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.