Wendell Richardson, a 33-year-old construction worker from West Baltimore, met his first politician last Wednesday night when a buddy from work persuaded him to go to church.
It was the weekly meeting of the men's Bible study group at New Shiloh Baptist Church. But instead of studying Scriptures of the Bible, the participants listened to campaign pleas from two of the candidates for Kweisi Mfume's seat in Maryland's 7th Congressional District.
The contest demonstrates the abiding influence of churches in Baltimore politics and has renewed questions about just how deeply they should get involved with a candidate or campaign.
"I expected to leave here thinking about God, not about voting," said Mr. Richardson. He grabbed campaign pamphlets from both candidates at the forum, stuffed them into his pocket and added, "Normally I don't get involved with elections. I guess God is trying to tell me that it's time to change."
Over the years, churches in Baltimore have converted thousands of people like Mr. Richardson. Through forums and political education seminars, churches have turned apathetic residents into informed voters. Their ability to get people to the polls has made them a powerful ally sought by politicians, whether candidates for the White House or City Council.
But getting out the vote is not the only political strength of the churches. Since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, churches have pushed the social agenda of the black community. They continue to exert influence through alliances that have existed since blacks were pursuing integrated schools.
Some of those political efforts have pushed them close to crossing limits imposed on churches by the Internal Revenue Service. Because churches are exempt from taxes, they are prohibited from endorsing candidates in ministers' sermons and in church bulletins or newspapers.
Domenic J. LaPonzina, an IRS spokesman, said that churches may not form political action committees, nor may they provide services such as volunteers or free use of facilities unless the same resources are made available on an equal basis to all candidates.
"Usually during campaigns, I will see complaints challenging a church's activities," said Mr. LaPonzina. "We repeatedly advise the officers of organizations about what they are allowed to do and what they are not allowed to do."
Just such complaints were made about the candidates forum at New Shiloh Baptist Church.
The forum was organized by state Sen. Larry Young, a deacon at the church. Mr. Young said he invited only seven of the 32 candidates running for the 7th District congressional seat.
"We don't have the time to listen to all the candidates in one evening," explained Mr. Young.
Four candidates attended the event. Two of them had not been invited but found out about the forum from other sources. One of them was Traci Miller, an assistant state's attorney. She left the church in a huff after waiting for an hour to speak to the men's Bible study group.
"I was not invited," she said in an interview. "We never got a letter or a phone call, but I went because I will not be excluded from the table nor will I allow my constituents to be excluded."
"Churches are inherently political. The difficulty is when the church starts to play politics. The mission of the church should be to move people forward and to bring people to Jesus, not to get people elected to office."
The history of black churches shows, however, that churches have always played exactly that role in African-American communities. Most of the nation's first black elected leaders were church ministers or deacons because they were often the community's most educated leaders and often had the most interaction with white officials.
In the race for the 7th District, it appears that ministers hope to revive that spirit. Five ordained ministers have entered the race.
"To me it's like they are going back home," said Leronia Josey, an attorney who is a member of Bethel AME Church and a supporter of its pastor, the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, in his campaign for the 7th District seat.
In an interview at his downtown campaign headquarters, Mr. Reid said, "Preachers cannot help but be involved in public life. They carry the community's needs and burdens that are spiritual, political and economic."
The Rev. Arnold W. Howard, another West Baltimore minister running for the congressional seat, agreed.
"What we are seeing is a realization from the clergy that times require a re-entrance into politics of those who are looking out for the welfare of the community," said Mr. Howard, pastor at Enon Baptist Church. "And we feel that we need to enter directly instead of sending someone else."
Because of the fierce competition for church voters, each minister is closely watching the campaigns of the others.
IRS rules prohibit them from using their pulpits or their church's resources for their campaigns. However, in practice, the rules turn fuzzy. And Mr. LaPonzina said that although he receives complaints, the IRS has almost never sought to punish a Baltimore church for violations.
Alice Brailey Torriente, campaign manager for Mr. Howard, said she calls members of the church to help her with campaign duties. "They'll sell tickets, answer phones or do anything you ask them to do," she said.
"The Constitution states that the government shall not enact any laws that infringe on the freedom of churches," Mr. Howard said. "It does not say that churches cannot infringe on the activities of the government."
During services at Bethel AME -- which are aired on a local television station, across the country on Black Entertainment Television and in 130 other countries on the Armed Forces television network -- ushers wear "Frank Reid for Congress" campaign buttons as they take collection and pass out communion wafers.
Ms. Josey, Bethel AME's attorney, said that the ushers wear the buttons as individual supporters of Mr. Reid and that the church does not require them to wear the buttons.
One of the black church's earliest stands was the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. Later, churches came together to pursue economic equality for African-Americans.
In 1977, some 20 church leaders joined together to form Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD). Today BUILD includes some 45 churches and it has successfully lobbied city and state officials for numerous projects that range from scholarships for black students to the construction of low-income housing.
One of BUILD's most recent triumphs was the adoption two years ago of a measure that orders a "prevailing wage" of $6.10 per hour for all service workers employed by contractors at a city facility.
BUILD gathered hotel maids and janitors to attend rallies downtown, to meet with City Council members and to spread the word about the prevailing wage campaign in their communities and workplaces.
"That is one of the greatest strengths of BUILD," said Mary Pat Clarke, former president of the City Council who sponsored the wage legislation. "They are able to awaken ordinary people to their potential as leaders."
Candidates in Baltimore avidly seek the endorsement of minister associations such as the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance (IMA) and the Baptist Ministers Conference. Those endorsements, usually published in local newspapers, are made after members conduct closed-door interviews with candidates.
Money does not accompany the IMA endorsement, but the endorsement brings voters.
"The ministers have congregations and they influence those congregations," said Mrs. Clarke, who did not win the endorsement of the 300-minister IMA in her unsuccessful mayoral bid last year and whose loss is widely attributed to the large number of blacks who supported Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "Their endorsement means a lot."
Paul Mack, who coordinates the weekly men's Bible study meetings at New Shiloh Baptist Church, said last week that the opinions of the church pastor hold great sway with members of the church. "We are led by our pastor, and we are very obedient to his leading," Mr. Mack said.
Looking out at the men who attended Bible study last week, he added, "Each of the members is like a vine that runs out into different parts of the city."