They look like military cadets, sound like junior preachers and move like ...
Well, imagine, in rapid succession, the moves of anArmy drill team, Michael Jackson, an Olympic swimmer, an African dancer, and the most in-sync marching band you've ever seen.
With names like Soldiers of the Light, Marching Saints and Shining Stars for Christ, these church drill teams, with their mix of rhythm and precision, are stealing the show at the 104th session of the National Baptist Congress, which is meeting in Charlotte through Friday.
Competition among the 44 drill teams from as far away as Chicago, Columbus, Ohio, and Houston began Wednesday and will continue today and Friday at the Charlotte Convention Center.
Presiding over the contest - each team gets about six minutes to strut its stuff - is Oscar Alexis. He's the national drill coordinator for the Congress and sort of the godfather of church drill.
He started something in 1981 when he brought a drill team he'd trained at St.Agnes Community Church in Houston to that year's Congress. Ever since, an increasing number of participating churches have founded their own teams and brought them to the convention.
The church drill team movement is blossoming, said Alexis, because the scripture study and team discipline help turn children into upstanding adults.
"It teaches teamwork - that's the main thing," said Alexis, 68 and an author of three books on church drill teaming. "It gives you a feeling of belonging to something - something outside of a gang. It's a big alternative to getting in a gang."
Or as his daughter, Valerie, a colonel on her Houston drill team, puts it: "It gives the kids a lot of discipline and gets them to walk a straight, Godly path, not the wrong path."
As competitions go, it's the friendliest around, with each team getting a standing ovation from its rivals upon completing drills.
And while they march, these uniformed teams shout songs of Christian praise and passages from the Bible.
"Are you ready?" asked the Dallas team that kicked off the show Wednesday, shooting their arms out, then down. "Are you ready - for the coming of the Lord?"
The only North Carolina drill team at the Congress is from St. Paul's Baptist Church in Charlotte, the host church for the convention.
Gen. Angela McDonald commands 13 children, ages 9 to 12.
"We're teaching our children to become disciplined Christians," McDonald said. "And the kids join because they like the creative moments and enjoy reciting from the Bible."
Or as Cherie Lewis, 17, of Houston's New Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist said: "I want to march for the Lord."