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When "the Bishop' speaks, women let loose their faith

For an evangelical preacher who can move worshipers to weep on the carpet in front of him, T.D. Jakes is disarmingly humble.

The author of best-selling religion books and the host of prayer sessions televised worldwide, Jakes worried Friday evening about "getting into the zone."

"To really connect with the crowds, I have to clear my mind of the clutter of the day and get a clear feed from my heart," the Pentecostal preacher said. "Some nights, I get into the zone. Some nights, I don't."

On Friday night, Jakes got there. As rain pounded the roof of the Ice Palace and nearby curbs disappeared under water, Jakes buoyed 18,000 people gathered in the arena to hear his message, "Woman, Thou Art Loosed!"

He preached about faith, self-esteem and women liberating themselves from bad jobs and bad men. Then Jakes sang the arena into a frenzy, with thousands of strangers squeezing each other's hands and hugging, their eyes sparkling with emotion.

His sermon was the pinnacle of a three-day event that drew followers, mostly black women, streaming into Tampa and paying $20 each to attend.

Shantell Maurice flew in from Freeport, Bahamas.

"T.D. Jakes understands me," Maurice said. "He understands how to motivate women, how to make us feel good about ourselves."

Jakes, 40, says his empathy springs from years of counseling couples at his congregations, first in his native Charleston, W.Va., and now in Dallas. In 1982, Jakes quit working at a Union Carbide chemical plant and stepped into the pulpit. Since then, he has been attracting audiences from as far as Zimbabwe with dozens of motivational books and videos and a growing ministry that refers to him as "the Bishop."

"We all have lives to live," said Mary Jane Parker, who drove from Valdosta, Ga., "but T.D.'s is bigger."

Parker explained why women are drawn to Jakes like "a candle fly to a light." In his sermons, Jakes addresses those dark spaces in people's lives that eat away at their self-esteem. His speech Friday was even beamed by satellite to 70 prisons across the country.

"He knows how to get you to share your past," Parker said. "And it feels good laying it all out. If you were ever treated badly or maybe even molested as a child, Jakes makes you feel better, not dirty."

On Friday, the Ice Palace crowd was probably 95 percent women. At one point, Jakes asked all the women from other countries to come near the stage. Hundreds came. A few fainted.

On Friday morning, a 57-year-old woman from Belle Glade had a heart attack and died as she was walking to the Ice Palace, said Jakes' public relations agent, Julia Fairchild.

Among the men attending were a handful of Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the front row, including defensive lineman Eric Curry. And though Friday's speech was directed toward helping women, men responded.

"He dissects the Bible and makes it apply to today," said Bradenton insurance agent Joenathan Harris. "It's like when you're a kid and you understand math for the first time. You just keep saying, "I got it! I got!' "

Jakes says he enjoys making an ancient book relate to contemporary issues.

"There are ways to find biblical answers to sociological plight," he said.

Ask Sandra Moore. The 35-year-old cashier left her three children with a friend and drove from Mobile, Ala., to hear Jakes Friday. She says Jakes has taught her not to be ashamed of her past. And speeches like this fill her with faith.

"When the lights get cut off and my kids are hungry," she said. "I just keep telling them what the Bishop says: "We gonna make it. We gonna make it.' "