MEMPHIS, Tenn. - The parking lot is almost full when the dark-blue Cadillac glides into one of the few spaces left at the back of the church.
The Rev. Frank Harris Jr., guest minister, is arriving a few minutes late to the church in Arlington, about 30 miles northeast of Memphis.
He and his mother, grandmother and sister are at the front door when Frank stops so abruptly he almost causes a four-person pileup. "There's something I must have," he announces gravely. "My stool."
Frank's sister Laquita hurries back to the car to retrieve from the trunk a purple Rubbermaid step stool that will help Frank, age 12, stand tall before the congregation at Gray's Creek Missionary Baptist Church.
At 4-foot-10, Frank can barely see over a lectern without his stool, but he is a dues-paying member of the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association.
Frank knows of at least four more child ministers who have appeared with him at local revivals. But older ministers and theologians say there may be more than a dozen children who preach, usually as guest ministers.
"The Bible says, `And a child shall lead them,"' says the Rev. Donald Walker, pastor of Zion Hill Baptist Church and Frank's uncle. "They won't listen to old people, but they'll listen to their own generation. That's what's happening."
The Gray's Creek minister, the Rev. Wiley Harris, unrelated to Frank, has heard the young minister before and tries to prepare his flock. "It reminds me very much of when Jesus went to the temple at the age of 12. You will never meet another young man like this one on the planet Earth. This is what Jesus can do with a lad."
During the introduction, the young preacher looks solemn, unruffled. His pin-striped royal blue suit gives him the air of someone who means business. He practices in front of the mirror at home. "And in the tub and the shower," says his mother, Joyce Harris.
His father, the Rev. Frank Harris, minister of Mt. Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, says his son began accepting invitations as a youth speaker at age 7 but "accepted his calling about a year ago." By then, Frank Jr.'s invitations to preach "were coming in pretty regularly. I said, `If you're going to do it, you need to stop jack-legging,"' says his father, who encouraged his son to get licensed by the ministerial association.
In spite of his small stature, Frank, an honor pupil, now averages 10-15 points a game as a point guard on his church league team and, as a seventh-grader is awaiting his turn as a first-stringer on his middle school basketball team.
On Sundays, he accepts invitations from as far away as Louisiana to North Carolina. The out-of-town invitations mean seven to eight weekends a summer away from home, says his mother, who travels with him.
At Gray's Creek, Frank has now mounted his stool. He begins bluntly: "Father, statistics say I should be in jail, but here I am preaching the Word of God." Frank cites Psalms 101:6. "I will make the godly of the land my heroes and invite them to my home. Only those who are truly good shall be my servants," says the Bible verse.
"Are you looking for a hero?" Frank asks the congregation. "Each generation has heroes. My generation is also looking for heroes. We must emulate the good, not bad." The congregation appears to hang on every word, offering an occasional "amen" or "praise God" as punctuation.
Frank speaks in a deep, resonant voice that rises and falls with dramatic emphasis. "The HEE-ro in YOU can be UN-leashed with THREE innn-GRED-ients - WILLpower, TRAINing and OPPorTUNity." He quotes the lessons he learned from his parents about accomplishing goals: "The FIVE P's - PROPer PREParation preVENTS poor perFORMance," he says, making the old bromide sound like a lyrical Psalm.
"Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton and Colin Powell were great generals," says Frank. "But JEEE-sus was the greatest." His voice grows louder. The words begin to sound like song lyrics, then turn into actual song. "I sing because I'm happy. I sing because he watches over me. I have a HEEE-ro. His NAAame is JEEe-sus," says Frank, drawing out the syllables and shouting to the rafters.
Frank is in full song, and the congregation suddenly recognizes lyrics from the song Jesus Is on the Mainline, joining in with Frank as their conductor. Frank leads the congregation. He bends. He sways. He arches his back. He kicks like a martial-arts master taking a well-aimed blow at the devil.
When the song ends, so does the sermon. Frank, looking spent, takes his seat behind the lectern, and the Rev. Wiley Harris returns.
"Oh, what a day," he says. The congregation is still buzzing. Tears stream. Shouts of "Amen" and "Praise the Lord" are still coming. The organ plays in the background, and as the music slowly fades away the congregation grows quiet.
Church deacon Richard Murrell rises from his pew at the end of the ceremony with a quick assessment: "He's got power. The Lord anointed him." the Rev. Wiley Harris agrees. "He's a masterpiece." And a member of the congregation chimes in: "Amen."