Life in the residential blocks east of the corner of 66th Avenue and San Leandro Street moves to a slow, languid rhythm, the torpor of unemployment and dependency. The Coliseum Gardens project squats next to industrial lots where steam shovels pick at mounds of rubble and smashed boards; its windows are pockmarked with plywood. Across the street, a six-foot-high iron gate seals off the access road to the Lockwood Gardens project, stanching the crack trade but teaching a hard lesson to the children who grow up in its shadow. This is disputed territory; a turf war has broken out between the 65th Avenue gang and the 69th Avenue gang, and with 28 murders so far this year, Oakland’s homicide rate has jumped far ahead of last year’s rate at this time. When Acts Full Gospel Church of God in Christ bought the land that houses its headquarters and sanctuary eight years ago, the contractors recommended building a forty-foot-high Plexiglas shield to ward off stray bullets. After all, the church’s altar abuts the Coliseum Gardens courtyard. But Pastor Bob Jackson would have none of it. If the last eighteen years are any indication, God has a plan for Acts Full Gospel, and it doesn’t include Tec-9 rounds whizzing through Sunday service.
Back in 1994, the land that comprises Acts Full Gospel were occupied by a vast complex of warehouses that stored cotton until container ships hauled it to the ports of Asia. Jackson tore down all but one of the buildings, and now a sea of gray asphalt, interrupted by open-air irrigation culverts and medians of white and maroon pebbles, confronts visitors who drive through the chain-link fence. Come Sunday morning, every inch of this lot will be needed for an army of parishioners’ cars and the special van ministry that picks up the church’s homebound faithful. Every week, no fewer than six thousand people assemble in the last standing warehouse, which serves as the church sanctuary, to shout their joy in the Lord in two shifts of three thousand. The church has since commissioned blueprints for an even newer revival hall on this very site, with a capacity of five thousand.
Twenty years ago, there was no such church. Now, Acts Full Gospel has twice as many parishioners as Allen Temple, the traditional epicenter of Oakland’s black social influence and political power. And just as Allen Temple’s aging congregation embodies that church’s waning influence, the youthful vigor of Acts Full Gospel speaks of a new era on Oakland’s horizon — one in which “Pastor Bob” will be first among equals in the city’s black ministry. The church boasts City Councilmember Larry Reid and Republican celebrity politico Shannon Reeves among its worshipers, and recently received another sign that its time has finally come: a donation of twenty new computers, a check for $7,500, and a pool table from state Senator and local kingmaker Don Perata, who couldn’t have made his intentions more clear if he sent flowers and candy.
But the church’s cavernous sanctuary reflects none of its dominance. Acts Full Gospel comes out of the Pentecostal tradition, and the warehouse has all the trappings of a revival movement — which is to say, no trappings at all. No saints or hieratic mosaics adorn the walls, and you won’t find a single cross in the building. A different type of stagecraft characterizes Bob Jackson’s ministry: the miracle of the soundboard and the spotlight, the speakers that hang from the pillars, and the movie screens that flash his oversized image on either side of the pulpit. It’s the only way to reach the back seats, and as the band warmed up one recent Sunday morning, it was clear that each one of those seats would soon have a soul straining to glimpse the Lord’s majesty.
“Hallelujah, this is our call to worship Jesus!” The band kicked into a gospel tune, and the first four hundred congregants rose to their feet and clapped in time as four choir members belted a song of greeting into the mikes. Along the aisles, female ushers wore black dresses, white gloves, and a frosty solemnity, pacing past the offertory’s popcorn buckets and stacks of fans bearing ads for a black adoption service. Two keyboardists, a pair of sax players, and the drummer kept things tight while a sign-language interpreter gestured the hymn’s pitch and cadence for the deaf parishioners to the side. As the song swelled to a conclusion, her arms undulated through the syllables with a music of their own. The crowd already had a lather on, and it was only a quarter to noon.
As one of Jackson’s assistants began the morning’s first prayer, the ushers moved to block the sanctuary’s entrance. It’s bad form to walk into church during the prayer, and hundreds of latecomers steadily assembled behind the ushers’ bodies, sporting everything from African dashikis, to blue jeans and work boots, to electric blue suits complete with shoulder pads.
Perhaps you will forgive them their tardiness; after all, the commute must have been murder. In the first tenuous years of Acts Full Gospel’s existence, its congregation was a small collection of hard-luck working stiffs, floating on and off welfare and struggling with all the social problems of persistent poverty. But over the last eighteen years, through a combination of hard work, a very demanding pastor, and an incrementally rising economic tide that finally has begun to give African Americans decent jobs, hundreds of them have built a new, middle-class life. They have scrimped and saved down payments, taken out mortgages, and become homeowners — but not in Oakland. Pastor Bob Jackson now estimates that fully half of his congregation lives in homes they own themselves in the tract subdivisions of Hayward, Antioch, or even Sacramento.
These modestly prosperous latecomers are the new face of the African-American religious experience. In many ways, they are the future of the way God is worshipped in the East Bay. They are the suburbs.
Our Father and our God, we have come before you this morning to magnify you and praise you, Father-God,” the co-pastor moaned as he hunched down over the mike. “Lifting you up, Lord Jesus. Because you are the most high God. You are the one that woke us up this morning, Father-God. This is the day that you have made, and we shall be glad and rejoice in it, Father-God. Oh hallelujah, Father-God.”
Thus began the slow, elaborate prologue to Pastor Bob Jackson’s triumphant entrance. By the time Jackson would arrive to deliver the sermon, his flock would be primed for his message of tough love and economic populism. Most of the congregation sat down, save for a few zealous souls who swayed in the moment, their arms outstretched in supplication. But that soon changed as the co-pastor’s fervor built, and as the applause spread and the organist’s insinuation trilled, he spasmed with the sound of his own rejoicing, jumping in place and barking his Father-Gods over and over.
“Fill us up, Father-God, till our cup runneth over, Father-God!” he howled. “Fill us till our bellies are overflowing, Father-God! And out of our bellies shall flow rivers of living water, Father-God! … Oh hallelujah, Lord Jesus! Right now we thank you, Father-God! For picking us up! Turning us around! Placing our feet on solid ground, Father-God! You gave us a new heart, Father-God! You got rid of that sorry one and gave us a heart of flesh, Father-God! You got rid of that old mind and gave us a new mind! You gave us a mind that would sustain on you, Lord God! You gave us a mind that would look toward the hills whence cometh our help, Father-God! You gave us the soul that will love you and trust you with all our being, Father-God! ‘Cause you are our Lord! You are our God! You are our trusted Redeemer! You are our strength! You are our joy, Father-God! And right now, for everything that we have in us, we give it back to you, Father-God! Oh, hallelujah! With our limbs, we’ll praise you! With our worship, we’ll lift you up! With our feet, we’ll stomp on the devil’s head! ‘Cause you said you gave us power! And after death, the Holy Ghost will come up upon us! Oh, hallelujah!”
Dozens of worshipers babbled in tongues, coated in a film of rapture that no one could penetrate. One of the ushers couldn’t take it anymore. Her composure broke, and the God-fever was upon her as she stumbled drunkenly down the aisle, wailing at the carpet. Another usher calmly followed her, ready to lunge forward if the woman’s legs gave out and she careened toward the sharp edges of the metal chairs. All this, and Pastor Bob hadn’t even entered the building.
Two gospel songs and a Psalm reading later, Jackson walked up to the pulpit dressed in a simple black gown and bathed in the frenzy of celebration. He had sat quietly praying behind the band for some time, but as he took the stage, his trademark folksiness, eyes that crinkle with a salty humor, and perpetual smile were on full display. Jackson is a man of the people, having led a strictly blue-collar life of women, motorcycles, and military service in the decades before the Lord called him. Every anecdote about his connections with the Black Panthers or his growing alienation throughout the ’60s only enhances his street credibility. But these days, being a man of the people doesn’t mean what it used to. These days, it means an absolute intolerance for knuckleheads who poormouth and whine about the Man when asked why they don’t have a job, or the woman who carps about her car payments when she’s got a $78 weave in her hair.
Jackson’s sermon this morning was about “wisdom,” but it really was about what all of Jackson’s sermons are about: money. He began with one of what he calls his “parabolic messages.” “There was a man who had worked all of his life and had saved all of his money and was a real miser when it came to his money,” Jackson explained. “He loved money more than just about anything, and just before he died, he told his wife, he said, ‘Now listen. When I die, I want you to take all my money and put it in the casket with me when I die. Because I wanna take my money to the afterlife with me.’ And so he got his wife to promise him with all of her heart that when he died, she would put all of her money in the casket with him. And so when he finally died, and they had the man stretched out in the casket, the wife was sitting there in black, and her friend was sitting next to her, and when they finished the ceremony, just before the undertakers got ready to close the casket, the wife said, ‘Wait just a minute!’ She had a box with her, she came over with the box and put it in the casket, and then the undertakers locked the casket down, and they rolled it away.
“So her friend said, ‘Girl, I know you wasn’t fool enough to put all that money in there with that man.’
“She said, ‘Listen, I’m a Christian, I can’t lie. I promised him that I was gonna put that money in that casket with him.’
“‘You mean to tell me you put that money in the casket with the man?’
” ‘I sure did,’ ” Jackson said, pausing. ” ‘I wrote him a check.’ “
The church burst open with laughter and cheers, and Jackson grinned. “You see what wisdom can do? I said, you see what wisdom can do?” Minutes later, the congregation gave Pastor Bob their answer in the form of a chant not often heard in a house of God. “I’m blessed!” they screamed, “And I’m debt-free! And I won’t be broke no more!”
The last ten years have witnessed an ongoing demographic convulsion within Oakland and the bedroom communities to its south and east. Gentrification has left its mark on the city’s African-American community, whittling Oakland’s black population from 44 percent in 1990 to a mere 36 percent today. But there are far more interesting and complex phenomena at work than the high cost of living and yuppie encroachment so crudely denoted by that inelegant rubric. One of these is the gradual enfranchisement — and eastward migration — of a people once thought forever consigned to Chocolate City.
As African Americans make yet more inroads to the middle-class prosperity long denied them, more and more of them are buying homes and settling down to a life of Labor Day barbecues and white picket fences. But the staggering rise in Oakland property values and the city’s continuing problems with blight and crime have led thousands of newly middle-class black professionals to make a rather novel decision: to move to the suburbs. The black population in Antioch, for example, has swelled from 1,626 in 1990 to 8,824 in 2000. Hayward’s black population has grown from 10,965 in 1990 to 15,374 in 2000, and Stockton’s has grown from 20,321 in 1990 to 27,417 in 2000.
But as more and more African Americans move to outlying cities, their churches are staying put. Institutions always are slower to adapt than populations, and so it is that many Baptist and African Methodist Episcopalian churches have yet to follow their parishioners to the suburbs. For now, at least, black worshipers return to Oakland on Sundays. This has produced a new species of churchgoer in the East Bay. Where African-American congregations once lived in the same city that their charities served, Oakland’s new commuter congregations have less day-to-day experience with the inner city that produced them. Where ministers once exhorted their parishioners to volunteer at the soup kitchen, these days they increasingly ask their flocks to pay someone else to do it. The intimacy with urban social ills is diminishing, replaced with a new, unfamiliar sentiment — the promise of opportunity.
Over the course of eighteen years, as Bob Jackson’s church has experienced phenomenal growth, he has helped his parishioners slowly build themselves a comfortable life, piecing together a savings account here, a little equity there. He started his church on the most precarious of foundations, a faint radio ministry broadcasting in the wee hours of the morning to the restless, lonely souls of Oakland. As his flock has become increasingly middle-class, he has found the needs of his parishioners and the nature of his ministry’s social work subtly changing. While once he focused on drug-treatment programs and transitional housing, Jackson has gradually expanded his work to teach the newly middle-class how to comfortably wear the skin of enfranchisement: how to run a joint checking account, how to pick the right school, how to maintain a healthy diet.
But as his flock has prospered, Jackson believes his church has experienced an identity crisis. Now that he is dipping his toe in the waters of local politics, Jackson has chosen the burgeoning East Oakland murder rate as his hot-button issue. He’s found the commitment of some of his parishioners strangely muted. Perhaps it’s tough to keep your eyes on the prize when life becomes comfortably middle-class. The next great challenge for Jackson and his congregation is how to straddle these two different worlds — how to keep in their hearts the decaying projects of their past and the tract homes of their present.
“We’ve become tourists in our own community, we’ve become strangers here,” Jackson says. “The exodus has been astounding — my head usher told me the other day that she’s thinking of moving to Sacramento. But they have a tremendously bad attitude about the local area. They were the ones buying the drugs and partying and causing the chaos we were witnessing here. Now they’re living way out there in those other communities, and they’d like to put that life behind them and pretend that it never occurred. I see it on Sunday; some of them come in here now, they’re driving a Mercedes, they’re uppity and snooty, and I’ll say, ‘Some of you are walking around with your nose all up in the air, when a little while ago you didn’t have that house to live in or a car to drive. You were on the BART, hustling with a crack pipe in your pocket.’ That’s the danger sometimes with the transformation in the Lord Jesus Christ. All of a sudden, you get this pride.” Pastor Jackson keeps a photograph in a special place on the wall of his office amid his diplomas and commendations. It’s a glimpse of the man he used to be back in 1972. Sitting astride a chopped Honda motorcycle on 85th Avenue, a young, cocky Bob Jackson lifts a tall can of Schlitz malt liquor in a toast to Babylon, a snub-nose .38 stuck in the waistband of his pants. “There I was — a fool on a mule,” he says. “Right in the middle of the road, heading in the wrong direction. Never went anywhere without my gun, running from the police, all kinds of stuff. Then a friend of mine in the motorcycle club went and got saved, and then he came back to share Christ with me, and the transformation was made in my life. That’s why I can preach it, because the Lord Jesus Christ can change you from what you were to what you always wanted to be.”
Jackson was born in Berkeley, but his family quickly moved into the Campbell Village project of West Oakland, where his six siblings spent most of their youth. His father was an elevator operator for the Crocker Anglo National Bank — Jackson pointedly notes the racial significance of the name — and his mother cleaned white people’s homes for a living. Eventually, Jackson’s father squirreled away enough money to buy a home, and the family decamped for the Brookfield neighborhood near I-880 on 92nd Avenue. “White flight sorta began then,” he says. “They started moving up toward the avenues, moving up toward MacArthur. At one time, if you lived over near East 14th Street, you were considered affluent. Then if you lived near MacArthur, you were affluent. And then it was over MacArthur to the hills area, and that’s where’s it’s held.”
A year after Jackson graduated from Castlemont High School, he joined the Air Force for a four-year stint and used the GI Bill to get a bachelor’s in psychology from Cal State Hayward. But he quickly found that, for blacks in the flatlands, a college degree accomplished little in the ’60s. “That’s when I was so disillusioned,” he says. “I had a BA degree, and I was riding motorcycles out there. That’s why you can’t judge people that ride motorcycles and do deviant things, ’cause you never know. We were the Phantom Riders, ’cause once you see us, next thing you know we disappear, and you never know which way we went.”
That all changed once he found Christ. By the early ’80s, Jackson had decided that the Bible’s instruction to witness among the people would from then on occupy his life. Piecing together what little money he had, Jackson bought two hours of time on the San Francisco religious station KEST from three to five each morning. He would preach the gospel into a microphone, but without a phone line, he had no idea if anyone was listening. For all he knew, his message was drifting in the void.
But at least thirty lonely people heard Jackson, and by the time he installed a phone in the studio, they began to call in. “The reason why I took the slot was it was very cheap, and no one else wanted it,” Jackson says. “And I found out that a lot of people that were hurting were awake at that time. I was ministering to a lot of people that were broken, that were hurting, and were cruising up and down the radio dial. Because, of course, in those days television was just the test patterns. All of a sudden, they’re hearing somebody say, ‘Don’t touch that dial, ’cause I’m talking to you!’ And the ratings went sky-high.”
Within months, Jackson decided to expand his ministry. Renting a small storefront on Foothill Boulevard from the Black Muslims for $25 a night, he began leading Bible-study classes every Tuesday, and established a church shortly afterward. Jackson cultivated an ecstatic, blue-collar evangelism. The result was explosive. Every few years, the church was forced to move to accommodate its exponentially booming congregation. But such growth did not go unnoticed in the Christian community, and Jackson says rumors spread that he was setting up another People’s Temple, a Jonestown cult with potentially dangerous consequences. Jackson decided he needed some seminary credentials.
Today, Jackson holds a master’s in theology and a doctorate in divinity. His central message is simple: getting right with God means getting paid. Kick the drugs and the partying, find yourself a job and a spouse, and Jackson is convinced that a spiritual, Christ-centered life invariably improves your material prospects. At first, his parishioners were just barely holding onto the most marginal existence, and the church’s social ministries consisted of the usual urban missions: substance-abuse programs, care for the sick and elderly, and a halfway house for ex-cons. But as rising economic tides began lifting the boats of even the urban poor, Jackson discovered that his flock needed a completely new set of skills. Suddenly his parishioners had a little bit of money in their pockets — and they needed to learn how to save it. They were achieving enough stability to marry and raise a family, but because so many came from broken homes and single-parent households, few knew how to be responsible fathers or patient wives. Jackson concluded that his congregants were beginning to earn middle-class incomes — but that many had no idea how to live middle-class lives.
So he set out to teach them. Cutting a deal with Bank of the West, he organized a series of money-management seminars and classes on investment. His marriage ministry began counseling couples on how to divide the housework, tolerate their spouse’s foibles, and manage joint checking accounts. The sisterhood ministry started teaching about home economics, healthy diets — even coping with premenstrual syndrome. Gradually, his parishioners began building new lives from scratch, tackling the most mundane details of suburban life with a sense of discovery.
“It’s basic Christianity to take you from right where you are and help you get yourself where you need to be,” Jackson says. “There’s classes on finances, on having wisdom about how you spend your money. I’m a real stickler on that. And then investments and your health. Bank of the West gives talks on investments and accounts, and they get new business in return, an opportunity to get new mortgages and car loans. A lot of our people didn’t have bank accounts when they first came here. But Bank of the West found out that once the Lord Jesus comes into your heart and changes your life, then these are people you can invest in and see a return on your investment.”
Donna R. Hurst took over the bank’s lending program for Acts Full Gospel in 1995. Bank of the West offers a wide variety of special banking programs to church members, including a referral program in which church members who refer clients are rewarded with service-free checking accounts for life and a quarter-percent discount on car and home loans. “We have licensed investment agents, and we set up seminars on insight into how they can invest their money besides CDs,” Hurst says. “It’s giving them knowledge of the stock market and, most importantly, taking away the fear of the market. And other churches come here because Pastor Bob is the pastor of Oakland now; all the ministers turn to him for advice. So I have different pastors calling me all the time. It’s building a relationship with the customer, a win-win for us. This is just good business sense.” Two years after she started running the Acts Full Gospel banking program, Hurst became more than just a banker — she and her husband joined the church.
Meanwhile, realtors in mostly white suburbs such as Tracy began encountering more black homebuyers than ever before. Tracy’s Preferred Real Estate Group has been advertising in the Oakland Tribune for seven years, but as the high-tech housing crunch took hold, African Americans began swarming through the Altamont pass and settling down in Tracy’s ranch homes. “It started in 1999, when the East Bay market exploded and pushed buyers into Tracy,” says broker Jack Klemm. “It’s slacked off a little bit, but not much. We’re still getting quite a few buyers coming over the hill, because we’re so affordable. Every minority is moving out to the suburbs, to take advantage of the lower prices. We’re seeing a wide range of minorities in Tracy.”
In 1986, Vanessa Bulnes arrived in Oakland with nothing but a sister in town, a child out of wedlock, and a place in line to pick up her welfare check. Back in Greensboro, North Carolina, she lived with her boyfriend, had a casual relationship with her church, and smoked dope with her eight siblings. Being born again at Acts Full Gospel changed all that.
“I kinda considered myself a good person, even though I was shacking up with my boyfriend and had a son out of wedlock,” Bulnes says. “But I did all of those things because that’s the environment I grew up in. So I didn’t think it was wrong. But then I came here and sat under the teachings, that’s when I realized that living together without being married was wrong, defiling your body with drugs and alcohol was wrong.”
Still, it would be two years before Bulnes got off the dole, and then only because she got married. She had come to know her future husband through his own conversion experience; he had been slinging drugs on the streets of Hunters Point for eighteen years before giving up the life for Acts Full Gospel. While courting her, he was making a solid living painting airplanes at the Alameda Naval Air Station, but Bulnes was leery of committing herself to a long-term relationship while still trying to put her life back together. “He wasn’t what I was looking for in a man,” Bulnes says. “He’s Hispanic, and I wasn’t looking to get married, period. I wanted to start over without having the excess baggage of a relationship. I was single in the church for two years before we connected. And he had to build a relationship with my son first. It wasn’t going to be, ‘Well, we got married, and now you’re pushed to the side.’ He took a lot of time developing a father-son relationship, and if you saw them together, the only difference between them was the color of their skin.”
But marriage was a lot harder than she had anticipated. Sharing your entire life with a man presented challenges that had never occurred to Bulnes, who grew up without a father. No one ever taught her how to be a wife; the nuances and awkward moments seemed impossibly complex. From the beginning of her marriage, Jackson insisted that Bulnes and her fiancé attend marital counseling. Back then, he called his marriage classes “Christian sexuality,” and the curriculum included housework, money, foreplay — even a rule against wives starting important family discussions when the NBA playoffs are on TV.
Jackson’s profound social conservatism often is out of step with the sensibilities of the Bay Area. In his sisterhood ministries, Jackson teaches that the role of the woman is to accept the spiritual leadership of her husband, to submit to his will, and reinforce the wisdom of his decisions. Men, of course, must live up to the challenge of running the household, and chronic unemployment conveys a terrible stigma at the church. Jackson is even wont to utter that old canard, “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Although perhaps unimaginably suffocating to some people, this rigid social structure provides safe harbor to a congregation born and bred on broken homes and absent fathers.
“Pastor Bob instructed us how to have a household account and a savings account, for example,” Bulnes says. “The church had a rule back then that if you wanted to spend over a hundred dollars, you had to consult your husband just to keep the peace. Because some women are so used to being financially independent, they’re used to going out and spending five hundred dollars on a shopping trip. But when you get married, sometimes you need to discuss money with your husband. And he said don’t have separate accounts, ’cause then you’re causing trouble, like ‘This is mine, this is my money.’ He was stressing that two people have to become one. Nobody else was telling us how to do this, like a father does.
“It was tough to learn how to be both a wife and a mother. It used to be just me and my son, and when my husband came in, we all had to learn how to exist together in the same house. It took us about four years to get to the point where we knew each other without pushing each other’s buttons all the time. And before coming to the church, I was living paycheck to paycheck. Saving just wasn’t that important. The premarital counseling really helped us there. My husband was really sweet about it. When he got paid, he would always bring his deposit receipt home and show me what he did with the money. I never had a man do that before, to show me that he wanted me to know where his money was being spent, and it wasn’t going to alcohol.”
Shortly after the marriage, Bulnes decided to run a childcare business out of her home, and began taking classes at Merritt College. But she and her husband had two more children, and raising a family of three set her back for years. Meanwhile, as the feds began shutting down military bases around the Bay Area, her husband struggled to keep his job, first transferring to Mare Island and finally to the post office in West Oakland. They worked hard and hit the discount stores, hoping to save enough money for a mortgage some day. But the more money they put away, the higher home prices soared.
In 1992, fate finally cut Bulnes a break. Her sister-in-law agreed to front them the money for a down payment by refinancing her own home, and Bulnes and her husband bought a house on the San Leandro border. She finally set up her childcare business in 1995 and got her son out of the Oakland public schools by transferring him to San Leandro High. He’s currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree at UC Davis. But Bulnes’ work is far from over. She’s still got two children to raise, and worries that the idle men on the corner, the desperate underclass swirling around the home she sacrificed so much to get, will somehow infect them. She met her husband through Acts Full Gospel and credits the church with teaching her how to build a new life. Still, she’d be lying if she said she was never tempted to leave the city that houses Jackson’s ministry. As she watches so many of her fellow worshipers leave their spiritual homeland for the suburbs, Bulnes knows just how they feel.
“You can go to work and leave your nice house, and you don’t know who’s waiting, watching you, knowing you’re away from home,” she says. “They’re around the corner scoping you out, they see you driving a new car. My kids can’t even go to the corner store unless we go with them. Those are the kinds of things that you look at and think, ‘Oh man, I gotta get out of here.’ “
The stunning rise of Acts Full Gospel is hardly unique in modern America. In the last few years, the nation has witnessed the rise of the megachurch, mostly nondenominational institutions that combine evangelical styles and prosperity preaching with a relentless campaign of youth outreach. The results have been stunning; while the congregations of mainline churches have stagnated and grown increasingly elderly, a wave of young, dynamic, evangelical megachurches has taken root and flourished. The Saddleback Church in Los Angeles boasts a congregation of 15,000, Houston’s Lakewood Church has almost 8,000 worshipers, and Atlanta, Kansas City, and Denver have all seen megachurches rise to dominate their religious landscapes. Not everyone is enamored of the prosperity-preaching tradition found in some of these churches. The practice of promising that God will make you rich, a trend that has spread through evangelical circles, has always left mainline adherents uncomfortable and certainly has dubious roots. In the ’70s, the New York-based televangelist Reverend Ike made a good living promising the poor that faith in Jesus Christ — and hefty contributions to his ministry — would bring them material well-being. His fleet of mink-upholstered Rolls Royces was legendary, as was his stable of mistresses and his promise, “The best thing you can do for the poor is not be one of them.” Critics called Reverend Ike a parasite preying on the poor and ignorant; in 1998, the Suffolk, Massachusetts district attorney’s office investigated Ike for mail fraud. More indulgent observers considered him merely an amusing spectacle.
Oakland had its own rather colorful contribution to the early years of prosperity preaching. From 1943 to his death in 1989, King Louis Narcisse fused Baptist, Pentecostal, and gris-gris traditions into a gumbo of ritual and hagiography at his West Oakland church. Narcisse set about inculcating an entrepreneurial spirit in his parishioners by demonstrating that spirit in the many ways he exploited them. Stories abound of his elaborate rituals to browbeat his flock out of donations as high as $500, or of his practice of buying stale loaves of Wonder Bread for ten cents a pop, blessing them, and reselling them for a dollar. Narcisse’s feet never touched the pavement — an assistant always rolled out a red carpet before he set foot outside his car — and visitors had to approach him on their knees. Rings and furs adorned his body, his house near the Piedmont border was equipped with a spotlight to announce to his flock whenever he was home, and his service was a favorite of black drag queens throughout Oakland.
Sometimes this tradition gets out of hand. Two years ago, Promise Keepers leader and Atlanta-based minister Bruce Wilkinson published The Prayer of Jabez, a runaway best-seller that characterized the Bible as a book of magic spells that would make you rich. Wilkinson found an obscure prayer in the first book of Chronicles and turned it into an entire industry: All you have to do is recite Jabez’s plea with the Lord to “enlarge my territory,” and wealth and good fortune will soon follow. “If Jabez had worked on Wall Street,” Wilkinson writes, “he might have prayed, ‘Lord, increase the value of my investment portfolios.’ ” Wilkinson sold four million copies of his book in 2000 alone, hawks a deluge of inspirational merchandise, and sparked a national debate on whether prosperity preaching is legitimate Christianity or merely the crassest form of bunco.
There’s a world of difference between Jackson and his more mercenary predecessors. Although Jackson makes good scratch and employs his own chauffeur, his ministry is clearly dedicated to the public good and offers some twenty different social programs and charitable initiatives. Still, some local ministers express discomfort with the general notion of prosperity preaching. There’s something essentially ignoble, they say, about thinking of God as a big slot machine and slavering over the payoff. One minister called such preaching “What you can get from God, not what you can do for God.”
Byron Williams, the pastor of Oakland’s Resurrection Community Church and the former head of Allen Temple’s social-justice ministry, is a little more circumspect. “I’m not accusing Acts Full Gospel, but the charismatic prosperity movement as a whole is an Americanization of Christianity that waters the whole message down,” Williams says. “It confuses the flag with the cross. If you’re preaching prosperity, it’s inevitable that if you’re not prosperous, then you’re out of favor with God. Following that logic, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are more saved than the guy who hasn’t worked in two years. Plus it leapfrogs what I would consider the critical message of the gospel. Jesus teaches in Luke that the spirit of the Lord commands you to go among the least of the people. It’s being aware of who my neighbor is. This movement is so concerned with prosperity, you don’t have to be concerned with who my neighbor is anymore.”
Jackson flatly rejects such criticism. “Some people have this thing that you become a Christian and you’re poor and broke and raggedy,” he says. “That’s a lie. People that are Christians and are like that have sworn some sort of poverty oath that causes them to be like that, but the real Christian, the ideal Christian, prays along John 3:2, which says, ‘Beloved, among all things, I wish that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospers.’ That’s really the Christian philosophy. Most religions just deal with the spirit part, but Christians deal with the whole man.”
And yet Jackson agrees with Williams that the real challenge for his church involves its relationship with its neighbors. For those parishioners who have built a new, stable life from nothing, the next step as Jackson sees it is to turn back to the volatile world from whence they came and reach down to those they left behind. It’s an uncomfortable tableau for many of his flock, who look upon their old lives with shame and discomfort. Each Sunday, thousands of former Oakland residents drive from their tract homes and safe streets to 66th Avenue, perhaps the most blighted part of the city. As they cruise past the housing projects where so many of them grew up, do those dismal scenes move their hearts, Jackson wonders, or merely embarrass them? How the newly enfranchised regard their spiritual homeland is the next crossroad in the future of Acts Full Gospel.
Tammy Benson lives with this dilemma more intimately than most. Her childhood was pockmarked with the dysfunction of modern urban living: raised by her grandparents, a father long gone from her life, a mother struggling with substance abuse in the Campbell Village project of Pastor Jackson’s own youth. She and her husband made the hard ride to a modest prosperity in Hayward, and now she returns to the Oakland flatlands of her past to witness for the Lord. As she does, Benson often stumbles upon a friend from her old life, and the awkwardness sets up an ache inside her.
Benson grew up in her grandparents’ house in the Dimond district, where she enjoyed a comparatively sheltered life amid the instability of her friends and siblings. As her mother struggled with substance abuse, Benson graduated from high school and got a job at Safeway, where she met her future husband. When her grandfather was stricken with cancer, she humored her suddenly religious grandmother by following her to church. But she was too busy working on the blunts and booze to care much about Jesus. “I used to go to church with a joint in my purse,” Benson says. “You could smell it, people would sniff and say, ‘What’s that?’ and half the time I was out of it, ’cause I had just come back from a party that night. I had to go to church, ’cause my grandmother was flipping out, but I just thought, ‘I’ll be glad when this is over.’ “
Benson eventually married and she and her husband, who works as a general contractor, moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Hayward. They had a daughter together, but still shared a taste for the high life and kept a well-stocked liquor cabinet. In 1993, Benson was caught cheating on her husband, and the affair nearly destroyed her marriage. After months of separation, her husband came home one day with a startling announcement. He had been to Acts Full Gospel, and the ministry would save their life together. Walking over to the liquor cabinet, he poured its contents down the sink.
“I gave it a shot, because I knew it was the only way my marriage was gonna work,” she recalls. “We was in serious trouble, it was this or the highway. When I got there, I was shocked, ’cause Pastor Bob was so real. Usually, pastors are like, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ And you can’t understand nothing they say. But he was talking everyday talk, like ‘shacking up’ and ‘booty call.’ I’m like, ‘That’s coming out of the Pastor’s mouth?’ I was like, ‘Wow, he’s talking about the word of God, but he’s broken it down so you can understand it.’ “
In just a few visits, Benson was transformed. She spent a year in the sisterhood ministry, learning how to be a wife and live with a man, and she and her husband threw themselves into the rhythm of church life: Sunday services, Tuesday Bible studies, witnessing one Saturday a month. They had a second child together, but as his contracting business expanded and Benson set up a catering gig on the side, even their three-bedroom townhouse apartment was getting cramped. One day, Benson caught a wonderful break: her husband was offered a job overseeing the construction of a lot of five houses in Hayward, and in lieu of cash, the property management company offered them a $100,000 break on one of the homes. Today, Benson and her husband are finishing up the mortgage payments.
But for Tammy Benson and her husband, such blessings mean nothing unless they multiply in the slums of her childhood, and on Saturdays Benson takes the message of the gospel out into the flatlands of Oakland. As she and her fellow parishioners walk through the Campbell Village or Lockwood Gardens projects, dressed in the church’s trademark red and white proselytizing uniforms, she says watching the residents scatter before them is like witnessing the parting of the Red Sea. But when a fellow Skyline alum bumps into her, or she stumbles across a friend from her childhood, Benson stops in her tracks, flustered at the sudden collision of her two incompatible lives.
“Until I came to Acts, I had never been in Lockwood across the way,” Benson says. “And now we witness over there, and it was weird, because I seen some of my old classmates living over there. I didn’t think I was better than them, but wow, it was a trip. And when I go to Campbell Village, I really feel sad for the people who live there, and I want to share the good news of what God has given me. Going down to West Oakland is like going into a ghost town, where the people are walking like zombies. Because the crack and heroin was going on, they were shooting up anywhere. The people there still have that poor man mentality, like the white man got me down — you hate to hear that. ‘Cause it’s you, you got yourself into this. You have to want to strive for better. If you let the welfare system whup you, you don’t think there’s anything else. It’s an awesome experience to go back there and know that that’s no longer a part of your life.
“But you have to do it. If you look back over your past, you’re thankful that it’s not a part of your life today. But I don’t think God will ever let you forget it. You have to look back and see where he’s brought you from.”