JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA —The outdoor arena is pulsing under the blinding African sun. Yolanda Adams has already inspired, the Zulu dancers have come and gone, and now arms are in the air, feet moving to the lilting, powerful South African beat, the rumble of tens of thousands of shouts and songs and prayers roll across the packed lawn toward the stage.
Then, to the podium, walks Bishop T.D. Jakes.
“Wow,” he says, looking outward over Soweto’s Expo Centre. “As far as the eye can see….”
The crowd erupts. Jakes’s appearance had broken all attendance records for this convention complex on the outskirts of the township famous for its anti-Apartheid struggle. Well over 100,000 people had bought tickets, and thousands of others camped outside the gates, just within listening distance. With his sermons playing regularly on cable here and his books appealing to a new, upwardly mobile generation of Black South Africans, “T.D.,” as the bishop is known in these parts, is a hero.
“I’ve got to tell you,” he continues, “when I said I was going to take MegaFest to Johannesburg and hold it in Soweto, people thought I was crazy … But when I look out and see the smiles and the joy and the peace and the power on your faces, I know this is a God thing and not just a good thing.”
Jakes’s MegaFest festival started in Atlanta in 2004. Within three years, it had grown into one of the most widely attended religious events in America, as well as one of the largest gatherings of African-Americans. But this year, the Bishop says, he wanted something different. He wanted to give Americans like Vonetta Sewell the chance to know Africa.
“When he first mentioned it, I knew it was like a dream trip come true,” said Sewell, who, after paying down the trip for a year, flew to South Africa with her husband from Coolidge, Georgia. “All my life I wanted to get here. I never knew how. When he started talking about doing MegaFest, I knew it was going to be a blessing.”
More than 1,000 Americans–many of them single women, eager to visit the continent as part of a safe, family-like group–bought package deals starting at $4,998 to accompany Jakes on this trip. Dozens of health care professionals also volunteered their time as part of MegaCARE, a new philanthropic feature of MegaFest focusing on HIV/AIDS services and poverty alleviation in South Africa and Swaziland.
Tasha Riley of Tulsa, Oklahoma, worked two jobs–the first at a call center from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., the second as a cashier from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.–to save up enough money to join Jakes for the week. Her flight was on Thursday; she finished paying off the trip Wednesday at 5 p.m. Others, like Linda and George Harrison of North Wales, Pennsylvania, saw MegaFest International as their way to discover historic African nations.
“We wanted to see Africa,” Linda Harrison says. “And Bishop–the whole MegaFest festival–opened our eyes to this continent.”
Stephanie Hanes is a freelance journalist on location in Johannesburg, South Africa, and has written about southern and central Africa for a variety of publications.