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FREEING WOMEN'S SOULS

Woman Thou Art Loosed, a dramatic presentation of the message author T.D. Jakes carries to conferences around the country, seeks to free women from the tyranny of their pasts and show the way to a fresh start.

Long after the sermon was over, the words tarried in Darlene Belgrave's soul.

"God does not bless people who look back . . . . You have to count up your losses and keep on moving forward. No matter what you went through, sister, you are not dead. You are still alive!"

Bishop T.D. Jakes delivered the message in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, where Belgrave and others from the Tampa Bay area traveled recently to hear the popular evangelist speak.

Belgrave gave birth to the first of four children at age 17. One of her daughters got pregnant at 14.

"Yes, I was a young mother, and it was hard," Belgrave said after hearing Jakes. Yet, if she continues to think about the past, she said, "I'll never succeed."

Jakes' words confirmed what she felt God was calling her to do. Yes, she will work to become a professional hair stylist and, someday, have her own business.

Women young and old traveled by bus, plane or carpool to the three-day conference in Atlanta at the end of July. They went to hear the word of God, as told by Jakes, whose "Woman Thou Art Loosed" conferences have stirred somewhat of a spiritual revolution among black women.

They listen to Jakes to be "loosed" from the disappointments of wayward children, low self-esteem, spiritual stagnation or the fear of living hard and accomplishing little. Others go because they have prayed to have a husband but still sleep alone. Still others are tired of the husband they have.

Back home, with a dose of empowerment from Atlanta in their systems, some are looking for an added boost from the Woman Thou Art Loosed play scheduled for the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center this weekend. Jakes wrote the play, but does not star in it and is not expected to be in town for the showing.

Still, Earnestine Marshall said she will get her ticket, then later this month, it's off to the "Miami Crusade," one in a series of speaking engagements for Jakes. Only the "Woman Thou Art Loosed" conference, however, is geared specifically to women.

"He relates to me more and more each time," said Marshall, a 46-year-old language arts teacher at Adams Middle School in Tampa. Listening to Jakes, she said, encourages her to share what she knows of Jesus Christ with others.

Jakes' audience is mostly African-American women. The high-energy sermons with Jakes walking to-and-fro, the soulful gospel music and the uninhibited "amens" have the feel of services in the black church.

His sermons, however, don't focus on race; any woman could relate. One guest speaker in Atlanta was a white female pastor from Ohio. Women from other ethnic backgrounds, including some from New Zealand, Zimbabwe and Europe, have journeyed to see Jakes. Each year, a few men also straggle in, on the arms of their wives or in small groups.

Many Christians are drawn to Jakes, who is 42. His bellowing voice and tall, stout frame decked in tailor-made suits command attention. Over the years, "Get ready, get ready, get readaaayyyyy!" has become his signature phrase. When followers hear that, they know his next words are going to hit hard. He's the kind of preacher who will pack one sermon with an oldtime hymn, five jokes and stories from three books of the Bible. People don't get tired, because he preaches as if he were holding a one-on-one conversation.

A common Jakes theme is the way the devil uses financial problems to distract Christians. In Atlanta, though, Jakes didn't say it quite that way:

"May I tell you something, girlfriend? The devil doesn't need your car, he's after your peace. He doesn't need your apartment, he's after your peace. He doesn't need your wallet. You lost your wallet? Ahhh, but he's after your peace. . . . Because the peace of the Lord GUARDS!"

The preacher began to gain public acclaim in 1993, after he wrote Woman Thou Art Loosed, a best-selling book that originated from a curriculum Jakes wrote for a Sunday School class. He pulled the phrase from the Book of Luke, where Jesus declares a woman "loosed" from a long sickness. Jakes' book spurred so much interest that he soon organized an annual conference, which brought 18,000 to the Ice Palace in Tampa in 1997. Since then, the conference has grown. More than 100,000 packed the Georgia Dome and an overflow building in July.

After hearing the word of Jakes and other speakers, women gather round tables to buy Jakes' merchandise: T-shirts, water bottles, baseball caps and tote bags emblazoned with catchy sermon titles such as "Wailing Women Win" or "Church on Fire." There are books and videotapes: Help! The Devil's After My Home, or The Lady, Her Lover, and Her Lord.

Most of Jakes' followers have never talked to him or even had the chance to shake his hand, yet they believe his sermons are tailor-made for their personal situations.

Kaletha Tate, 45, an administrative assistant from Lakeland, found comfort as Jakes' words boomed throughout the Georgia Dome:

"There is a shepherd who can watch over your children. They're on crack. They're on cocaine. But tell the devil, "I can't let you have my joy!' "

Tate was always worrying about her 23-year-old son. He's not on drugs, but he is separated from his wife and living an un-Christian life, she said. After the conference, Tate said she would keep praying for her son, but worry no longer. "I felt like my burden was lifted."

Lydia Lewin, a 57-year-old nurse from Tampa, found strength in words from the same sermon:

"Above all else, guard your heart."

Lewin's daughter told her recently, "Mom, you never hug us," Lewin said. Lewin herself was not raised by adults who embraced or said "I love you" at the end of a phone conversation. Now that she realizes her two daughters, who are now adults, needed such outward signs of her affection, she said she will strive to change.

But should she feel guilty today for the way she raised her children?

No. That's where guarding the heart comes in, Lewin said. "I have done everything in my power," she said, "and so now I have to try this other tactic. I was not doing things purposely. I was doing things the way I was raised."

For Lewin, Tate and Carlene Black, who traveled to Atlanta by bus with about 20 others from Hillsborough and Polk counties, it was the first time to see Jakes in person. Some had watched him early Sunday mornings on the cable BET network, preaching from his church in Dallas. Already, some on the bus plan to return to the conference next year.

Jakes' ever-expanding ministry, however, is a disappointment to some followers. Karen Cameron, a 40-year-old self-employed caterer from Tampa, said she was turned off by commercialism during the conference in Atlanta. There were too many promos for Jakes' videos and CDs and the new book by his wife, Serita Jakes. Cameron remembers several years ago when Jakes came to Tampa and couldn't even pack the University of South Florida's Sun Dome. Back then, Cameron said, she could focus on the message more easily.

She said she will continue to buy some of his tapes because she enjoys the sermons. As for the play, Cameron said, she'll probably sit this one out.

"How many ways can you say one thing?" she said.

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