He prides himself on “preaching outside of his four walls”.
His name is Bishop J.E. Watkins and his church is located inside a building which was once home to Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Although West Oakland’s Liberty Hall is facing a possible foreclosure, Bishop Watkins is faithful that the one time home to Father Divine's ministries will be able to keep its doors open.
Since he moved to the building in West Oakland, Bishop Watkins has dedicated the work of his church to expand past his four walls— to four square blocks in West Oakland.
He says he works with the “local pharmacists”, by not allowing police to put surveillance cameras in the windows of his church. In exchange, he says that the young men on the corner one block from the church often look out for the children who attend programs.
His programs consist of job training, legal aid, and the opportunity to gain hands-on television production experience; as well as Sunday church service.
The sanctuary in one of largest rooms in the building— the room is split between the chairs for the audience, the huge soundboard used to produce shows, a green screen, an altar, and a transparent organ.
His customized organ is “one of one”, says Bishop Watkins, who is a skilled organ player, (Here is a clip of him playing the organ) … but prefers the guitar.
His facility is historically and technologically amazing. It’s located on the corner of 8th and Chester in West Oakland’s Lower Bottoms neighborhood- a community that has historically been a maze.
He said that even during the times of the economic boom around the 7th street corridor, the backstreets of the Lower Bottoms were always home to number runners, whore houses and all sorts of crime.
But the difference is, back then it was organized.
I asked Bishop Watkins— based on his life experiences, what would he tell young people … OG Told Me:
"They have lost respect for themselves. Our youth need to gain the respect, and know what that word means. When the kids kill each other, do you know why they kill each other? It’s over notches… you gotta have five notches, you get 5 notches— that’s 5 killings… you get those 5 notches, that’s puts you at the top of the heap— you’re the leader of this gang.”
Bishop Watkins has seen the culture shift in his time.
"It’s no longer: well, I can beat you up. When I was coming up, it was ( he pounds his fist in his hand forcibly-signifying a beat down)… and then it was ‘aye-man, we’re good… and that’s the way it was."
He cites the lack of education as the root of this disrespect that the youth seem to have for one and other.
"They have not finished more than the 9th grade. They do not know what the word disrespect really-really means.”
"What I would tell them now: get an education."
He said that the reason people marched in the 60’s, was for this generation to get educated. And a lot of people in this generation chose to sell drugs. He urged the youth: GO BACK TO SCHOOL!
Not only to get an education- but to then reach back to help someone else.
I then asked Bishop Watkins: How do you gain that respect?
Bishop Watkins immediately referenced an old saying: ”Manners start at home and spread abroad."
Bishop Watkins stressed the necessity of teaching morality and self respect in the house; and church house.
"Unless we OG’s- unless we teach this to the young men coming up, and unless they listen- they’ve gotta listen, as the bible says: he that has an ear, let him hear what thy say the lord. That’s the reason why the church is down here. They come in off the street … they’ll come to service…”
Bishop Watkins waved his hands about the sanctuary, physically expressing his verbal message.
"They are looking for something…"
… He said the guys he talks to on the streets are often looking for a change, but seldom know where to start. In order to change, the Bishop says:
"You start in your head, and then it moves to your heart."