get me wrong--if somebody jumps me I’m gonna fight, but I don't send out hate vibes if I don’t like that person or the way that they dress. That’s negative energy. Then there is a contradiction to the God I serve, the God of love. He forgave me, and I should do good to the people who cross me.
In 1979, before I got famous, there was a contest called the Toughest Bouncer in America. I used to bodyguard for some celebrities and other people, and when I wasn’t doing that I used to work at a disco as a doorman or a bouncer. When I started training for the contest I called my pastor, Rev. Henry Hardy of Cosmopolitan Community Church [in Chicago]. I’ve been going there since 1977. I said, “Pastor Hardy, they’re having a contest, and when I win this contest I’m going to give you the money, so you can buy food and clothes for less fortunate people in the community." I won two years in a row—it was over $10,000. I didn’t have no car then, but I was blessed. So I gave the money freely, and then my blessing came back in the form of "Rocky III."
After I gave that money to my church, I got the call a month and a half later. They said Sylvester Stallone is going to do "Rocky III," and he’s interested in you. Then they sent me the script, and I auditioned, and I got the part. I’d like to think that because I gave freely, it came back to me. Because I was taught that when you give, God will open up the storehouse to the heavens and pour down blessings you won’t even have room enough to store. And that’s what’s been happening ever since. I tell everybody, I get so much because I give so much. I give freely, I give all my time, give all my money, give all of my soul. I try to motivate people. I try to inspire them.
What do you pray for?
I get up every morning and say, "Father, give me strength today, not strength so I can lift 500 pounds, but give me strength, Lord, so when I speak, my words might motivate, might inspire somebody, Lord, when they see me, let them see you. When they hear me, Lord, let them hear you. In your holy name I pray."
I say to the Lord, "when they see me, let them see you" so you know I can’t be coming out of the strip bar with a couple women on my arm. And I say "Lord, when they hear me let them hear you"--that means I can’t be telling them nasty jokes I used to tell. Because the Bible says, every time Christ sees a new creature, old things are passed away. I’m not the same man I used to be, I’m not out hell-raising, stuff like that. I am a changed man. I said that God abides by me and I abide by him. I said I let God live in me. So I tell people when I step out, I’m representing the God I serve, I’m representing the mother who loved me and who used to knock on the neighbor’s door so I could have money to go to school.
How does being a celebrity help you in your causes?
My celebrity status allows me an opportunity, allows me a pulpit to preach and reach out to the people. Not even always preaching but just leading, motivating them by being a leader.
In Los Angeles I take food and clothes to the Midnight Mission the homeless shelter. Ever since "Rocky," I've gone down there quietly—I never call the press and say, "See me helping the people!"
My mother told me, "Son, nobody else but God knows." And that’s what I’m about—reaching out to the people, crying with them, giving them hope. Visiting the hospital, visiting the kids with cancer, visiting the adults, and stuff like that. That’s what I do. And so the show sort of reflects those things, and gives me an opportunity to raise people’s spirits, inspire them to help others, to give them hope.
The show is called “I Pity the Fool”, but we’re not calling nobody a fool--everybody knows that that’s my saying. It's not derogatory in no way, I guarantee that when people see the show they’re going to be surprised and they’re going to be hooked because it’s nothing like what people think. It’s a reality show [but] we’re not eating worms, we’re not naked, we’re not having sex with nobody, we’re not wrestling pigs and stuff like that. It’s me doing my thing, but this time the cameras are with me.
I use my celebrity status to inspire someone, to give them hope. I tell them where I grew up—on the South Side of Chicago. I tell them how I was born and raised in the ghetto, but the ghetto wasn’t born and raised in me. About how I loved and respected my mother, how my mother used to teach us to bless our food, and reminded us to be thankful for what we had. She said if you can appreciate what little you have, God will give you more. And that’s what I think happened when I look back on my life.
Do you think your faith throughout the years has helped you help others, particularly with the show?
Oh yeah. Each time my faith gets stronger and stronger. And the real test of my faith [was when] I had to go through my Job test in 1995, when I was diagnosed with cancer. I remember before that, back in 1984, 1983, and1982, little kids would come to see me and stuff like that. I had this little kid who was dying and [whose] last request through the Make-A-Wish Foundation was to see me. His name was Ryan, and he had cystic fibrosis. That's when my life literally changed.
I called my pastor again, the same one I gave the money to after I won the bouncer contest, and I called him in ’83. I said, "Pastor Hardy, there’s a kid that is dying. What do I say to him?"
I knew I couldn’t tell this kid the same thing I told all the other little kids: "Hey, little buddy, grab the muscles on my back and I’ll ride you around and we’ll get all the bad guys." I couldn’t say that to him. I needed a word from God, I needed to find those words and that’s why I called my pastor.
My pastor said, "T, evidently this kid has seen the godlike qualities in you that you don’t even see in yourself." And I hadn’t. I mean, I would say my blessings before I ate, and I’d even say a little prayer before I’d go to sleep. But I felt that God was taking it to another level.
And I’d see the little kid Ryan, and I’d see other little kids that would be brought to me through the Starlight Foundation or the Make-A-Wish Foundation. I would come to them, I would spend time with them, play with them, sing with them, pray with them, hold them. And every time they would leave, I would cry. I would thank God I saw them.
There’s a special glow in me after that. Then I meditate, and in my little aura I’m just thanking God, [asking] how can I do more? Because every time I go to the homeless shelter I’m leaving them, and I’m leaving them crying. One time there was a lady there with her daughter who waited to see me and just said, “I just want to hold you and tell you, 'Thank you for not forgetting us.'" And she started crying, and I started crying, and you know I never forget them.
I am a sinner who has been saved by grace. It’s by the grace of God that I’m here. We all have sinned and fallen short on God’s glory. I come home and I ask God to forgive me for my sins. Everyday I ask for a new cleansing. I say, "God, let me show kindness to someone, let me give someone hope. Let me be a light at the end of a tunnel for somebody." I tell people, they say I’m a farmer, I plant the seed of hope, plant the seed of inspiration, plant the seed so they can start praying and believing again.
And it’s hard for some people to get believing. They say, "But I’ve been hurt by so many people and by some churches, or whatever." I explain that preachers might try to hurt you, churches might try to do you wrong, but that wasn’t God. God didn’t do that to you. That's somebody else. Because God will still love you even if you give up on him.
Was there ever a time or was there ever a time when you felt your faith slipping a little?
I ain’t going to say I was 100% all the time, but I never really faltered. I cried, I ate, I got mad, I said, I wouldn’t do things. That was my Job test. Job said, "Still you slay me, and yet I trust you." As I’m going through things, if I didn’t read the book of Job I guess I would have fallen apart. I could have said, "What kind of God does this and that?" But no, I understood Job, I read it. I know what he went through. His friends and his wife came and said, "You’re a fool. You leave God alone." And he said, "No woman, you speak like a fool."
The story of Job gave me strength when I had cancer. I said, “T, if you just hang in there, God will give you double for your troubles.” That’s what I was taught in church and that’s what happened to Job. What he lost, he gained more in the end. Job said, “Though you slay me, yet will I trust you.” God giveth and God taketh away. Blessed be his holy name." And that’s how I live. You know I came with nothing, I’m going to die with nothing. But in between them to points that’s what it’s all about.
People want to take [you] away from your faith. They say, "What kind of God is that?" It’s like talking to the devil himself when somebody comes up with the negative. They say, "Wow, Mr. T. Heard you got cancer, man. I figured you’d be the last one to get cancer [with] all the things you do." I knew this guy [who] was negative [about my cancer]. I told him, "Don’t worry about me, brother. I’m not crying about it, don’t you worry about it. I’m all right. Don’t let my cancer bother you." But he was so negative. He said, "Man, why? What kind of God [would] do this to you?
I said to myself, "Well thank goodness I know enough stuff about the Bible. Thank goodness I've read about people like him."
So how do you avoid getting pulled in to that negativity?
I used the 23rd Psalm. I went by what David said. "Yea, though I walk through—through—the valley of the shadow of death." David said through, that means there’s an opening on the other side. He didn’t say, "And yea I walk into this cave of no return." He said, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil." Why don’t you fear, David? "Thou are with me." Who is thou? Thou is God. So if God is for me, who in the world can be against me?
It sounds like if you weren’t a celebrity you’d be a preacher.
Exactly. I like what one of the executives [from "I Pity the Fool"] said: “Mr. T, this is your pulpit."
I speak to kids about being good and stuff like that. That lets me know I’m on the right path. So if I just keep planting, eventually they'll come around. See, not everybody is going to come around right away. Like all flowers don’t bloom in the spring. Some bloom in the fall. Some even bloom in the winter. So that’s what it’s about. If I’m a servant of God, that’s what I got to do, I got to wait. What does a servant do? A servant serves. He serves his master. I am a servant. My job is to serve the less fortunate.
If God has touched me, I’ve got to touch somebody else. God has forgiven me, so I’ve got to forgive the people who did me wrong. If Jesus can forgive all things—with the crown of thorns upon his head on the cross… I say with all the things people done, nobody [has] crucified me, nobody put nails in my hands, in my palm, or a spear in my side, or a crown [of thorns] on my head. If Jesus forgives, then I’ve got to forgive. If I don’t forgive, I’m not a follower. If I’m not kind, if I don’t share, I’m not a follower, I’m a liar. I can’t be greedy.
Tell me a little more about how you handle helping the people on your show.
My show is basically what I do in real life. Before the show, I'd go to a school to speak and give the teacher my home phone number so they can call and I can check and ask how the kids are doing. Are they doing their homework? Are they fighting and arguing and stuff like that? Do they talk about some of the things I talked about while I was there? I have to follow up [on] stuff. With the people on the show, whether it [involved] a family or a car dealership, I give all of them my number. Then I follow up [and ask] what changes have they made? Are they working on stuff?
If I were to [help people] on the show, and just get the ratings and leave and not have personal relationship with you or contact you after that meeting, it would be like me raping you. And I’m not that type of guy.
What do you think is the most surprising thing you’ve learned while you’ve traveled around helping people for the show?
People just need a little push sometimes—sometimes it’s just a pat on the back. Everybody needs that, and that’s what I try to bring. I bring the love. I say, "You’re going to be alright, just don’t quit." Little things like that make the difference. It’s just like my mother said, "A little kindness goes a long way."
Why do you think it’s better to pity the fool instead of chastise him?
I’m glad you brought it up. If I pity someone, actually I’m showing them mercy. Job asked for pity. If you pity someone you’re not going to feel sorry for them, but you’re going to cut them some slack. If you chastise someone you can do it by kind words, encouraging words, lifting them up instead of tearing them down. Getting positive with them, letting them know we got time, we’re not going to rush it, we’re going to take our time with it. People can’t turn around overnight. I try to get them to believe in themselves. That’s the key. If they don’t believe in themselves, then they’re going to quit. I try to give them a reason to keep on going.
Who inspires you the most in life?
My mother and the God I serve. As a matter of fact I’m always quoting my mother talking about all the little things that she told me. If I were to call my mother today we’d be talking and I’d be telling her, "Okay mom, I love you. I’ll be seeing you soon." Then the phone will get quiet for a few seconds and she’ll say, "Don’t forget to pray." And I tell people it’s important that she told me that, because I can forget, I can slip and get so busy with everybody around calling me and making me think I’m so great that I miss my time and I can forget to pray.
I remember there was a poem, I forgot how it goes, but the guy said his day started bad, and [he] got to work and it got worse and what not, and he said, "I forgot to pray." He said when I’m praying, everything is going good, but when I stop praying, all hell breaks loose.
It’s like a television set. If you unplug it, it’s not going to come on. But when you plug it in, you connect it to the power source—the electricity. It's not that the TV is not working—you got to plug it up, you’ve got to be reconnected. That's what we all got to do, reconnect. We, as sinners, get disconnected from God. Every morning when you get up there’s a tug of war going on, the devil wants your soul and God wants your soul.
When a child of God comes home, the devil is sad, but God rejoices. So when the child of God gives his life to the devil, God is mad. We have got to keep our eyes on the prize, every day.
You might not have the things you want, but if you check carefully, you got all you need.
What's something each of us can do to make the world a little better?
We can be kind to our neighbor. We can be kind to our family members. [But] first we got to love ourselves and ask for forgiveness--because you can’t love nobody if you don’t love yourself. You can’t forgive nobody for nothing if you’re not cleansed inside. Forgive the loved ones and the ones we’re arguing with. We’ve got to make good things contagious. Because we got sexual disease [that] is contagious, we got Ebola and other stuff [that's] contagious. So we got to make God contagious, Jesus contagious. Make saying "thank you" contagious. A little thing like that will make the world better.