The Kingdom and the Power

With real estate savvy and sermons mixing demagoguery and finance tips, Gilbert Thompson has built a megachurch 7,000 souls strong. It’s all for the glory of God, says the Bishop, whose success has created a hell of a lot of earthly clout.

When Bishop Gilbert Thompson preaches in the main hall of Jubilee Christian Church, a 1,250-seat room in a converted supermarket on Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan, he stands so far out on the forward edge of the purple-carpeted stage that he typically has several inches of shoe leather projecting over its lip into space. This seems like a posture that a veteran public speaker would want to avoid, fraught as it is with possibilities for an ankle-spraining pratfall. But Thompson, who takes a little stroll now and again during his hour-long sermon, returns to the edge of the stage or of one of the steps leading up to it almost every time he comes to rest. Sometimes he leaves the front half of one shoe hanging in thin air, sometimes the other, sometimes both. It gives him a sense of momentum, even when he’s standing still.

A spare, upright, unlined man of 60, who looks 30 from a distance and not much older than that up close, Thompson has a commanding presence, at once prophetic and managerial. While he insists that he devotes his attention primarily to the kingdom to come, he’s on a roll these days right here in the world of things. Thirty-four years after coming to Boston, the native Philadelphian has emerged as a star congregation builder among local spiritual leaders, developing Jubilee, formerly known as New Covenant, into a certified megachurch, one of only seven in the state and one of only two black megachurches in all of New England. (The standard qualifying statistic is weekly attendance of more than 2,000.) Thompson’s main hall fills up for all three services on Sundays, with parallel services for children in another room, which means 5,000 souls every week. The number can reach as high as 7,000 on major Christian holidays, and Jubilee’s tracking of donations shows that in 2005 more than 18,000 people gave at least $100. Expecting that continuing growth will require more space for worship and richer sources of income, Thompson has also accumulated a handsome real estate portfolio. This spring, Jubilee bought the defunct Our Lady of the Rosary in Stoughton from the Archdiocese of Boston for $3 million. In that well driven bargain could be heard the grinding of tectonic plates labeled Religion, Culture, and Politics.

Thompson’s success in building up Jubilee has produced leverage felt well beyond his ministry. Especially in his role as president of the Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston, an advocacy group that claims to represent more than 20,000 congregants, he’s often in the news—inveighing against abortion and same-sex marriage, pressuring policy makers to do more to combat violence and poverty in the inner city, giving or denying his blessing to candidates for office. It’s all for the greater glory of God, says Thompson. “All my ambitions are for the church. I vote for presidents, but I have a king.” But even as he tries “to be in the world but not of the world,” Thompson has worked hard to accumulate this-worldly capital in the form of supporters, property, connections, and a public persona to be reckoned with. People don’t pay attention to Thompson’s opinion of, say, Deval Patrick’s candidacy for governor just because they’re impressed by the bishop’s piety. When Thompson preaches, maybe he plants himself on the stage’s edge—a habit of which he claims to be unaware—to remind himself of the fine balance he’s striking.

ON A MILDLY APOCALYPTIC MAY MORNING, the tail end of Boston’s great spring monsoon of 2006 buffets the long ranks of cars in Jubilee’s lot and the yellow-slickered volunteers huddled around the church’s doors. Inside there are more crowd-wranglers, these wearing earpieces and black polo shirts adorned with a shield-shaped Armor Bearers crest over the heart. Flanked by images of himself on wall-mounted screens, Thompson is attired in an episcopal-looking black robe with a fetching shoulder cape, accessorized by a slim ear-mounted microphone. Though it’s Mother’s Day, Thompson will not be preaching about motherhood. “Neither do I preach resurrection messages on Easter. ’Cause I recognize that there are people who only go to church on those days, and if you preach the same kind of message, that’s the only kind of message they’ll think you have.”

The protagonist of today’s sermon is Moses, “a man of deep conviction and deep passion,” as Thompson portrays him. Patient but “explosive,” Thompson’s Moses is the righteous action hero who slew an Egyptian for mistreating an Israelite servant, and who “said, Let the earth open up and swallow you up, not just you but everybody that’s in your family. Moses was rough, y’all.”

Thompson’s a forceful preacher, but he’s a teacher rather than what he calls “a whooper and a sweater.” He stays close to scripture and he likes to cross-reference his theme; he’ll frequently tell his congregants to put a streamer in their Bibles to mark the day’s main text while he leads them off to related passages. They stay right with him, some taking notes. They are, for the most part, well dressed, upwardly mobile, middle-class, young (75 percent are between 25 and 45, according to the church’s own estimate) and black, though there’s also a cohort of Latinos and the occasional white or Asian. During the early phases of the service, before Thompson gets up to preach, some raise their hands and voices or march in place when the spirit moves them. Their responses during his sermon are more muted: applause, amens, calls of yes, yes, yes. The house style of worship, Pentecostal enthusiasm tempered by businesslike propriety, reflects Thompson’s sensibility.

“Though God may not use us like he used Moses,” Thompson says, “he will use us nonetheless. Just like there were people in Moses’s life who were in bondage, there are people in my life who—they may not be in bondage to Egypt, but they’re in bondage to sin, they’re in bondage to hypocrisy, they’re in bondage to craziness, they’re in bondage to all kinds of…liberal thinking”—and here there’s the briefest collective hitch in the audience’s response, which Thompson acknowledges by calling out “a-men” in a way that seems to say We’ve been over this before, people, so stay with me here before continuing—“what we might call politically correct thinking, that leads us nowhere because it is powerless.”

Preaching about an encounter with the divine leads Thompson to the culture wars waged by political operatives. Preaching about eternal life in Christ will bring him to God’s desire for our children to get an education and become doctors and lawyers. An emphasis on moral confidence supplies the binding thread. “If you are to be used by God, you gotta get you some guts.” He has them repeat it aloud: Get you some guts. “Get some conviction, get some passion,” resources they will need in the struggle against militant unbelief. “The ones who are so-called politically correct, they espouse a doctrine. If you withstand them, they’ll look at you like you’re crazy.” He works up to a summation: “You need to believe your beliefs and doubt your doubts.”

So what does Thompson believe? “I believe that God created the heavens and the earth. I believe that God created man in his own image. I don’t believe I evolved and climbed up out of water, grew me some legs—amen—I had to grow kidneys, I had to grow a liver, and it all took place over millions, over eons of years, all by accident.”

He launches into a broad comic riff on the unlikeliness of the first man and woman simultaneously reaching a compatible evolutionary stage, a riff that seems almost willfully ignorant, as if he were going out of his way not to understand the science he’s lampooning. And that might be part of the point. Thompson presents himself at stage’s edge as a paradox: a shrewd shepherd and steward, a man of consequence in matters of land and money and power who knows many things but for whom it must entirely suffice to know just one thing—the literal truth of a creed that often flies in the face of the practical good sense he possesses in abundance.

A FEW DAYS AFTER PREACHING his Mother’s Day sermon, Bishop Thompson sits in his office at Jubilee, wearing an elegant blue suit and sipping yerba maté—which, he says, contains no caffeine, a chemically debatable point not really worth debating unless you begrudge a mild maté jolt to a man who abstains from strong drink, coffee, soda, fried foods, pork, shellfish, and sin. His cell phone and desk phone ring regularly; underlings stick their heads in the doorway to ask and tell him things. He has 11 associate pastors working under him, 43 full-time employees, 26 part-time employees, and more than 500 volunteers. He oversees mission and charity work, fundraising, a school, three bookstores, a recording studio, and Jubilee’s property holdings, which include commercial spaces on Blue Hill Avenue, an office building in Dudley Square, and 25 acres of undeveloped land in Roslindale. He isn’t quite running one of those Christian life-malls that the truly giant Sun Belt megachurches offer, the ones that provide yoga and dry cleaning along with salvation, but the bishop’s a busy man.

Between interruptions, he talks about Jubilee’s growth. Thompson started out in an old church in the South End in 1972, preaching to 41 people. In the 1980s he held services in the Bradford Hotel and the Strand Theater. When he transplanted his congregation to its present home in 1991, it numbered around 600; 15 years, several renovations, and one name change later, more than 10 times as many people attend Jubilee services on Easter Sundays. Sound business practices, not just heartfelt belief, have made it happen. “Follow-up is a keyword,” he says. “It starts on Monday night
catechism class. We try to get those who made a commitment, who came up to the altar on Sunday, to go. We do basics there, then there’s a baptismal class, then Foundations on Tuesday,” a “tripod” of pedagogy that steadies a member’s devotion. “Another key is teachers I can count on, who have been with me a long time.” The associate pastors to whom he delegates important duties include his wife, Yvonne, and two of their adult children.

A pastor cannot win a following solely on the strength of his charisma, says Thompson. “The reason people go to a restaurant is because the food is good. We’re scratching where they itch, meeting needs they have. If I was not married, and I was bangin’ some sisters”—even this merely hypothetical fornication causes his lips to curl in disgust—“people would not be coming to church to sleep with Bishop Thompson. They’re coming because their real needs are being met.”

Hearing Thompson rail against gay marriage or Darwin does not rank high on the list of his congregants’ real needs. If you look for the heart of his ministry in such issue-mongering, you’ll miss it. Look instead at what he consistently teaches about the mechanics of the good life: fiscal as well as moral discipline, an orderly as well as a loving family, success in work, personal efficacy, good health. Thompson, whose church gives financial aid packages to help members get out of debt and educate their children, preaches in favor of home ownership far more regularly and more passionately than he does against abortion.

Thompson promotes the prosperity gospel—sometimes called the “health and wealth” gospel—the God of which tangibly rewards faith with goods and services. While some proponents, including the pastors of many megachurches, reduce it to a crude contract in which believers ante up prayers and tithes to secure late-model cars and svelte physiques, Thompson offers a sober, gratification-deferred variant. Lowell Livezey of the New York Theological Seminary reports sitting in on sessions in which Thompson asked his flock, “How many of you bought a new car last year?” Many raised their hands. “How many bought a house last year?” Only a couple of hands went up. As if calling upon them to abjure false prophets, Thompson said, “Do you know what appreciation is? Sell that car and save up for the house.” Livezey adds, “Notice how slim just about everybody is at Jubilee? It’s like they all just came out of a health club. Ordinarily, you’ll see a lot of obese people in church. But not there.”

Thompson, who has run the Boston Marathon and describes himself as “a health nut,” points out that “when God spoke to the children of Israel in the Old Testament, he gave them dietary laws,” and “Jesus taught more about money than he did about heaven and hell.” Sipping his maté, he says, “God is not anti-success. He is the God of the poor, but that doesn’t mean, as some believe, that God wants us to be poor.” Thompson and his family live well but not extravagantly. Money seems to matter to him to the extent that he can use it to expand his church. If he has a temptress, it’s power, not wealth.
Thompson’s belief in faith-based self-improvement distances him from the community-mindedness that was central to the civil rights movement. “A community is made up of families, and families are made up individuals, and at some point you help individuals. At the end of the day, I want to see some people helped that I can name, not a line of statistics that says we spent this much money on this program or that one. If that’s what’s described as conservative, then I am.”

Mukiya Baker-Gomez, a veteran Democratic strategist and now chief of staff for state Representative Gloria Fox, sees Jubilee as typical of black churches that no longer pursue one of their traditional missions. “Jubilee doesn’t do community organizing. Instead, there’s a lot more attention to individual development, but I don’t think individual development relates to responsibility to the community. When I was coming up, most every church in Boston had a social action committee that engaged people in their community and trained them in political and civic action. That doesn’t exist anymore.” Although Baker-Gomez characterizes Bishop Thompson as “a star supporter of Romney,” she’s inclined to view him as largely apolitical. Judged by her standards, “he’s been somewhat conservative about getting into politics.”

But the nature of a megachurch’s mega-ness—the sheer numbers of citizens and dollars and square feet involved, the emphasis on growth as a cardinal virtue—tends to thrust its leader into the public sphere (and, often, to blunt the more uncompromising edges of his theology). Thompson’s achievements as a religious leader have pulled him deeper into politics. As president of the Black Ministerial Alliance, a position he has held since 2004, he must get a theologically and politically diverse group to speak with one voice. Charged with representing mainline liberals as well as the conservative evangelicals like himself who have begun to supplant them, the master congregation builder has to match his signature forcefulness with tact.

“THE WHOLE NORTHEAST is just beginning to deal with the fact of large numbers of evangelicals. They’re not tremendously powerful yet here, but their power has been increasing, and in 25 years they will be even more so,” says Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary. The flourishing of New England’s first cohort of megachurches has special significance in an era when conservative evangelical credentials command particular political respect. Campaign consultants, the media, and grant-making government agencies all pay serious attention to a minister who can influence several thousand motivated, upwardly mobile, committed voters. And Thompson’s coziness with Governor Romney will gain him even greater clout if Romney makes a credible run for the White House in 2008. Put that together with the emergence of the so-called New Boston as a majority-minority city and the decline of entrenched religious powers, and you begin to appreciate how expertly Thompson has picked his way through a social landscape in upheaval.

With his purchase of Our Lady of the Rosary—which is getting an upgraded sound system and rows of folding chairs to replace the pews, thereby nearly tripling its capacity—Thompson seized on an opportunity decades in the making. Though linked in the public mind with the Catholic church’s sex abuse scandal, the closing of parishes can actually be traced to the suburbanization and increasing prosperity of white-ethnic Catholics after World War II. James O’Toole, a Boston College historian and former archivist for the archdiocese, says, “Like most American dioceses, Boston put off for as long as it could facing this problem of big church ‘plants’ built by and for immigrant populations that had long since moved away.” This failure to face demographic facts had political consequences. “The church here did have real influence in the early 20th century, and could sway voters and turn them out for the polls, but starting in the ’50s and ’60s, the church doesn’t try the direct political approach as much, and it doesn’t work as well when it does.”

Entrepreneurial Protestants like Thompson have begun to fill the power vacuum. As he makes his move, Thompson has kept in mind the example of his father, who imbibed the bootstrap philosophy of Booker T. Washington as a student at Tuskegee. Like his father, Thompson has made sure whenever possible to own the land he’s standing on, which makes the footing a lot less precarious. “Real estate, real property,” he says, “is like a part of my DNA.”

By carefully attending to worldly as well as spiritual business, Thompson has built an institution on a scale to match his ambitions. His legacy, he hopes, will be “a church without walls,” a phrase he says he “heard” years ago while praying. “It starts with the spiritual,” he says, “and then out of that comes economic development, social and political strength. Now, I’d part company with my liberal Democratic brethren on how to do it. They look to the government, but I think African Americans need to build strength for themselves, the way the Koreans, the Chinese, the Jewish did it.”
In the course of elaborating this vision during the conversation in his office, Thompson brings up two popular movies that, taken together, say a great deal about him. One is Field of Dreams, in which a man of stubborn faith heeds a disembodied voice and ends up meeting a need felt so deeply by so many people that he causes a traffic jam not unlike those you’ll find on Blue Hill Avenue on Sunday mornings. “‘If you build it, they will come,’” says the bishop, smiling a little. The other movie he mentions is The Godfather. “When they come to the wedding, they all bring money,” and he smiles a little when he says this, too.

Carlo Rotella is the author of Cut Time: An Education at the Fights. He is director of American Studies at Boston College.