Tommy Jakes dug ditches by day and preached wherever they'd have him on nights and weekends just to keep the lights on in his West Virginia home.

In the 25 years since, life has changed considerably for the small-town preacher with a big dream. He's known to the world now as Bishop T.D. Jakes. He's no longer bi-vocational by necessity - he's multi-vocational by choice.

The pastor of the 30,000-member Potter's House, a nondenominational Pentecostal church in southwest Dallas, is a multimillionaire who heads an evangelical media empire.

The 47-year-old self-described "hillbilly" is a Grammy-winning gospel artist with his own label, an author with more than 8 million books sold, a speaker in demand in the religious and secular worlds. Time magazine in 2001 put him on the cover and asked, "Is This Man the Next Billy Graham?"

President Bush has called him a "social entrepreneur." One of his nonprofit groups is developing a 231-acre, master-planned community near his church. His Mega Fest conference in Atlanta this summer drew about 150,000.

And, now, he adds movie producer and actor to his resume.

"Woman, Thou Art Loosed," which opens Friday, is a story of redemption through a young woman shattered by having been sexually abused as a child. Bishop Jakes plays himself in the film, which was financed with his own money and that of investors including Gary Sheffield, Cedric the Entertainer and lawyer Johnnie Cochran.

He's never liked being limited by the title "preacher."

"I want the freedom to be everything I am," Bishop Jakes said recently, as he sat in the sanctuary, where he says he feels most alive.

His increased visibility and growing empire, though, have brought criticism. Critics find fault with his lavish lifestyle, which is vastly different from Graham's. Others take him to task for not preaching enough about social justice in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson and others.

Though he exudes confidence while preaching, even masking a lisp that's otherwise obvious, he's shy and soft-spoken in person. The criticism hurts, Bishop Jakes admitted. But he knows that the criticism and the comparisons come with the territory.

"Everybody paints me as someone else," he said. "But I don't think God duplicates any individual."

Though the life of Thomas Dexter Jakes has changed dramatically since arriving in Dallas eight years ago, those who've known him longest say his passion for preaching and helping people hasn't changed. "At the core of him, the essence - to use a phrase he coined, the is-ness of a person--has not changed," said Lawrence Robinson, an associate pastor at the Potter's House and a friend for 30 years.

Bishop Jakes took on a care-giving role early, tending to his father in his dying years. Ernest Jakes, as big and gregarious a man as his son, died of kidney disease when Tommy was 15. Two years later, Tommy felt called to the ministry. He practiced by preaching to squirrels near his home in South Charleston, W.Va.

He said his love for words came from his mother, Odith Jakes, who died five years ago. A teacher and an orator, she often took him to speaking engagements.

Once, he told her: "Right now, they call me Mrs. Jakes' son. But the time will come when you'll come hear me speak, and they'll call you Tom Jakes' mother." He was 8. And he was right.

Though bright and articulate, he dropped out of high school to take care of his mother. He received his GED. Later, he received undergraduate and graduate degrees through correspondence courses. (He received the title "bishop" from a Pentecostal church organization.)

He met his wife, the former Serita Ann Jamison, while preaching at her church in Alpoca, W.Va. She'd written him a few encouraging notes, and her pastor's wife introduced the two. "He asked, `Do you know where a single gentleman can get a home-cooked meal?' I couldn't cook, so I said I would ask my mother," Mrs. Jakes said.

They married within a year. He continued working several jobs, struggling to lead a 10-member storefront church in Montgomery, W.Va. "When I came into the church, he'd play piano and sing and then go up and preach," said Derick Faison, who began attending as a teen and now is an associate pastor at the Potter's House.

The preacher with the powerful baritone and white-hot fervor burst onto the evangelical scene in 1993 with a weekly television broadcast on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, and a Bible study and book for women - "Woman, Thou Art Loosed!" (The name comes from words Jesus spoke in the Gospel of Luke to a woman as he healed her.) The Bible study begat a cottage industry within the Jakes empire. The new movie is based on his 1993 book of the same name, which has also been a stage play and a soon-to-be-released novel.

Bishop Jakes moved his ministry to Dallas three years later. He continued reaching the masses with topics that most ministers wouldn't touch, such as sexual abuse and drug use. Within months, the Potter's House became one of the fastest-growing churches in the country, requiring a new 8,200-seat sanctuary.

Shayne Lee, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Houston, says Bishop Jakes is not afraid to blend the secular with the religious. "His message is uplifting and encouraging. It's post-modern therapy," Dr. Lee said. "He's incredible in how he's able to diagnose people's pain. He has an uncanny ability to put a finger on the human condition."

Several networks picked up his weekly programs. His conferences grew. He baptized Deion Sanders and Emmitt Smith. The New York Times joined Time magazine in naming him as a possible heir to Graham. Graham, however, has been praised for his simple lifestyle. Bishop Jakes has been criticized for living very well.

"He's a walking contradiction between compassion and arrant capitalism," said Dr. Lee, whose unauthorized biography on the preacher is due out next year.

The Jakeses and their five children live in a 9,689-square-foot mansion on White Rock Lake, appraised at more than $3.3 million. He loves to shop and wears exquisitely tailored suits and expensive shoes. He owns a jet.

"Anybody who has sold 8 million books shouldn't have to justify why they live in a nice house," Bishop Jakes said.

T.D. Jakes Ministries, a nonprofit organization that produces his conferences and television ministry, is largely supported through sales of products, he said.

"So the stereotypical idea that the evangelist is out there trying to get money from poor widows and welfare people to support his lavish lifestyle - that model does not fit my life," Bishop Jakes said.

His congregation recently paid off the church's $45 million mortgage, so members know where their money goes, he said.

Some watchdog groups have knocked him for not making his ministry's financial information public. He said his ministry goes to great lengths to "do everything above-board" and is interested only in complying with the IRS.

Ole Anthony, president of the Trinity Foundation, a Dallas-based religious watchdog group, said there's never been any indication of fraud in the Jakes ministry. His concern lies mostly in Bishop Jakes' lifestyle, because he has seen televangelists seduced by wealth and celebrity.

"I excuse him a little bit because he grew up dirt-poor," Anthony said. "Hopefully, he'll grow out of it."

Alton B. Pollard III, director of the Black Church Studies program at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, said Bishop Jakes hasn't done enough to bring attention to issues related to equality, justice and politics. Though he visited the White House at the invitation of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Bishop Jakes said pastors shouldn't let politics get in the way of tending to the church.

Last month, outside Deliverance Evangelistic Church in north Philadelphia, in a neighborhood called the Badlands, an overflow crowd of thousands spilled into the streets to hear Bishop Jakes.

"I want you to pull your church mask off tonight because I'm going to push you to the limit!" he shouted, stalking the stage relentlessly for 3 1/2 hours. Words flowed rhythmically as he talked to men about dropping the big-boys-don't-cry facade, about hope, destiny and finding strength in God. And he chastened the women for pushing men into that macho facade.

When he asked the men to dedicate their lives to God, waves of them, young and old, black, white and Hispanic, surrounded the pulpit. Many sobbed as he prayed over them. When he finished, he was soaked in sweat, like always.

"Sometimes I'm tired, sometimes I'm sick, but when I get up and start talking about his word, I come to life in this amazing, exciting way," he said later. "I'm never as alive as when I'm preaching."

Bishop Jakes describes the last eight years as a blessing, but said the celebrity status can be overwhelming. His schedule is exhausting. Everywhere he goes, strangers approach to shake his hand, hug him and thank him. Many ask for his autograph. It has been difficult for his children to adjust to the limelight, he said, and it pains him to see them suffer because of it.

And though he's not kept from his congregation that one of his daughters had a baby out of wedlock, he declined to talk about it - not because he's trying to protect his image.

"Our church is not based upon me presenting myself as this flawless, invincible hero who's never been through anything," he said. "But details to me are the last remaining shreds of private life that I can offer my children."

His other child - the Potter's House - has become more than he and his wife could have imagined. "That God would take two little hillbillies and bring them down here and change so many lives, it's just miraculous," Mrs. Jakes said.

The Potter's House reaches out to those easily discarded, with 60 ministries for the homeless, prostitutes, drug dealers and addicts, convicts and ex-convicts, the poor in Dallas, Mexico, Kenya, Bulgaria. Bishop Jakes said there's no time to "play church" and get lost in the trappings of religion.

"I want to talk about faith, faith for hard times and tough places," he said. "You can get up again and again and again. As long as there's life, there's hope."

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