Wearing a dark blue pinstripe suit and brandishing a Bible, Ezekiel Stoddard stood before an audience of T-shirted teens at a youth revival in Washington. The topic at hand was fear.
"Tonight, my sermon is entitled, 'Do Not Be Afraid,' " the preacher began. He assured them that he understood that young lives can be fraught with peril and doubt. But God, he said, would take care of them if they let Him.
The sermon, interwoven with references to biblical passages, sparked shouts of "Amen!" from the pews. The loudest were from his mother, who was in the front row, using her video camera to document the moment.
After the sermon, a boy, about 12, rushed toward the front of the sanctuary to give his life to Jesus. Even the preacher was surprised.
Ezekiel Stoddard is 11. Last month, he was ordained as a minister in his family's independent Pentecostal church, an act sanctioned by the state of Maryland.
A couple of weeks earlier, he had knelt on the soft, spring-green grass in the yard of the Temple Hills, Md., house where he lives, searching for a rabbit whose nest he had found and inspecting a lizard that had shed its tail.
The reptile would be okay, he told his younger brother and sister, and it would probably grow another tail. His voice was confident and comforting.
Ezekiel is part of a centuries-long tradition, one that spans the globe. Even as the world becomes ever more modern and sophisticated, child preachers remain a subject of fascination and debate. Skeptics have suggested that they are more motivated by attention and pushy parents than God. How, after all, can a child understand the Gospel or the intricacies of ministry?
Others, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, who started preaching in the Church of God in Christ when he was 4, believe that God can, indeed, speak through children.
"God can use anybody; why not a child?" said David Warren, a member of the chorus that performed at Ezekiel's ordination at Fullness of Time Church, which occupies a former warehouse and is headed by Ezekiel's stepfather.
Everyone agrees: Ezekiel is committed, caring and mature beyond his years. He writes his own sermons, although his mother sometimes types them up.
"Ezekiel really studies the Bible,'' said Adrienne Smith, his mother, who is also a minister. "He will cross-reference, and he will go deep into the Scriptures."
He also likes to ride go-carts. He loves basketball, the NBA's Lakers in particular, and isn't above showing off when he steals the ball or nails a tough shot.
Ezekiel says God spoke to him in a dream when he was 8. "God said, 'You are going to lay hands on the sick and preach to the poor,' " Ezekiel said.
The voice, Ezekiel said in another interview, sounded like fire. "He said, 'Son, you are going to be something.' " The boy's mission? "Ministering the Gospel," Ezekiel said, "and running souls right over to Him."
Self-assured and uncommonly articulate, Ezekiel is on the case.
"The kingdom of God is at hand," he said in a sermon at his ordination. His hands punctured the air, seeming to reach out to all of the 50 or so well-wishers present.
"Repent," he said in a voice at once forceful and pre-pubescent. "To repent may be deeper than you think. You have to give your life over to the Lord. Don't act like this world. . . . Have your own mind set in Christ." The audience cheered.
At other times, Ezekiel dwells in a world where many people don't understand him.
"The hardest thing is, when I [tell friends] about Jesus, some of them will drop me and say, 'You're not down with us anymore,' " he said. "But that's what God made us for. . . . We did not be a Christian to not experience anything. God wanted us to experience everything to make us stronger in the Word."
Adults can be just as hard on him.
"A lot of grown-ups will look at me like I'm just a joke and I need to sit down," he said, sounding unperturbed. "But what they need to realize: It's not just me just getting up for fame and everything. It's for me to minister the Gospel. That's what God inspired me to do."
For Ezekiel, home is a large, gracious house with columns outside and a white picket fence. After the family's house was foreclosed on last year, Smith said, she and her husband moved with her four youngest children — she has six others — into the house in Temple Hills. She said "a good friend of ours allowed us to stay" there.
Smith works as a grant writer, among other pursuits. While homeless and living at the House of Ruth shelter years ago, she went to the University of the District of Columbia. Today, she home-schools Ezekiel and the three other children because she thinks they weren't learning enough in public school.
She runs a tight ship. Sitting at the kitchen table one morning, the children wore a uniform of khaki pants and white shirts. After doing their schoolwork, they rehearse music routines several days a week and in front of a mirror Thursday nights. Ezekiel, on his own initiative, studies the Bible for 13 or 14 hours a week.
With Ezekiel as the frontman, the children perform in a musical group, God's Blessings, No Chains Holding Me Down. The group has appeared on the "Bobby Jones Gospel" show on Black Entertainment Television, on local media outlets and at churches across the region. Smith said she came up with the inspiration for such a group when she was homeless, as she imagined a better future.
God's Blessings is mostly a family affair. Ezekiel plays the drums and keyboard, as does brother Hezekiah, 13. Corinne, 15, is on the bass guitar, and Micah, 7, sings, with a mischievous spirit, along with his siblings. The group recently added a fifth member, Jasmine Megginson, 10.
But the group isn't really about the music, Smith said. It's about the Gospel, and the message the children can spread. "These children are not entertainers or performers. They are music ministers," she said.
The music is catchy and smooth. A performance can start with a rap and end in a Jackson 5-style harmony. The children come up with the lyrics and melodies, Smith said, and she hopes that they can land a big-league recording contract. She has posted her videos of their performances on YouTube.
One spring day, Ezekiel, his brothers and sister, Smith and the children's stepfather, the Rev. Vasconcellas Smith, stepped into a white limousine driven by a relative who is a professional driver, and headed to a nearby elementary school to welcome Jasmine into God's Blessings. The class was expecting them.
But first, the family greeted surprised staff members in the main office. "Sing, children," Smith told them.
Dressed in white suits, they lined up by height and started in on an a cappella version of their song "New Attitude" ("I got a new walk/ I got a new talk/ I got a new personality"). The performance included dance steps and hand motions. A school administrator wondered aloud what was going on.
Ezekiel also feels moved to minister on his own. On a recent day, he spotted a homeless woman and prayed with her and used his lunch money to buy her a meal from Popeye's.
"I was just wondering why she was sitting there," he said. "My heart began to pour into her. . . . I wanted to let her know that God will make a way for her."
The Rev. George Gilbert Jr., assistant pastor at Holy Trinity United Baptist Church in Washington, is not among those who doubt Ezekiel's calling. But after listening to the boy preach about fear at the youth revival, he cautioned Ezekiel not to abandon his childhood.
"God has time for us to be children, and he has time for us to be adults," Gilbert told him. "Keep doing what you are doing, but don't stop being a child. Playing in the dirt, playing with videos, it will benefit."
That doesn't seem to be a problem for Ezekiel, though he already knows what he wants to be when he grows up.
"I will be a minister, evangelist," he said. "I'll be going about churches and preaching. . . . But I'm also going to have my construction job as well."