The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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June 18, 2012

Young preacher embraces childhood, religious calling

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.

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