In his first sermon 12 years ago, the Rev. Trent Hayes asked the congregation at New Psalmist Baptist Church, "Whose fool are you?" When he saw people beginning to squirm in the pews, Mr. Hayes quickly explained that in the Bible, the question meant, "Whom do you follow?"
It is a question that echoes in the hearts of African-Americans across the country as they prepare to celebrate the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., one of America's most courageous leaders.
King, killed by a sniper's bullet April 4, 1968, would have turned 67 today.
Mr. Hayes, 32, and several other new or aspiring ministers say no leader in the world today has filled the void left by King. No single leader has King's commitment to the poor, his peaceful defiance and his sharply worded, captivating speeches, they say. Even in death, the ministers say, King remains one of the chief influences in their lives and the example they follow as they pursue church careers.
Most of them are working toward advanced degrees in theology and philosophy at divinity schools around the region. Like King, they have deep respect and love for the church and believe it offers the greatest hope for defeating the crime, hunger and addictions that plague urban communities.
But, also like King, they are unafraid to criticize churches that have strayed from that mission.
"Dr. King taught us how to stand up for what we believe. He never compromised," said Mr. Hayes, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Northeast Baltimore and a doctoral candidate at Lancaster (Pa.) Theological Seminary.
"The church used to be that way. It took a stand and did not back down to the pressures of society," he added. "But today, it seems church leaders are more concerned about size than substance, about bigger rather than better. I think we should focus on quality rather than quantity."
As an example of compromise, Mr. Hayes, a husband and father, pointed to the use of rap music in worship services in an effort to attract young people.
The pastor, who still has the posture and stride of his days as a star basketball player at Woodlawn High School, said he has made a point not to let music become the main attraction of his Sunday services.
"I tell my young people that they can be as expressive as they want to be," he said. "But I ask them to listen to the words of some of the rap music, the curse words and the foul names used against women. I tell them that the Bible can show them how to express themselves appropriately."
That view and other stands taken by Mr. Hayes were met initially with some resistance, he said.
Standing for what is right and not what is popular is also one of the main lessons Mark Wainwright, 23, learned from King.
He pointed to the civil rights leader's stand against the war in Vietnam, which King called a "tragic adventure."
It was a stand that brought King harsh criticism from many of his peers.
Mr. Wainwright, a student at Virginia Union School of Theology in Richmond, Va., also has faced such criticism.
While numerous ministers refused to support last year's Million Man March because it was organized by the Nation of Islam's controversial leader, Louis Farrakhan, Mr. Wainwright joined the local organizing committee.
He said black Christian churches could learn some lessons from the Nation of Islam about how to create programs that provide jobs and counseling to African-American men, especially those newly released from prison.
"The Nation of Islam has shaken up a lot of traditional black churches," said Mr. Wainwright, a soft-spoken, bespectacled man.
"For so long, traditional churches have been idle. And then they see something like the Million Man March and its success, and they dismiss it because they did not do it first," he said.
The Rev. Jimmy Baldwin, 35, pastor at Shiloh Christian Community Church on West Lombard Street, said he prefers to avoid government halls, and he encourages church leaders to pursue social change using resources within their congregations.
He said churches should move away from serving as referral agencies, sending people to government offices for help with loans, jobs, education or food.
Mr. Baldwin said the church should inspire its members not only to attend church but to work for it.
"People don't come to church for empowerment. They come for entertainment," Mr. Baldwin said.
It was during his childhood in Birmingham, Ala., that Ben Jones, now 46 and a student at Howard University's School of Divinity in Washington, first was touched by King's movement. While King and hundreds of other adults sat in the city's jail, arrested for leading protests against segregation, church leaders put out a call for children to march.
Mr. Jones said he jumped over his school's fence and ran downtown to answer the call.
He now is an associate minister at New Psalmist in downtown Baltimore. He says churches must provide for the spiritual needs of their members, but they also must help parishioners survive.
"I was out on the street and a man asked me for money," Mr. Jones said. "I gave him some money, and I told him I'd pray for him.
"He told me, 'That's fine, but can you find me a job?' "