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Saturday, July 26, 1997

Bible drill teams teach discipline, spiritual values

By PAMELA LONG / Religion News Service

MOBILE, Ala. - A spit-and-polish squad files onto the stage and halts. Its members are nattily attired in military shirts with epaulets, jaunty berets angled to the right. The squad performs a sharp right turn and faces the audience. The sergeant barks commands, the marchers obey.

"Your left, your left, your left, right, left."

But the cadence that follows is not a doggerel about latrines, bawdy women or aching feet. It's the books of the Bible, a passage from Scripture, or a church motto.

Some 43 Bible drill teams from around the country attended the recent annual conference of the 3.5 million-member National Baptist Convention of America, a historically African-American denomination. Some 700 children - some as young as 5, others high school-aged - marched in formation, chanted Scripture verses and barked orders at each other.

"They learn how to communicate, how to get along, how to fellowship, how to accept discipline," said coordinator Pearline Perkins of Houston.

Most importantly, she said, the drill teams give children a chance for "spiritual growth."

"Some kids, when they come in to it, they come with attitudes. But once they get into it and receive the teaching and the training, you see them change," Perkins said.

About 18,000 adults and children attended the annual conference, at which the drill teams were a highlight.

Team members from the Main Street Missionary Baptist Church in Biloxi, Miss., recited the Lord's Prayer in unison, and chanted a series of Bible verses while moving their arms in a routine that resembled the popular dance La Macarena.

The St. John Missionary Baptist Church of Clearwater, Fla., drill team recited several verses from the Old and New Testaments:

"Proverbs three, verse five: 'Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.' Proverbs three, verse five," they chanted, bending their bodies to the right on the word "lean."

Fifteen years ago, Perkins organized a drill team at her church, the Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church in Houston, and then asked permission from the denominational leadership to hold competitions at the annual convention. The first year, more than 1,000 youngsters took part, she said.

Participation has ebbed and flowed over the years, and the national event has gone from being a competition to a "showcase," Perkins said.

Bible study is the heart of the program, according to Cynthia Ellis, drill team instructor at Corinthian Baptist Church in Loxley, Ala. Participation is also conditioned on certain rules.

"They have to attend Sunday school and Bible study and Baptist Training Union. They also have to make good grades in school, with a minimum of a 2.5 average," Ellis said.

Ellis' team was founded two years ago, and the 8- to 15-year-olds meet about one to three hours weekly, depending on whether they have a performance or a competition coming up, Ellis said. But most of the team's work is done outside of practice.

"They have to do a lot of Bible studying, and they have to read the Scriptures and memorize them. They know if they don't do it we can't perform, and it's not going to be the drill sergeants' fault," Ellis said.

Teams are judged according to certain criteria.

"They are graded on creativity, Bible knowledge, the quality of their routines, if the lines are straight, if their movements are all synchronized. Their uniforms have to be neat and clean, their berets all on the same way. Uniformity is what they are graded on, as well as their attitude," Perkins explained.

Most team members have their uniforms made by their mothers. Some purchase them from uniform companies that cater to high school drill teams.

Teams take pride in their uniforms, as well as the originality of their steps and performance, Perkins added. "We try to let them be creative and they create their own steps," she said.

But fancy footwork is not the main goal, and Ellis said she spends a lot of time on the meaning of the verses chanted.

"When they put songs into the steps, we want them to know what the song really means," she said.

Fifteen-year-old Jamie Scott, sergeant of the Loxley drill team, was impressed when he first saw a team at the denomination's convention in Mobile two years ago: "They looked real good."

Scott, a sophomore at Robertsdale High School in Robertsdale, Ala., said participation in drill team has given him a better outlook on life: "It gives you a better attitude about things. It helps you learn things about the Bible, like you have to learn Scriptures and books of the Bible."

Like Scott, many of the youths who take part in drill teams are already well-disciplined and well-mannered. But there are others for whom the strict regimen is new.

Many of the drill instructors have military backgrounds, and contact with well-disciplined adult role models fills a void for some, said Perkins. "We look for those who need it. We're trying to save them, and let them know there are some positive things that people in the community can do for them."


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