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Speak to my Heart
Communities of Faith and Contemporary African American Life.

Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture

Interview with Maurice Jenkins,
Union Temple Baptist Church



Maurice Jenkins

"...The mural speaks to us, visually seeing Christ in ourselves, God in ourselves, God in us, God in our children, God in our people..."

William Jelani Cobb: Union Temple Interview, July 20th, 1994 -- July 21st, 1994, Maurice Jenkins. How long have you been a member of Union Temple?
MR. JENKINS: I've been a member of Union Temple since nineteen eighty-three, eleven years.
William Jelani Cobb: How long have you been in this area?
MR. JENKINS: I've been in the D.C. area since 1979, I came as a student, Howard University School of Architecture, I pretty much migrated here ever since.

Jenkins' 1985 Howard University Thesis Project
William Jelani Cobb: Well, what brought you to Union Temple?
MR. JENKINS: The first time I came to Union Temple, my organization... at Howard University, had us come in the first Sunday on our trail period and the trail period group do a certain amount of community service, and Union Temple was one of the stops we had to make. What I found to be so unique about Union Temple when I came here was the fact that the first level of the church -- old church, it had two levels. When I walked through and shut the door, the first person I saw was Minister Farrakhan, a picture of I think Dr. King and a number of other Civil Rights heroes in the African American community. And I found that to be somewhat unique in a black church (inaudible) and I remember rushing up to the second level to find this black Christ because I just knew that was a mistake and at the time we had, you know, I think they had no image for sure in that arch, and at that time I considered myself making that contribution to that church as a black person.
William Jelani Cobb: So would you say that the Union Temple is a unique church?
MR. JENKINS: Oh, there's no question I think the Union Temple is unique in that through Reverend Wilson's ministry he's been able to preserve the unique African culture which I think is a legacy, not only speak in terms of it but helping them to institutionalize it into the fabric of the whole church, so there's no question that Union Temple is unique and, also in its emphasis on moving toward being socially active in the community, making a difference in the community, so it's a very unique institution.
William Jelani Cobb: Do you remember what Reverend Wilson talked about that first day you were there?
MR. JENKINS: Right, I can remember exactly what he said. Reverend Wilson spoke in terms of us needing -- the sermon was based on we need some more spiritual (inaudible) , and I said, "What?" I said, "Wait a minute, every Muslim who's up and knowing about forgiving sermons that themes in the sermon, it's going to be catchy and it's going to hold your eye to see how he's going to prove his thesis." So as he began to talk about why we need spiritual (inaudible) he tied it into the fact that a lot of times we get out and go into the system, they become old, you become, they begin to say the things that they normally wouldn't say, so basically elevating or subliminal or conscious level, the way you turn the spiritual we need to be able to submit and give up the ego, so to speak, and to get a higher consciousness, and he just basically said that you need to be more (inaudible) or your convictions.
William Jelani Cobb: What role does Union Temple play in your life spiritually, socially, educationally?
MR. JENKINS: I think spiritually, Union Temple during the time I've been affiliated with the church and as a student at Howard University, at a time at the university when it wasn't necessarily a popular thing to hold on to your Afrocentric roots yourself. Spiritually, it's good to be able to go to Union Temple every Sunday, be able to maintain and put my education, my life, in perspective. Spiritually, Union Temple has been there through all facets of my life since I've been in this area, being that I graduated Howard University, was married by Reverend Wilson (inaudible) performed our ceremony and that was a neat African ceremony. He was the primarily just being an institution that's been there all walks of my life, birth of all my kids.
William Jelani Cobb: I was, we can talk about that a little bit more how was your ceremony done or yeah, how was it received and what did Reverend Wilson do that was in the African tradition?
MR. JENKINS: Well, primarily I think the first African ceremony, I saw a friend of mine -- two friends of mine _______got married, and I remember the ceremony being so dramatic and being very much about our culture, and I don't know if you've seen an African wedding. If you've seen an African wedding, you recognize that this is truly us and truly our life, and this is truly the way we as a people should perform such a sacred part of our lives. And I knew that me and my wife, after seeing that wedding, that at the time we weren't married but we said that when we did get married we would (inaudible) that ceremony. As for our particular wedding, I was received under the -- a lot of people in South Carolina were just curious because a lot of them hadn't seen an African wedding, and my father, being an African history teacher, he was ecstatic, very happy. My mother was (inaudible) not knowing what to expect, she just wanted (inaudible) once we performed the ceremony and Reverend Wilson (inaudible), and Reverend Wilson has always been one who has such a spirit, a powerful spirit, that I don't care where he is with anything people conform to his tradition the way he performs, and so once he went there and people realized how powerful and strong the sermon 100 percent of the people came to me afterwards and told me how powerful it was how beautiful it was and people that were married 25, 30 years said they feel like they were cheated out of a wedding ceremony because they didn't have (inaudible). Reverend Wilson went on to the explanation of the circle, the 360 degrees, and the meaning of the (inaudible) tasting the bitter of herbs and explaining the bitter periods and the hard times (inaudible) wedding ceremony, so it was a powerful sermon.
William Jelani Cobb: You said there were -- Union Temple was there at the birth of one of your children as well?
MR. JENKINS: Right.
William Jelani Cobb: How could you say that your membership to the church has influenced your family life?
MR. JENKINS: I think it is has influenced it . I would say maybe (inaudible) in that both me and my wife are members of Union Temple. And I don't care what situation that you are going through in reference to the family, marriage, (inaudible) marriage in the African tradition it takes a village should raise a child, even the performance of our wedding was in the spirit of two families coming together. Our union was supposed to be a part of the broader community so in that breadth and in that spirit I think that if you and the church and the facility and you have people around you that encourage that union to stay together, particularly in the hard times you don't have someone on the outside baiting you to go outside of the marriage, or somebody saying Oh you and Steph are having problems you should leave her or whatever peer pressure means a lot but if the village speaks positively or you and positively or your union and constantly encouraging that union you would stick together an of course it will play an impact on your life and marriage. So I think that Union Temple being here for us is a positive institution and it's a place where we can go (inaudible) union of a spiritual and physical.
William Jelani Cobb: Have you brought many friends into the membership?
MR. JENKINS: Oh, yes, anybody I can talk to Union Temple about, and I always speak in terms of, you know, my particular ministry and that's being as a visual artist, I talk about things I've done for the church. Many of people have talked to me after they have been members of the church they have talked about the impact the mural played in reference to them joining the church. Visually, when they walk through the door, they feel at home and they see the ancestors communion with us within the sanctuary, they can not help but feel(inaudible) then once Reverend Wilson speaks, that leadership is profound and it's definitely a magic that's a power that's happening there, and I always speak in terms of with the mural, the total feeling and atmosphere that you get in the church. The mural is stagnant because you've got these powerful voices breathing life into it, and when the choir sings it's like the mural moves, so they breathe life into the piece, and like I said, with Reverend Wilson's dynamic ministry, I think that the power is in -- has played an important role in bringing new members into the church.
William Jelani Cobb: I'd like to talk about the mural a little bit more. How did it come into existence, how did that project get conceptualized?
MR. JENKINS: It goes back to the original church, I guess that first day when I came into the church and rushed up to the upper level to see what I felt would be a black Christ up there, and after seeing that it didn't exist I submitted a proposal of what the Christ could look like and I think within -- it had to have been a week or two weeks after submitting it to the Reverend Wilson he said go for it, I slept in the church about two or three days the following Sunday the mural was up.

Everybody saw the mural for the first time and I gathered -- I would say 90 percent of the members embraced the mural, embraced the concept. Later on I heard that there were some members that left because of it and I think in any process there is a weed-out process, I guess (inaudible) whether they saw God in themselves. And that's what the mural speaks to us visually seeing Christ in ourselves, God in ourselves, God in us, God in our children, God in our people. Once you begin to understand that whole concept, then it cannot help but transform and elevate the man your spiritual consciousness, take us to a higher level, take us to the level that Malcolm was on, take us to the level that Dr. King was on, take us to the level that anybody within this country, anybody that elevated to a spiritual. Once you make that spiritual connection, then you recognize that you too have a particular ministry, a role to play in the spiritual (inaudible).

William Jelani Cobb: So you were there and to that in three days?
MR. JENKINS: Right, something like that. The first one. The first mural at the old church.
William Jelani Cobb: Okay.
MR. JENKINS: Okay, now after that -- after we moved out of the old church, Reverend Wilson said that we will be in the process of building a new church and we will definitely commissioned to do the large mural in the sanctuary. So out of that experience we recognized that we were going to do a Lord's Supper that embraced twelve traditionally African leaders, and I think we had about 50 to 60 names submitted among the members, and the members selected the top twelve who we wanted to see reflected on the wall.

One thing that's unique about the mural immediately is the fact that most of the Lord's Supper mural that you see a woman is never depicted (inaudible). You know, the ministry itself, you know, we don't find that being biased towards the woman at all. We recognized the role of the black woman in nation building . Out of that experience the members chose the mural, the members (inaudible) and once we decided who was going to be in the mural it was just a matter of actually coming up with the concept (inaudible) and it took me a month and a half and I actually slept in the church a month and a half.

William Jelani Cobb: So were there some particular challenges in putting that piece together?
MR. JENKINS: Well, the greatest challenge was the height, you know, I'm not one that's crazy about heights. I'm not crazy about heights, so when I originally finished doing all of the twelve people that are seated at the table, the last step was to go thirty feet up in the air on the scaffolding that was shaking constantly, and paint the Christ. And originally, when I went up that first time I said, "Oh, my God, it looks like I'm going to tell (inaudible) I might not do this."

And as I was coming back down, looking dead in Harriet Tubman's face, you know, and it was the kind of a look that, you know, motivated the slaves that was moving at night, you know. I mean, I just could see her telling me now to, "Look, young man, if I could go in cold, dodging bullets, dodging dogs, to go back and get three hundred slaves in the middle of the night and save our people, then you sure enough can get up on that scaffolding." (Inaudible) If you look at the painting she holding a riffle so the same motivation she gave the slaves to move through the south, I got that same motivation the courage to continue to do the work. I mean the whole piece was a very spiritual experience.

Everybody that....the only time I felt alone in the room in the church was maybe the first night after the sketch of the image of Christ, which was the first Christ image I did, I mean, I could sense the present of Christ spirit and doing Malcolm. Each one of those people I invoked their spirit by basically reading literature on them, constantly talking about the (inaudible), having a tape playing of Malcolm's speeches, doing everything to invoke the spirit of feeling spirits, so nothing was more rewarding than to just create that image and then seeing them smile back at you and realizing they'd be celebrating in a monumental way.

Likewise with Dr. King when it came to Dr. King, his speeches and seeing him smile back at you and seeing (inaudible) going through that same process with all the images on the wall, being that they all were never in a room at one time, they never sat at a table at one time, you know, it was just good to see them sitting down in unison and, you know, in the African world view you recognize the power of the ancestors, so basically, you know, psychologically and spiritually you're looking at those images and looking at those people constantly every day and their support -- if you look at each one of them, all of them have a testimony to the African experience. So, you know, most of the times when people come to the church they can't help but embrace it because most people out of the twelve are people that we selected, embraced one of them and their philosophy in some form or fashion.

The greatest challenge, I think at one time where I think the devil came into play, you know, sleeping in the church, I mean, the spiritual elevation that I got at that time was tremendous. I'm nobody outside of that church, I'm just basically in tune with this project, what I'd doing. I remember one night I was preaching, I said, "Well, you know, am I doing the right thing, I'm I playing with the Bible for some reason I began to question what I was doing and if it was the right thing to do. I had a brother come in there, Brother (inaudible). At the time, he was fasting.

I had the doors locked, and to this day I don't know how he got in there, but I had a whole lot of spiritual revelations, people coming in and just say the right thing and keep motivating, but he came in there 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, I don't know how he got in there, I was the only person in the church, the church was locked. I was sitting back there, studying the mural and, like I said, contemplating whether I was doing the right thing, and I looked over my shoulder and he looked like Christ coming in, if you've ever seen Brother , he's big and he just look like Christ (inaudible) and he looked like he was just floating.

And you should have seen me jump because I thought it was -- I mean, it looked like Christ coming in, and so he came in there, he said -- I said -- he said, "Brother, God sent me here." I said, "What?" He said, "Brother, God sent me." I said, "What are you talking about, man?" He said, "Brother, God sent me." I said, "Well, that's funny you should say that because I'm sitting up here wondering whether I'm doing the right thing." And then he said brother and you think about how many black kids that have been baptized, as soon as they lift up from the water they look at their black mama, they look at their black daddy, look at their black selves, and all -- and then peek up and look at that European Christ and all the spirituality, all the godliness that they feel about themselves, just leaves their body. Because they don't see God in themselves, God is always outside of the self, outside of these experiences. He said, "You know, now you're transforming and revolutionizing the whole institution of the church, whereas our kids begin to celebrate themselves and see God in themselves," so I mean just that alone the statement of what he said was enough to elevate me and to get up there and go.

William Jelani Cobb: What role do you think history and dance and other cultural aspects should play in religious services?
MR. JENKINS: I think the role of history and dance is extremely important in religious ceremonies, particularly as African people. I think that as we go back to the history in this country, you think about the drum. The drum was taken out of the black church initially when the slaves were brought over here, particularly because they recognized the communication it had. So the slave masters, so to speak, took it out of the institutions as a mechanism to control the slaves, control the people.

So I feel like dance is extremely -- culture is extremely important in the ministry. With that in place, that's the thing that's going to elevate our people to another level. So I guest I feel it's extremely important for the black church in particular, because we are very cultured and spiritual people. So any church that does not celebrate that I think it is to some degree cold and being motivated from the European perspective.

William Jelani Cobb: What are your most memorable experiences since you joined Union Temple?
MR. JENKINS: Most memorable experiences. I think one of my most memorable experiences, of course, would always be my marriage, my wedding. The christening at my church. Always the man's day and woman's day programs are always powerful, just seeing the black men come together in unison, and the woman's day program, seeing black women that would normally might not have on their traditional garments, just seeing themselves (inaudible), you know, without question, recognize the greatness of -- that we have as a people.

The program in particular I think is very powerful is Minister Farrakhan came to the Union Temple. I think that sermon was powerful in the fact that in listening to him (inaudible) traditional black churches away from the Nation of Islam, and to see Minister Farrakhan sitting there and experiencing this particular church and seeing the African culture, I'll never forget the expression on Minister Farrakhan's face when the black men came marching in and it just looked like an army, just seeing an army, just seeing the brothers, and it makes you think that traditionally pretty much been a strong African American community, "Look at this army, we got another army coming up out of the black church," you know, having the brothers from the Nation tell me about the experience when Minister Farrakhan came in privately to the church, and how he said (inaudible) spend about twenty minutes just studying the mural.

And he also reiterated that to me when he came here one day, like I said, and he told me about how powerful it was, and I spoke to his old ministry and he's been trying to black church (inaudible).


Cartoon of a 26 feet by 13 feet mural located at Ebeneezer AME church in Fort Washington, Maryland.

So I think that the greatest fear that, you know, black people -- white people have and other people who are trying to keep the black man the low person on the totem pole, they realize that once we begin to understand who we are and that we were the first people, they realize that we'll definitely be elevated spiritually. The other thing they fear so much is that the Nation of Islam, who would always talk about the black man being God, they realize there's really not too much distinction between the black churches now and the Nation of Islam.

What this concept of a black Christ then again, we do the same thing is the elevation of our people in understanding our unique riches and that Christ came out of the African experience. So we know that that's an empowering spirit, that's why you got to take that away from the slaves, if the slaves realize that there's any God -- anything godly about him or Christ-like about him, that he would elevate himself immediately and begin to teach the slaves that he's always been a race of cannibals of pagans and, you know, what the Christian missionaries have always told our people. So once you understand yourself spiritually you cannot help but liberate -- be liberated as a person.

Other thing that sticks out in my mind is two years ago, an experience we had when all the black men in our church, I think about a hundred-plus black men got together, and we the Fourteenth Street Bridge. What was so powerful about that experience, I think, is that we realized what a hundred men could do, we pretty much shut the city down, really, 20-mile back-up of the cars. And the spiritual elevation that we felt, I know me personally in my mind, I cannot help but think that if Dr. King was feeling this way every time he was putting his life on the line, it was just such a spiritual high.

When you know -- you don't know what's going to happen. You don't know if this is your last stand, you don't know if you'll be shot down on the bridge, you don't know what it was, but when you overcome that fear then the quality of your life changed dramatically. So spiritually, you know, just having the black men come together in that way is very powerful.

William Jelani Cobb: How did you feel about the move from the old building to the new one?
MR. JENKINS: I felt that very proud of the move but I think that, you know, pretty much we had long outgrown the smaller church, I think. Physically, we could not getpeople in the church. It got to the point where you had to almost come an hour and 30 minutes to be seated for the services. So just in reference to a larger facility, I thought it was positive in that sense. And I felt we could reach a whole lot more people in that facility.
William Jelani Cobb: Do you miss anything about the old building?
MR. JENKINS: Not really. Other than the fact that it is a facility, I mean, as in Christendom the buildings.
William Jelani Cobb: What do you feel should be the role of elders in the church?
MR. JENKINS: I think the elders should -- when you think about the traditions of African culture, the elders have always been important in the decision-making community, just based on the experience that they've had, the wisdom that they have. So within the church structure I think should sensitive to elders.
William Jelani Cobb: The last question is how has the church changed over the years that you've been a member?
MR. JENKINS: I think primarily Union Temple is so what the same, the philosophy, the role, social conscience. I think the church has changed in that the membership has grown and I think we've been able to reach a lot broader spectrum of the community. And I think the church is constantly growing and I think that it has influenced other religious institutions tremendously. I mean, again it's going back to what I consider my major ministry, arts and architecture, in embracing other churches. I can see how they have in turn been influenced by the ministry of Union Temple and beginning to recognize Afro-centric role in the religions.
William Jelani Cobb: Well, thank you for sharing your experiences with me. It excites me and I appreciate it.

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