His late father's dream of a headquarters for the nation's largest black church is the jewel in the crown in 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 cajoled, pleaded and arm-twisted for funds at the denomination's 110th annual meeting for the $10 million World Baptist Center some critics say is a monument to one man's ego.The center, with its 162-foot spire, 3,000-seat auditorium and 300-seat choir loft, was dedicated with great fanfare in June 1989 in Nashville, Tenn. With the Rev. Jesse Jackson at his side, Jemison said he was the ``instrument called by God' to build the headquarters envisioned by his father, D.V. Jemison.
For others, it revives 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, Kane Felder, professor of New Testament at Howard Divinity School at Howard University, said in a recent interview.
Even critics concede the headquarters - the first one of its kind ever for a black church body - is a tribute to the remarkable charismatic powers of Jemison.
His 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 would be ousted from office, but he almost immediately set out to build a headquarters that would rival the buildings long taken for granted by most 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, which refers to itself as the largest black organization in the world.
In the Triad, about 50 to 60 churches belong to the denomination. Between 300 and 400 churches statewide are affiliated with it.
Jemison has made it clear that annual contributions as low as $50 would no longer be acceptable, and 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 the $1 million fund-raising goal he set for the annual meeting.
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.
Even while raising funds, Jemison concedes he has his detractors. But he contends the center will be a catalyst for social action, including being a place where the homeless, drug abusers and people afflicted with AIDS will be cared for.
``It's not for Jemison. It's not my ploy,' he said last week as a steady stream of delegates brought up checks from their congregations. ``It's something we should have had a long time ago.'