The outstretched hand of Jesus is taking shape as Maurice Jenkins, perched on a scaffold 11 feet high, brushes in the tones of Jesus's open palm in acrylic and oil the color of coconut shell.
This mural of a black Jesus Christ dominates the foyer of the mammoth new Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church, still under construction in Fort Washington. When Jenkins finishes here, he will begin work on several more recent requests from ministers eager to have black Christ paintings and murals in their churches -- more requests than ever before.
Black Christ images are appearing in stained-glass windows, statues, murals and paintings in churches from New Jersey to California, including many in the Washington area. But the trend signals a change much deeper than the color of Jesus's skin.
"We look at this as a major movement," Jenkins said. "The slave trade took away our culture and our religion, and now this is a natural progression for the black church to revitalize the African traditions that were taken away."
Afrocentrism, a movement that already has made its mark on campus and curriculum, is beginning to transform the modern African American church. Many black churches remain untouched by the movement, and in many it has met resistance. Nevertheless, the Afrocentric approach -- which puts Africa at the heart of history and culture, shunning the Western bias toward Europe as the cradle of civilization -- is being adopted by individual churches of many denominations in a variety of ways.
Entire congregations turn out for church dressed in African finery on "African Awareness Sundays." Even at regular Sunday services, Ghanaian kente cloth outfits are replacing Easter frocks and somber suits. An Easter bazaar Saturday at Union Temple Baptist Church in the District featured African dresses, hats and accessories.
Preachers stress the place of blacks in the Bible, drawing from more than a dozen recent books published on the subject. The Original African Heritage Study Bible, a King James version with photographic reenactments of Bible scenes using black models, has sold about half of the 300,000 copies in print.
Drummers and guitarists spice up musical offerings, accompanying and sometimes even replacing the church organist. Choirs -- wearing robes trimmed with kente cloth -- sing rousing gospels in previously staid Catholic and Pentecostal services.
The impact of these changes is still being felt, but one is already clear: Some African Americans who dismissed Christianity years ago as a "white man's religion" are now returning to church, according to more than a dozen ministers among those interviewed.
"It's interesting to me the number of brothers coming in from the Nation of Islam," said the Rev. Donald Hilliard, of Second Baptist Church Cathedral in Perth Amboy, N.J. "These are people who were born in the Christian faith, then became alienated from the church because they saw it as irrelevant... . I baptized seven in the last year. They're coming in weekly."
Hilliard's church reopened two years ago in a renovated downtown theater that last showed pornographic movies. Directly over the baptistery is a larger-than-life stained-glass window of a resurrected black Christ wearing a purple robe etched in kente, broken chains lying at his feet.
The concept central to all the Afrocentric changes in churches is the shift away from thinking of Jesus as white.
It has long been tradition in churches throughout the world for images of Jesus to mirror the faces of the faithful. Jesus is often depicted in Latin America as Hispanic, in Asia as Asian, and in Africa as black. U.S. churches of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination have accepted black Christ images for 100 years, since Bishop Henry McNeal Turner first uttered the words "God is a Negro."
The difference now is that Afrocentric scholars are fast popularizing research that they say proves that the "Jesus of history" was a man of color, an "Afro-Asiatic Jew." Ministers who say they would have been uncomfortable having black Christ images in their churches even five years ago now do so, saying such depictions are "historically accurate."
In 1970, the graduating class of Howard University School of Divinity tried to present the school with a picture of a black Christ, recalls the Rev. Willie Wilson, then senior class president.
"They refused to display it," Wilson said. "Back then it was just anathema. That was the height of the first wave of strong African and black consciousness in the African American community... . People wore Afros and dashikis and read some books, but it was superficial. It wasn't internalized."
"This time around ... it's much deeper," said Wilson, now pastor of Union Temple Baptist Church, one of the strongest examples anywhere of an Afrocentric approach to religious life.
Howard's Divinity School has become one of the centers of Afrocentric scholarship, home to professors such as Cain Hope Felder and Kelly Brown Douglas, author of the new book "The Black Christ."
Felder, who wrote the groundbreaking book "Troubling Biblical Waters: Race, Class and Family," has spoken at dozens of church workshops and seminars since the publication last year of the African Heritage Bible, for which he edited the essays seeded throughout on the presence of Africans in biblical times.
Felder says Jesus of Nazareth was an "Afro-Asiatic Jew" who "probably looked like a typical Yemenite, Trinidadian or African American of today." He finds proof for this in biblical passages such those in Matthew where the "angel of the Lord" commands Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to hide in Egypt. "Imagine the divine family as Europeans hiding in Africa!" Felder writes in the Bible's introduction. "This is quite doubtful."
Essential to the theory of Felder and other Afrocentric scholars is their belief that Egypt is part of Africa and not "the Middle East," a geographical distinction they say was concocted by scholars to avoid attributing major historical events to Africa. Maps in the African Heritage Bible identify the lands where most biblical stories are set as "Northeastern Africa" and "Eden."
Prisoners from 33 states have written more than 500 letters requesting the African Heritage Bible to Felder's Biblical Institute for Social Change at Howard. Many prisoners wrote that they were former Christians or converts to Islam. "I was really moved when I saw your new publication of the Bible with the pictures that made me shed tears of joy," Nikky Akindole wrote from the women's Federal Corrections Institute in Dublin, Calif.
But among academics, Felder's ideas are not widely accepted or even known. Robert Funk, chair of the Jesus Seminar, a round table of New Testament scholars, said most scholars accept that Jesus, a Jew, was a Semite, "swarthy in complexion," but hardly black.
Funk had never heard the term "Afro-Asiatic Jew." He laughed and said, "That's just funny... . I suppose we'll be claiming next that he was a woman. Or that he was Asian. Or that he was Native American. The possibilities are unlimited."
But on one point there seems to be universal agreement: The images of Jesus best known to Americans, such as Warner Sallman's ubiquitous "Head of Christ" painting depicting Jesus with pale skin and blond locks, are more mythological than historical.
"That's a romanticized self-image that Caucasians have produced," Funk said.
Scholar Stephen Mitchell said: "If I were black, I would definitely be talking about Christ as black... . I am very much in sympathy with this desire to show that 'Jesus was one of us.' "
But there is "no validity" to the conclusion that Jesus in history was black, said Mitchell, author of "The Gospel According to Jesus." The Gospels provide no information about the ancestry of Mary, who as the virgin mother of Jesus provides the only relevant genealogy. And if Jesus looked any different than an ordinary Jew, the accounts would have made mention of it as in the references to the Ethiopian eunuch, he said.
Mitchell cautioned, "I think it is very important to respect the truth with all of our hearts. Once you let your desire become more important than the truth, you get into real trouble. You have people in pre-Nazi Germany writing about Jesus as a blond-haired Gentile. It's very dangerous to take your desires too seriously."
Some churchgoers ask why it matters what color Jesus was. Kelly Brown Douglas, of Howard, bristles at that question.
"If you aren't able to see God in yourself and yourself in God, then you can't see yourself as a child of God," she said. "What does it do to a person's self-esteem when Christ is pictured as your oppressor? The message is, 'You're worth nothing.' This society tells little black children that every day."
The theory that subconscious racial messages the culture conveys affect children's self-esteem is hardly new. In noted psychologist Kenneth Clark's studies in the 1930s, black children consistently associated black dolls with negative characteristics and when given a choice chose to play with white dolls.
In 1980, the Association of Black Psychologists passed a resolution declaring that "the Divine Images of Caucasian flesh constitute an oppressive instrument destructive to the self-esteem of Black people." The group recommended the removal of such images from public display, said Naim Akbar, a former president of the group and a clinical psychologist at Florida State University.
Akbar cited an unpublished study by a Jamaican psychologist who found that the children of Rastafarians, who believe in the divinity of Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie, have a "much more positive self-concept" than other black children.
Yvette Moore, managing editor of a United Methodist women's magazine, said that as a black child growing up in a churchgoing family, she "always believed that there was this core of good white people, because you saw them in your Sunday school book if you didn't see them anywhere else... . We could always accept the fact that there were good white people, because God was white."
With this in mind, expecting her first child, Moore authored "The Birth of Christ," a children's book using black vernacular, with watercolor illustrations of a black Mary, Joseph and Jesus. The angel Gabriel has dreadlocks.
Sunday at 11 a.m., the saying goes, already is the most segregated hour of the week. Will the Afrocentric trend eventually result in black and white people worshiping entirely separately?
All of those interviewed for this story said they did not anticipate that outcome. Some saw the Afrocentric shift as a way to compensate, even overcompensate, for centuries of injustice. The Rev. George Augustus Stallings, founder of the independent Imani Temples and a former Roman Catholic priest, said he was hoping to produce a "shock treatment" when, in Washington's Freedom Plaza on Good Friday last year, he set fire to Warner Sallman's famous image of a white Jesus.
Muralist Maurice Jenkins climbed down from the scaffolding at Ebenezer A.M.E. Church, his fingers full of the brown pigment he used to fill in the palm of Jesus. The mural shows a black Christ, but he is towering over a pyramid of international faces -- some white, some yellow, some brown, some black. The design was the vision of the church's pastor, the Rev. Grainger Browning.