Akili Ron Anderson will never forget the church deacon.

A committee from one of the city's black churches was visiting the Washington artist in his studio to check on a stained-glass window. One of the deacons looked at a window depicting a black man, and said, "Why, that looks just like a spook! Look at this nose! What are you trying to do here?"

Anderson was taken aback. The man speaking, Anderson remembers, "looked as if he had just walked out of Africa." Yet he was describing the physical features of his own race in a manner filled with self-hatred. The other church members froze momentarily with embarrassed looks on their faces. Then they interceded. "Look, brother," they patiently explained to the deacon, who was a newcomer to the project. The images in the window were supposed to be black.

This is the complex world that Anderson plunged into when he began creating new paintings, sculptures and stained glass for black churches in the Washington area more than a decade ago. In that world there is sudden soul-searching, loud and quiet debate that at its essence boils down to the image we have of God and the image we have of ourselves. What does an angel's hair look like? Are saints black? What color is God?

For more than a decade now a grass-roots effort has quietly created new images for African American churches around the country. In some cases the congregations are replacing windows and other religious art after having purchased churches or synagogues originally occupied by whites who have fled to the suburbs. In others, new construction provides opportunities to create a place of worship that reflects the congregation's racial heritage.

But there is seldom agreement among a diverse set of members about how such changes should occur. Sometimes the schism is between the pastor and congregation. At other times the rift is generational. Younger members tend to support the creation of newer depictions (sometimes along with the addition of R&B- and rap-influenced gospel music), while older members are not ready for such a shift in their world order after a lifetime of seeing a white, longhaired Jesus in their churches, homes, Bibles and Sunday school lesson books.

"Invariably, there is a debate, and then I get in the middle of it," says Anderson. "I'm trying to get the contract and make a living. But I also want to create images that will be of service to my people."

Since 1985, Anderson has completed seven art projects -- five windows, one sculpture and one painting -- at churches in the Washington area.

Look up when inside the John Wesley AME Zion Church, at 14th and Corcoran streets NW, and there is a square, nine-paneled skylight with golds, reds and deep blues. At its center is a family of angels with stylized wings comprised of intricate African motifs.

Above the entrance at Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast, a vibrant window of blocks, ribbons and zigzags of color resembling Ghanaian kente cloth rises 20 feet to the ceiling.

An Anderson portrait of a black Saint Augustine and his mother, Saint Monica, stands in stark contrast to white biblical figures on the other stained-glass windows at St. Augustine Catholic Church on 15th Street in Northwest.

A window in tribute to three Howard University deans in the school's Rankin Chapel includes intricate glass portraits of the three men.

A wall relief sculpture for the former New Home Baptist Church on Holmead Street in Northwest (which now belongs to a Mormon congregation) transformed a bare wall behind the pulpit into 22-foot-long depiction of the Last Supper.

"Everyone who visited the church was taken aback by it," said Willie L. Morris, chairman of the trustee board for the church, which has since relocated to a much larger edifice in Landover. "We wish we could have taken it with us, but we couldn't.

"It was very important to us that we have a black artist," Morris adds. "All the other Last Supper pictures we'd seen were always in a white framework."

The change in church artwork is only the most visible manifestation of long-developing debates in black Christian circles among the laity, clergy and theologians that challenge the representation of Jesus as the white man rendered by European artists.

Referring to certain biblical descriptions, some claim that Jesus was a black man. Even if he was not black, others believe he was what we now call a person of color. Some clergy point out that Christians in all parts of the world have created images of biblical figures to match their racial heritage.

"To use Malcolm X's words, black people in many cases have been so fooled, hoodwinked and bamboozled that they have come to find as distasteful a Christ that looks like them," says the Rev. George A. Stallings, pastor of Imani Temple and archbishop of the nationwide African American Catholic Congregation, which he founded. Stallings says that within his own church, which has been at the forefront of creating a new depiction of Christ, there were murmurs of disapproval about Anderson's painting of a black Christ.

"I can remember there were some who thought he was too dark or some who said he looked too much like the artist himself," Stallings says. Some people, he says, have come to believe that the popular pictures of a blond Jesus are in fact literal portraits of a man never depicted in his life. "In Asia, India, every culture around the world that celebrates Christianity, you will find that they have created an image of Jesus that looks like them. Black folks are the last ones to arrive on the scene.

"I feel {Anderson} should be recognized for the monumental contribution he has made," says Stallings. "In the end, he has triumphed because his work has ennobled and enhanced the black church." Anderson, a 52-year-old soft-spoken man who has long been a fixture in the city's black arts circles, is both a likely and unlikely candidate to redefine religious art.

Like many of his generation, he grew up attending church. He remembers Sunday and weekday services in the gloomy chapel of Simpson Methodist Church on 13th Street, with its dark wood and stained glass that had muddied over time. It is difficult for him to picture the stained-glass windows there. The only thing he remembers is that he didn't like them.

"I remember looking away from it," he says, sitting near his work table at his home-studio in Northwest. "It was an uncomfortable feeling," just as uncomfortable and foreign as his lessons at school that showed him only white children. There was a story about a Dutch boy sticking his finger in a dike to prevent the town from flooding. The students drew pictures of the Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria.

There were no black people.

But there was plenty of real black life at church. As a preadolescent, he was so impressed and moved by church as a place of spirituality and community that the first painting he ever completed was of a preacher.

Anderson and his contemporaries, as college students in the mid-'60s, would be in the vanguard of a movement to challenge curriculum, mass media and all image-making that denigrated or excluded blacks and other people of color. He recalls that even at Howard, he and other arts students could be suspended if they played jazz, rather than European classical music, in the school's practice rooms. Then, as now, they despaired over the lack of monuments on the campus dedicated to historic Africans and African Americans.

Upon leaving school, he helped found the artists collective Africobra, which still exists and is dedicated to an African-inspired aesthetic. Another collective he helped to create, GABA, promotes the idea that the close of the century is a golden age of black art. He was also as one of the founders of the Watoto School, an independent, African-centered institution in Northwest.

Anderson's is also a generation that has criticized the black church and abandoned it when it seemed reluctant to take a radical stand on matters of race and politics. Many of Anderson's peers have gravitated toward African-based religions. Today, as he sits and considers images of black angels that he has created, he admits that traditionally imagined angels do not play an important part in his spiritual faith, "but I think it's important for black children sitting in churches all over this country on Sunday morning to look up at windows, look up at images and see themselves and believe that they can ascend to Heaven, too."

Robert Nash, an Oxon Hill-based architect who has completed a number of churches and has also worked with Anderson, says Anderson understands the spiritual environment that black churches are seeking. "He can marry the spiritual and the ethnic," says Nash. "That's what he represents."

Anderson first began carving at Howard when he and other students took over the administration and fine arts buildings during a sit-in. He would sit and carve. He wasn't in class. He left without his degree. Twenty years later, after years of working and exhibiting as an artist, he took on a church project, almost as a fluke. An architect he knew asked for some replacement capitals for columns that had been badly damaged by fire at the John Wesley AME Zion Church. Five years later, in 1985, the church hired him to make his first stained glass window.

Since then, he's learned some things. He gets few requests for images of a black Christ crucified, and he is convinced that this is because it reminds his clients of lynchings. He is often intrigued and amused by the idiosyncrasies of black churches working with a black businessman. Some cannot believe he actually makes the stained glass himself.

He has come to think of his work as monument building, leaving permanent images in buildings that will last long after he is gone. He says it took centuries to instill in black people the belief that their images were unattractive. It took centuries to give rise to a generation -- his -- that could shout, "Black is beautiful!" Anderson is convinced that the greatest compliment an ordinary black person -- not an artist, a critic or a competition judge -- gives his work is to look, see his or her own face, and -- even in this age of BET, black magazines and proliferating black art galleries -- say, "Hmmmmm. That's different." CAPTION: "It's important for black children sitting in churches all over this country on Sunday morning to look up at . . . images and see themselves and believe that they can ascend to Heaven, too," says stained-glass artist Akili Ron Anderson. ec CAPTION: Akili Ron Anderson's stained-glass window triptych contains intricate glass portraits of three deans of Howard University's Rankin Chapel. for page 9 ec CAPTION: Stained-glass artist Anderson works on a window at the John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, at 14th and Corcoran streets NW. ec