Despite a low turnout for a back-to-school revival, a youth minister hopes the children who did attend will tell their classmates what they learned.
A round of shopping trips and doctor visits may fill students' days before a new school year, but the Rev. Eddie Allen believes in adding a dash of spiritual fortification to the preparation.
For that reason, the 26-year-old youth minister spent the past four months organizing what he calls a Back to School with Jesus Revival, filled with scripture readings, motivational talks and rousing music.
The event, which began Tuesday evening at First Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church and ends today with a picnic at Lake Vista Recreation Center, was a first for the 83-year-old congregation.
"We decided through our youth minister that this would be the right time to get our youth and keep them informed and teach others about Jesus," said the Rev. Wallace Elliott Sr., who has headed the 60-member church for the past eight years.
Added Elliott, minutes before the revival began Tuesday: "We can attract many youth through an occasion like this."
But that didn't happen.
When the service started, about two dozen people sat in the wooden pews. A few women whisked paper fans, compliments of a local funeral home, while electric fans whirred overhead. And two little boys, who only minutes before had been banging piano keys, joined other youngsters as they were marshaled into position for the evening's program.
If Allen and the other adults were disappointed with the revival's inaugural attendance, it was not apparent. Their singing was enthusiastic and the amens loud.
"Some of you might be worried because the numbers are not great," Loretta Gilstrap, director of the youth choir, told the congregation.
"But who is supposed to be here," she said firmly, "is here."
With that, she led her small choir in a robust rendition of This Little Light of Mine.
During the performance, Allen's son, 4-year-old Jhamir, looked around wide-eyed at other choir members and played with his belt until he was coaxed into joining their rhythmic clapping.
Like most of the children who attended Tuesday night's service, 9-year-old Horatio Pleas, dapper in a white shirt, dark pants and tie, had a role to play.
"I have to read, sing and pray," he told a visitor proudly before the service began.
His assignment was to read Psalm 150, he said. But later, 7-year-old Ben Jenkins claimed the same task.
"We're getting mixed up," said Horatio, sounding a little worried.
They worked it out. Later that evening, Horatio, who could barely see over the lectern, confidently read Psalm 150, an ode of praise.
A talk by Frank Peterman, a St. Petersburg City Council member and an ordained minister, followed soon after.
One of four ministers enlisted to preach during the revival, Peterman referred to Luke, Chapter 19, beginning at Verse 29, as the basis of his talk.
"The Lord hath need of you," was his steady refrain.
"We're living in tough times, and our kids are experiencing tough things," he told the parents and grandparents gathered this week.
"The Lord hath need of these precious golden gems."
Crucial to their well-being, Peterman said, is a belief in a higher power.
Speaking to the youngsters, he told them not to be goaded by their friends into neglecting their schoolwork or disobeying their parents.
"Tell them, "The Lord hath need of me. I am going to listen to my mother and daddy and my grandma and aunt because the Lord hath need of me,' " Peterman said.
"We need you right now. . . . Make sure to listen to what your parents are saying. Make sure you study hard. God is going to need you to challenge yourself in school. God hath need of you."
A graduate of Morehouse College, Peterman ended his talk with a recital of William E. Henley's poem Invictus.
" "It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishment the scroll,' " he recited, " "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.' "
The modest church, at 1121 22nd St. S, resounded with applause as he concluded.
Tuesday, Allen said the next day, was just the beginning.
"My hope for next year is to get more people involved and to make it a citywide event," he said.
For now, the former marine said, "I am hoping that these kids, that they will take Jesus with them (to school), that they will take God with them."