Credit: Darrow Montgomery

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

At 7 p.m. on a cold Thursday night, two SUVs with Maryland plates pull into a CVS parking lot at Florida Avenue and 7th Street NW. Half a dozen men in brightly colored robes emerge and begin to assemble a makeshift pulpit around a black wooden platform. Across the street, the go-go music blasting from a cell-phone store suddenly goes silent.

Someone flips the switch on a little generator and two industrial lights flash on, casting a blinding halo around the men gathered by the stage. A tall man in red and gold steps to the mic. His voice booms above the roar of traffic.

“Hello, Washington, D.C.,” he yells. “We are the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ. We are the true biblical and ethnic Jews.”

According to the ICGJC, everything you’ve been taught is a lie. The real Jews are black.

The true Hebrews of the Bible—from the 12 tribes of Jacob’s sons, on through the generations to Jesus and those who came after—all had skin as dark as the earth. Some of the tribes traveled to the New World, by boat, where they are now represented by the native peoples of the Caribbean and North and South America. Others fled from the Roman army and settled in Africa, where they would one day be sold as slaves by the nations whose lands they had occupied.

Black Jews ruled the world from ancient times until the Enlightenment. King Tut and Socrates were Black Hebrews. And centuries later, many of their kin survived Rome’s terror and rose to prominence in Europe—Shakespeare, King Arthur, Mozart—all were black and Jewish.

White people have rewritten history, obscuring the true identity of God’s chosen people and erasing the evidence of their accomplishments in the world.

These are the lies the ICGJC is trying to set straight, one street corner at a time.

It may seem like a Sisyphean task, but the ICGJC are not as few or as marginal as they may appear. They belong to the Black Israelite tradition, a broad (and not very chummy) category of semi-Christian, semi-Jewish congregations that believe that the real chosen people are black. Through various permutations, the ideology has lasted for more than a century in the United States, weathering failed attempts to gain Israeli citizenship, a prophesied apocalypse that never went boom, and constant internal disputes that produce an ever-growing number of rebel groups and offshoots. Scholars estimate there are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of Black Hebrews in the United States, while the various groups put their numbers in the millions.

In Washington, Black Israelites have already drawn attention for their activities on H Street NE, where a group calling itself the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge inspired one resident to start a blog devoted to noise complaints.

I first notice the ICGJC one night in January at the Georgia Ave-Petworth Metro stop. The church members have set up their stage and placards just down from the drug dealers who hang out by the escalators. I decide to go up and satisfy my curiosity.

I introduce myself as a journalist to one of the combat-booted men standing sentry. His reluctance to talk is palpable. He looks at me through lowered lashes and keeps turning around as if he hopes someone else will come take over. He says they might be interested in “doing an article” and hands me a flyer before bowing out. The sheet is choked with text and decorated with lions and a Star of David. Bold-faced questions are answered with Bible verses.

ARE THE SO-CALLED NEGROES IN AMERICA AFRICANS? NO! THEY ARE THE REAL HEBREW ISRAELITES (JEWS).Read: Exo: 11:7 “… That ye may know that the Lord doth put a difference between the Egyptians and Israel.” THE REAL JEWS ARE BLACK (referring to people of brown color) ACCORDING TO THE BIBLE. Read: Jer. 14:2- “Judah mourneth (in sorrow) an the leaders) thereof languish (grow weaker), they are Black unto the ground (meaning different shades of brown)…”

I send e-mails to the address on the flyer. I call the listed number and leave messages. No one responds. I visit the Web site, a spiffy page that advertises meetings at D.C. public libraries nearly every night of the week. After a few weeks of radio silence, I show up unannounced in a small room on the second floor of the MLK library. A man with a suitcase on wheels listens stone-faced as I introduce myself. His name, I learn later, is Rachaab, or Raymond Washington. He pulls out his cell, dials a number, and hands me the phone. A man on the other end introduces himself as Bishop Maahwar Ahmathyah. I tell him I’m a journalist and want to sit in on the meeting. That’s fine, he says, and I hand the phone back to Washington. He listens, nods a few times, and hangs up. Then he looks me over and asks where I’m from.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

“Oregon,” I say.

“No,” he says, “I mean, where are your people from.”

I think I see where he’s going and explain that I’m a quarter Mexican. “On which side?” he asks. I have the right answer: my father, and my father’s father. With that, my invitation is confirmed. The Mexican people are Jews, you see, the 12th of the 12 lost tribes of Israel. It makes no matter that I’m three-quarters heathen. Contrary to the traditional Jewish law of matrilineal descent, the Israelites believe the seed comes from the man.

In the session, I learn some basic tenets of the ICGJC. Most of it is following rules. Because sex equals marriage, polygamy is permitted, even encouraged. (For men only.) Contraception is banned. Members follow some kosher restrictions: no pork, no shellfish. Smoking is prohibited; moderate drinking is allowed. They celebrate High Holy Days and believe Jesus was the son of God from a virgin birth.

ICGJC members say they speak an ancient dialect of Hebrew called Lashawan Qadash, which resembles modern Israeli Hebrew with all the vowels sounds except “a” and “i” removed. Mostly, they use the language for greetings, prayers, and giving themselves “Hebrew” names.

If you ask about the history of their religion, the Israelites invariably respond to a different question. “We go back to the time of Moses in the wilderness,” they’ll say. Or they’ll say that their organization isn’t a religion at all but a race living in a diaspora.

Black Hebrew ideology has its roots, most likely, with slaves’ first encounters with Christianity. Early sermons led by slaves and freemen often focused on the books of the Old Testament, particularly accounts of Jewish oppression in Egypt. Stories of surviving Pharaoh’s cruelty probably resonated more than the miracles of the New Testament, especially for a people suffering under modern-day slavery with no Moses in sight. Imagery borrowed from the Jewish experience pervades black culture in the New World, from Martin Luther King’s “I’ve seen the promised land” to Desmond Dekker’s 1968 ska hit “The Israelites.”

It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that the identification with Jews transformed into claims of actual kinship.

The first groups to claim heredity between blacks in America and the biblical Jews emerged more than 100 years ago, starting in the South and moving to Northern cities along the routes of black migration. They advocated an ideology that reclaimed biblical salvation for themselves and denied the Christian religion of their oppressors. Adam and Eve were black, as were God and Jesus. The white Jews were imposters, and the white race was cursed. The groups grew steadily in the early 20th century, establishing churches in Virginia, New York, and Philadelphia with thousands of members.

The movement surged again in the 1960s and ’70s, with several new groups that espoused a more stridently separatist doctrine. One Chicago sect relocated a chunk of its congregation to Israel, where members have been allowed to join the national Defense Forces. Another group, the Nation of Yahweh in Miami, has been labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Today, the various sects of Hebrew Israelites have vastly different theologies, from strict emulations of Orthodox Jewish traditions and beliefs to a sort of hybrid Christianity in which Jesus is the savior but the laws of the Old Testament still stand. The ICGJC occupies the latter end of the spectrum.

The church has its roots in the Israelite School of Universal Practical Knowledge, which was founded in New York City in the 1960s. In the late 1980s, the group replaced “School” with “Church,” in a bid, according to some accounts, to get tax-exempt status (ICGJC members say there was just a split in the organization). A decade later, elders began preaching that the world would end on Jan. 1, 2000. When nothing happened, one group of former members reorganized as the ICGJC. Soon a new leader emerged, a man known as Apostle and Chief High Priest Tazadaqyah, who believes he’s inhabited by the Holy Spirit and calls himself the Comforter.

The ICGJC claims to have hundreds of thousands of members, which may seem far-fetched for a group whose expansion into D.C. relies on a dozen or so men preaching at street corners. But there are signs the church is more than a ramshackle operation: a MySpace-style social networking site with hundreds of profiles; enough money to pay for the Comforter’s recent “World Tour,” to Dallas, Philadelphia, and other cities east of the Continental Divide, plus audio-visual equipment, travel expenses, the production of a weekly cable-access television show, and upkeep and rent for two “campuses” in New York and Baltimore.

The “street unit” is the keystone of the ICGJC’s plans to find a permanent home here. About a dozen men visit D.C. each week to “speak the word” at the Petworth Metro, in Anacostia, or on Florida Avenue.

Clifford Jean, aka Bishop Maahwar Ahmathya(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Clifford Jean, whose Hebrew name is Maahwar Ahmathyah, is the bishop of D.C. and the person I spoke to on the phone back at the library. Unlike the group’s foot soldiers, none of whom will talk to me, Jean is jovial and polite, eager to answer questions about the ICGJC.

But Jean, 35, is a little shy when we’re not talking about religion. I can pry out only a few details: He lives in Silver Spring, he says, with his wife and their 10 children. He says he was raised by his father, a Haitian immigrant, who worked as a mechanic in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and supported the family with little to no help from Jean’s mother. Jean went to Catholic church occasionally and loved to draw. “I just had a regular childhood life, I guess,” he says. “I went to school and did what I had to do. I didn’t get in too much trouble. Just an ordinary kid.”

After graduating from the High School of Graphic Communication Arts, a vocational school in Manhattan, he enrolled in a graphic arts program at John Jay College in Brooklyn. He didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps, he says, because he didn’t like the grease. But after a year of school, he dropped out and took a job in building security, which is still his trade.

Jean discovered the Israelites the way most people do, by accident. On his way home from work, he saw a group of men preaching near the corner of 44th Street and Broadway. He was transfixed by their poise.

“I guess it was the way they dressed,” he says. “The way they stood so stiff before the Lord. I was like, Wow! These guys look amazing.”

Jean stopped and listened to what the men had to say. They showed him how things he’d learned in school were lies. The light of the truth drew him in.

“It was factual,” he says. “That’s what got me interested. The truth.”

I find truth for myself one Saturday at the Petworth library, where the ICGJC is holding a four-hour seminar called “From Kings to Slaves.”

Before the session starts, a dozen men rush around making coffee and piling food—fried chicken from Popeye’s, bagels and cream cheese, snack-size bags of potato chips—on a long table in the chilly basement. There is a jovial air to the preparations. The men ask after one another’s families, “How your people doing? The twins, they all right?” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” by Otis Redding, plays over and over on a laptop connected to a Peavy amp.

Raymond Washington, the man I’d met at the MLK library, tests the mic in a low voice. “The real Jews were black,” he says. Tap tap. “The real Jews were black.”

As curtain time approaches, the men bring out robes on hangers covered in plastic. They slip into the hand-sewn sheaves of off-white tapestry, their street shoes and pants legs peaking out below a fringe of knotted string. Over the top, they wear red smocks of shiny red brocade with dragon designs—the kind of material you might imagine on a geisha. Bishop Jean wears a gold lamé turban and a gold lamé cummerbund around his ample middle.

When I ask who makes the robes, Jean says “the sewing department.”

Carlos Santiago(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

The guests begin to arrive in little clusters. Most are black women. Two teenage girls, some middle-aged friends. Women with crying infants. Mothers with lanky teenage sons. One black woman is watching over the baby girl of Carlos Santiago, the only Latino I’ve met so far. Otis Redding is still on repeat.

A man strides to the front of the room and introduces himself as 13 Shield General Hamaqal. He announces that the seminar will begin with a history lesson. But not just any history. “This is basic history all the way back to the actual beginning,” he says. “History not being taught in these so-called high schools.”

“We ruled the whole planet Earth,” he says.

Hamaqal tells the story of Joseph, the son of Jacob who was betrayed by his brothers and sold him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph wins a place in the Pharaoh’s court and sets a trap to bring his brothers back to Egypt, where they fall under his reign.

God decrees that Joseph and the other children of Jacob, who is renamed Israel, will become kings. Of course, for the next 200 years they remain oppressed in Egypt. Then Moses picks up his staff, leads them out and they—the Jews—settle in Canaan, forming the 12 tribes of Israel.

This is all straight from the Bible. What makes the difference is the context, sprinkled here and there throughout every ICGJC presentation: Jacob’s descendants, the Jews, were black.

The Israelites rely on just a few passages from the King James version to prove this central point. A favored quotation comes from the Song of Solomon. The book is as close as the Bible gets to erotica and consists of letters between a man, perhaps Solomon, and his lover, perhaps the daughter of the Pharaoh.

The teacher calls upon his reader to recite from the Song of Solomon, Chapter 1, Verse 5.

“I am black.”

“Read it again,” the teacher says.

“I am black.”

“Read it backwards,” the teacher says.

“Black am I.”

“Read it again,” the teacher says.

“I am black.”

Here is the entire verse from the King James edition: “I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon. Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me: my mother’s children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept.”

In some 20th-century translations, the first line became the familiar “I am black and beautiful.” The problem with the Israelites’ interpretation is this: Most scholars believe the author of the passage is not Solomon but his lover, a woman who may very well have been black. The only references to Solomon’s appearance come later, also in her voice, when she describes him thus: “My beloved is white and ruddy…His head is as the most fine gold, his locks are bushy, and black as a raven…his belly is as bright ivory overlaid with sapphires…His legs are as pillars of marble, set upon sockets of fine gold.”

Sounds like an olive-skinned man from the Middle East.

13 Shield General Hamaqal(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Hamaqal moves from the two centuries of Jewish repression in Egypt, a central event of the Old Testament with no real foundation in the historical record, straight into facts about ancient Egypt. His only departure from the Encyclopaedia Britannica is that the pharaohs were Jewish.

A slide pops up listing the Black Israelites’ six contributions to world culture during their time in Egypt. One, the pyramids, which they built to honor Black Hebrews like King Tut. Two, monotheism, introduced by another black Jew, Akhenaton. Three, riches, as seen in the relics found in ancient tombs. (“Right now we’re rich in spirit, but when our forefathers ruled the earth, they had a lot of riches. This ain’t no rinky-dink gold.”) Four, horse-drawn carriages. Five, the composite bow, and six, the scarab.

Fast-forward a millennium or so.

“Because we didn’t do what God wanted us to do,” he says, “we were scattered amongst other nations.”

In the year 70 A.D., he says, black Jews fleeing an advancing Roman Empire swarmed into Africa, making homes among the people already settled there. The story isn’t totally bizarre. The Jewish diaspora is often dated to 63 A.D., when Rome overtook Judea and eventually banned Jews from setting foot in Jerusalem. The dispersal of Judaism was far and wide, spreading as far as Persia and into Europe. There are groups of Jewish Ethiopians who claim to be descendants of King Solomon, but scholars have dated their existence only back to the late Middle Ages.

Hamaqal hands over the reins to Bishop Jean, who storms into the full-fledged sci-fi scenarios. Even Mormons, who believe a group of Israelites came to the New World in 600 B.C., concede the major events of European history. But the Israelites throw out the whole shebang.

It turns out that many of the Hebrews targeted by the Roman army found ways to stick it out, even claiming seats of power in the empire of their oppressors. If you want proof, just look at one of the old coins. Septimius Severus clearly wore his hair in cornrows.

“Althusian loved to keep it jiggy,” says Jean.

The apex of black power in Europe, it seems, came during the Middle Ages. Jean explains that modern historians call those years the Dark Ages because black people were in charge. During this time, Black Israelites made many accomplishments. Among them, creating the English language.

Jean’s speech becomes something of a disorganized litany, with slide after slide of proof that the great men and women of Europe were black and Jewish. Jean points to the evidence: woolly hair, cornrows, dark skin.

“King James,” he says. “Black man. Looks like Mayor Dinkins.”

Queen Elizabeth was a light-skinned sister. “Henry VIII, black man! St. Nicholas, black man! Ivan the Terrible, black man!”

A slide pops up with an indistinct etching of a man in a wig. “Uh-oh,” Jean says, “who do we have here?” It’s Mozart. “Black man!” Next, Beethoven.

“It’s not so hard to believe that black people write music,” he says. “A modern-day Beethoven would be Prince.”

One woman near me turns to her friend periodically to nod and say, “It’s true. It’s true.”

So how did it all end? Jean says that blacks remained in power in Europe until 1711, “when Charlemagne came.” Then, during the Renaissance, white families spent “thousands of dollars” to erase the “names of our forefathers.” They used acid to bleach the paintings of black kings and queens, hammers to chip the broad noses from marble statues.

Jean finishes and returns the podium to Hamaqal, who explains how Black Hebrews ended up as slaves in America.

“We’ll go into a position we’re more familiar with today,” he says. Starting in 1619, he explains, Africans began selling their immigrant population, the Hebrew Israelites, into slavery. Their fate was a punishment for disobeying God.

“We have sinned, and that is the reason the crown has fallen,” Hamaqal says.

For the next hour, we watch clips from a version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that shows slaves drooling over the babble of Christian preachers and welcoming the abuses of their patriarchs. The film reinforces a central theme of the ICGJC, that mainstream Christianity was right next to the whip as a tool of oppression.

The session winds up with 45 minutes of questions and answers. One woman tells the men she’s struggling with some of the revelations.

“Being from England myself,” she says, “for some reason, I’m having a difficult time grasping Shakespeare and Beethoven and Mozart being black.”

Jean responds by talking about the story of Romeo and Juliet, which he says, was about two black lovers from opposite sides of town. “Even though you haven’t been taught it,” he says, “why don’t you take it from the prophets. They’ve done the work for you.”

The woman nods. “I do receive,” she says. “But sometimes when you’ve been indoctrinated, you resist.”

I approach the woman after the session ends. She looks to be in her 40s, at least, and is surrounded by three girls and two boys, all hers, she says. It turns out she’s not really skeptical. She tells me she’s working through unlearning the lies she accepted in a lifetime attending Christian churches. She says she’s a minister but won’t say where. Christian preachers never gave her a satisfactory explanation for the suffering of daily life. For her, the worst comes from “the bondage of debt, of course.” But the Israelites, she says, had an answer. “By them speaking, my spirit was illuminated,” she says.

The next day, I call Bishop Jean to go over a few areas of confusion. First of all, I want to know how the Mexicans got here from the Old World.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Like the Mormons, the ICGJC believes the native people of the New World came here by boat. In 474 B.C., he says, Black Hebrews from the southern kingdom of Israel, oppressed by Syrian overlords, fled to the New World in sailboats.

In his lecture, Bishop Jean said that Black Hebrews had led England until Charlemagne came in 1711. The much-mythologized French king is typically said to have ruled during the French expansion of the Middle Ages, in the late 700s, and is not generally credited with invading Britain, an honor usually attributed to William the Conqueror, who defeated Harold II at Hastings in 1066. I ask Bishop Jean what happened in 1711.

He responds by clarifying a different point. He says his ancestors actually ruled Europe until 1810, when the last strongholds of Black Hebrews fell in Russia. OK, I say, but what happened with Charlemagne, you know, in 1711?

“What do you mean? In 1810?” he says.

“No. 1711.”

Jean demurs. “I’m not too sure,” he says. “I’m not a Charlemagne historic person.”

As for the decline of black power in Europe, he says there were no cataclysmic events. It was a slow defeat.

“It was gradual,” he says. “They lost power over Russia…white people took over.” How? Different ways, he says. “A lot of them through war, through marriage.”

And whither the descendants of our great Hebrew forefathers, like Shakespeare and Mozart?

“A lot of them stayed in Europe,” he says. They moved into the poor neighborhoods where they still reside today. You can find the kin of Shakespeare and Mozart in the black slums of Europe.

Jean doesn’t have a problem with answering whether white people are evil. They are, he says, “the children of Satan.” It’s folly to believe what they say or to participate in their system.

“The Lord said never trust thine enemy,” he says. “How can you trust the devil? It doesn’t make no sense.”

I try to think of a good devil. “What about Gandhi?” I ask. “He did some good things. Was he following Satan too?”

“Yeah, of course,” the bishop says.

“The truth of God is not secret,” he says. “There’s white people that come up to the campus and say, ‘Am I the devil?’ and we say, ‘Yeah, let me prove it to you.’”

Back on Florida Avenue, the ICGJC’s evangelists are trying to do just that. They condemn political participation, saying Barack Obama is in league with the devil. They call out the heathen races: Chinese, Japanese, whites, and Africans. Holding up a poster of a white Jesus, they call it “the image of the beast.”

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Meanwhile, the unit’s foot soldiers work the sidewalk, trying their pitch on almost anyone: kids with backpacks on their way home from school, old women, even drunks. Just so long as they’re black or Latino.

An Israelite with dreadlocks and an earbud approaches a young man walking by in a red City Year jacket. He hands over a flyer and starts talking. Within minutes, the two men have shifted into debaters’ stances, leaning forward, hands spread open, eyes locked. The City Year recruit explains that his mother is Jewish and his father is black. “That must make me the ultimate Jew,” he says, grinning. His wooer reacts with a no-nonsense grimace. “It makes you a real, ethnic Jew,” he says.

To prove his point, the proselytizer tells a parable about an apple seed. If you plant the seed over here, he says, pointing toward Florida Avenue, what will grow? “An apple tree,” the young man says. And if you plant it over here, he gestures in the other direction, what grows then? “An apple tree,” the young man repeats, chuckling. “I’m gonna peace out on that,” he says and hurries to cross with the light.

Carlos Santiago spends about 20 minutes talking to a man in a leather coat who’s been taking notes since the street sermon began. After Santiago leaves, I ask the man what he thinks of the Israelites. His name is David, and he says he lives nearby and comes out to listen whenever the unit sets up. He thinks they get things a little wrong but says he always learns something from the passages they mention. He also attends Sunday services at the United House of Prayer. He’s not the first person I’ve met who takes what they want from the Israelites and leaves the rest.

David wanders off, leaving two stalwart fans in front of the stage. The men, who look either drunk or high, waver unsteadily in front of the amp. It’s not clear if they are feeling the Holy Spirit or simply unable to walk.

After several weeks trolling for lapsed members of the ICGJC, I finally track down Margaret Cook Turner, who now lives in Atlanta.

Fifteen years ago, Turner’s boyfriend tried to get her to join what was then the ICUPK. She resisted, but he kept pointing out the inconsistencies between scripture and Christian beliefs. “By the time they’ve finished, they’ve painted a big puzzle, and they have all the pieces,” she says. It took a few years, but she finally joined in 1996. Her brother joined, too.

The church taught its members to expect suffering in this world and a reward in the hereafter. In heaven, they would be the masters, she says, and their slaves would be white.

She left the church in late 2000 but stayed a believer for at least three more years. The thing that finally pissed her off enough to leave was how the church treated women. It wasn’t just the polygamy. Turner recalls one Hanukkah celebration when the men prepared dinner for the entire congregation. The guys took forever in the kitchen, and when they finally finished, fed themselves first, then the male children. By the time the women sat down to eat, it was after midnight, and the food was almost gone.

Turner says most of the women stay home with their children and collect public assistance. “If you’re not happy with it,” she says, “they give you Bible scriptures.”

Plus, she adds, someone is clearly making money off the enterprise. In addition to a 10 percent monthly tithe, members must contribute hundreds of dollars a year to Passover funds, priestly fees, and family fees. The ICGJC plans to open a Princess School for girls in New York City, which will also cost a chunk of change.

She’s still struggling to “recover from the brainwashing.”

“It’s hard to let go of it completely once you’re involved,” she says. She and her brother still call each other during Hanukkah and laugh at how their relatives celebrate Easter.

Growing up black in America, she says, you desperately want an explanation for why it’s hard to get ahead. When you start to notice contradictions in conventional histories, it’s easy to start seeing the whole thing as a fabrication. “You’d want to believe it,” she says. “It makes you feel special. It makes you feel like the chosen one.”