The walls of Ahk Ahmeshadye’s house in the Village of Peace are covered with family photographs—black and white prints from the 1950s and ’60s, color prints from later decades, blurry candids, formal portraits, and a few collages, all framed and tacked up in something like chronological order. Step inside the front door and there, in the entryway, is an image of a young man named Edgar Brinson, sitting at his kitchen table in Chicago Heights with his first wife, Helen, and three of their children. And there he is in a suit and tie with Prophet L. A. Bryant, later known as Nasik Shaleak. Turn to the right and walk into the front room and there he is years later, a bearded prince in the Kingdom of God, surrounded by his four wives in matching gray outfits. Spin around and you’ll see him posing with Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown during their famous 2003 visit to the Holy Land. Continue into the dining room and there’s a photo of him speaking with Louis Farrakhan, a hand resting on the minister’s shoulder. And there he is standing next to Ben Ammi, whom he revered and referred to as rahbee (rabbi).
I used to stare at these photos while eating at the dining room table or lounging on the couches in the front room when I lived in Ahk Ahmeshadye’s house a decade ago. The images span at least 60 years of family and community history, which is why some saints refer to the house as a museum. Over time I added my own photographs to the walls, including one of the extended family (including me) in our matching New World Passover garments and a mosaic of Ahk Ahmeshadye that I created with software from hundreds of other family photos and presented to him on Yom L’Mokereem in 2008.
Of all the images on those walls, the one that stands out most in my memory is of Ahk Ahmeshadye in a kente cloth suit with the arms cut off, exposing his impressive biceps, melek (crown) on his head. He is riding a horse, looking like he’s having the time of his life.
Ahk Ahmeshayde, who made transition at the end of May at age 82, was known within the African Hebrew Israelite community as The Warrior. The nickname came from the title of the leadership position he held for over 20 years, “Prince of War.” The war he oversaw was of the spiritual sort, yet he had the build of a fighter: squat and muscular with a thick neck. As a young man he boxed and practiced karate, and he continued to lift weights in his later years. He idolized Muhammad Ali, and he used to watch VHS tapes of old Ali fights and Westerns on the small TV in his bedroom. (When his VCR conked out after so many years of almost daily use, I took it to Tel Aviv and had it repaired.)
Like Ali, Ahk Ahmeshadye came from humble roots, had a way with words, fought for what he believed in and, after getting knocked down, always picked himself back up. Raised in southern Illinois by his grandparents, he was working as a policeman in Chicago Heights when he met L. A. Bryant, who introduced him to “the truth” about his heritage as a Hebrew Israelite and set him on the path that led him to Israel. He arrived in the Holy Land on October 13, 1971, living first in Arad, then Mitzpe Ramon, then Dimona. He was deported twice for living in the country illegally and spent three days straight in a Greek airport in order to elude authorities. “We didn’t ask to be taken out of the land,” he used to say, referring to the ancient Israelites, “and we didn’t ask to come back in.”
He spent many years out of the country, presiding over the jurisdictions in Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Cleveland, Ghana, and Liberia. He was absent for months, and sometimes years, at a stretch, which I came to learn was very difficult on his wives and children (12 in total) back in Dimona. Yet he helped to bring dozens of new members into the fold, many of whom found their way to Israel. He told me in an interview, “The beautiful thing about it, we was teaching about Abba [Ben Ammi], and these people ain’t never seen Abba, never heard Abba, except through us. They had the faith, so when I look back at it now, I say, ‘What could we have been saying to convince black people to sell they homes and everything they have to come to a land that they know nothing about?’ It must have been powerful.”
Although he was permanently “set down” from his position as “Prince of War” in the mid-1990s, he remained very involved in community life, volunteering at Beit Sefer Achvah (Brotherhood School) and attending just about every meeting, service, and event held in the Village of Peace. He sat in the front row at the Hilltop Mansion during Shabbat and Holy Day services, the better to see and hear—and be seen and heard. He always looked sharp in his suits and robes, gold KOG chain around his neck, and he was quick to interject a pun or witty quip during the course of the service, to the delight of the congregation. “Being a prince in the Kingdom was a great pleasure and honor, but that’s not what I come here for,” he explained to me in 2008. “When I first came here in ‘71, I came to work and serve. To be truthful with you, I don’t feel set down. I just don’t go through formalities but I still have access to [Ben Ammi]. As I see it, I still have the respect of the saints. I ain’t no different. I’m the same guy. I just learn a lot more. I’m just a lot smarter than I was then.”
The Warrior fought hard until the end, hanging on for half a year after a stroke sent him to the hospital and deprived him of speech. As with Emah Nekamah, I learned with sadness of his passing from my spiritual brother Zariyah. “My father is with the angels,” he wrote to me on WhatsApp.
Last winter I sent Zariyah a note to read to his abba in the hospital. (I called him abba, too, as he was my spiritual father in Dimona.) In the note I provided an update on my life and shared some thoughts on the NBA season. He loved basketball almost as much as boxing, rooting for LeBron James and Michael Jordan before him, even though he thought the league was fixed to maximize profits. Though he couldn’t respond to my note, Zariyah said he listened and smiled as it was read to him. We last saw each other at Zariyah’s wedding in September 2014, where he showed off his famous James Brown-inspired dance moves.
I’m comforted in knowing that he was able to meet his granddaughter Halomiyah, Zariyah’s baby, and spend his last hours at home, surrounded by family, in his personal museum.
Whenever I spent the weekend in Dimona, I always looked forward to receiving a blessing from Ahk Ahmeshadye on motsai Shabbat. As the sun was setting, the family would gather in the front room to “close out.” We recited the prescribed prayers (Psalms 1, 23, and 126) in Hebrew and sang a chant based on a verse from Psalm 23: “I will not fear, we will not fear/ I will not fear, we will not fear any evil, Yah/ I will not fear, we will not fear any evil/ Because You are with me.” Then we would embrace each other, imparting a wish for a good week. The elder sons would receive their blessing from Abba Ahmeshadye first. When it was my turn, I would approach him and bow. We would bump our chests three times, right pec against right, left against left, right against right, symbolizing three positive attributes—knowledge, wisdom, and understanding, as it was explained to me—that all brothers should strive to possess. And then he would give me a hearty, two-handed slap on the back. It was jarring, but also very endearing—such was his style.
May the memory of Ahk Ahmeshadye—the Warrior—be a blessing.