It was the first night of Kwanzaa and the basement of Union Temple Baptist Church in Anacostia was filled with hundreds of men and women were celebrating the 45-year-old African-American holiday.

(L to R): Church elder Addie Cook and Rev. Willie Wilson light the Umoja candle at Union Temple church. (Hamil R. Harris/The Washington Post)

“At Union Temple, Kwanzaa is not just a seven day observance, it is a way of life,” Wilson said in an interview.  “The principles of Kwanza need to be revived and kept alive: unity, self-determination, collective work…It is good to know principles, but the value is in practicing them.”

 Kwanzaa celebrations may be dwindling elsewhere but that’s not the case at Union Temple. It is part of the Southeast Washington congregation’s cultural fabric.

 Umoja is the first principle of Kwanzaa. The other principles are  Kujichagulia (self-determination) Ujima (collective work and responsibility),Ujamaa (cooperative economics),Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).

“Kwanzaa is a time for us to reconnect with our heritage and our traditions,” said C. R. Gibbs, a church member and historian who specializes in the African diaspora. “Many African Americans are not taught who they are or where they came from. They think that the race started right here in 1776 and all we were the slaves.”

During the program, Gibbs showed a slide presentation that displayed the presence of people of African descent in Japan and South Africa.

On Wednesday, Kwanzaa founder Maulana Karenga, professor of African Studies at California State University in Long Beach, will speak at the church. At a time when many churches have focused on a “prosperity gospel,” Wilson said people need to embrace the principles of Kwanzaa now more than ever. 

“This me-myself-and-I mentality has robbed us of our collective work and responsibility that results in our upward mobility,” Wilson said.  “At one time, we as a people were forced to support each other. Since that time, we have lost a lot of that commitment to each other.”

Two people at Union Temple Monday night were Hiram Tanner, an engineer and Gloria Johnson, a District lawyer. Johnson said she and her husband have celebrated Kwanzaa since they began dating in the 1970s.

“My husband and I got married on the principles of Kwanzaa,”Johnson said. “We had seven bridesmaids and male attendants and each bridesmaid spoke about a principle of Kwanzaa as they lit a candle.”

Their only daughter - one of three children - is named Nia, one of the celebration’s seven principles.

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