LOS ANGELES -- His late father's dream of a headquarters for the nation's largest black denomination is the jewel in the crown of the reign of the Rev. T.J. Jemison as president of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. Inc.
"That must be our Vatican. That must be our center of strength," Jemison said as he pleaded for funds at the denomination's 110th annual meeting here this week.
The $10 million World Baptist Center, which has a 162-foot spire, 3,000-seat auditorium and 300-seat choir loft, is still not paid for although it was dedicated with great fanfare in June 1989 in Nashville.
Its critics say the building is a monument to one man's ego, reviving the age-old controversy of whether church money should be spent on buildings or people.
"It is a travesty when we see the problems of drug abuse, teenage parenting" and other social ills, said Cain Felder, professor of New Testament at Howard Divinity School and the author of "Troubling Biblical Waters: Race, Class and Family."
Felder said the center, with its "palatial" offices and prominently displayed portraits of Jemison, is a symbol of how the denomination has not fulfilled its potential for social change as the nation's largest black institution.
"It is a sleeping giant that tends to remain asleep. When it tends to wake up, it is filled with gross overindulgence," Felder said.
But even critics concede that the headquarters, the first of its kind for a black church body, is a tribute to the remarkable charismatic powers of Jemison.
Jemison's father, elected president of the Baptist convention in 1941, was not able to realize his dream of giving the denomination an architectural monument of its own. Blind and in failing health, the Rev. D.V. Jemison was forced out of office by the Rev. Joseph H. Jackson in 1953, but not before he ensured his son was installed as general secretary of the denomination.
T.J. Jemison had to wait 29 years before Jackson was ousted from office. As the new president in 1982, he set out to build a headquarters that would rival the buildings long taken for granted by predominantly white denominations.
In so doing, he may have permanently altered the way the denomination's 32,000 churches give financial support to the 7.8 million-member Baptist convention.
Jemison has made it clear that annual contributions as low as $50 no longer will be acceptable, and he has tried to recruit 100,000 "Baptist builders" to give at least $10 a month to pay off the $7 million still owed on the building.
On Tuesday, Jemison devoted half of the denomination's board of directors' meeting to taking up a collection for the center, raising half of a $1 million fund-raising goal he had set.
He continued to ask for money at the general convention Wednesday.
"Don't walk around with the money in your pocket," Jemison told the delegates. "Don't get too happy and keep it to Friday."
Forrest Harris, director of a black church institute at Vanderbilt Divinity School, also in Nashville, said Jemison has a clear agenda for addressing social problems. But black Baptists have not made up their minds about Jemison's administration, he said, "because so much energy has been invested in the building of the World Baptist Center."
Jemison said the center will be a catalyst for social action, a place where the homeless, drug abusers and people with AIDS will be cared for.
The headquarters also is a symbol of new independence for National Baptists, Jemison said.
"It's not for Jemison. It's not my ploy," he said Tuesday as a steady stream of delegates brought up checks from their congregations. "It's something we should have had a long time ago."