ST. LOUIS -- His voice rising and falling like the waves of applause that roll his way, Dane Jones works his Baptist church's congregation like a seasoned pastor. For the moment, his unscripted words overshadow the fact they were from a fifth-grader.
"If the Lord came today, what would he have to say?" the 11-year-old boy asked, setting up his sermon's theme before offering his thoughts on the answer.
"What would he have to say if such a flourishing, rich nation as America just stood there and turned their backs on him? What if he saw that parents were not involved every day in their children's lives? What if he saw that when we need him most, we're not courageous enough to say so?
"We're not brave enough to let him know that he's God and we love him. We have to get out of our pity party and tell God he's right on."
Dane went on that way for some 20 minutes during that sermon in January, testing the waters of making preaching his profession as his peers may dream of fighting fires, becoming doctors or traveling in space.
"He's a very understanding little boy, very energetic," said Yvonne Lampley, Dane's Sunday school teacher at the Fruit of the Spirit church. "He could say things to you that make chills go through your body, what a grown person would say. He explains lessons as an adult would. He's just an amazing child."
'Real care and sensitivity'
Grown-ups often consider him wise beyond his years with an IQ beyond 120, reading level of a high school junior and national test scores in the 90th percentile. The prolific reader went through the Barney book series when he was just 3, advancing lately to Harry Potter books and "Where the Red Fern Grows." He writes poetry, short stories and songs, setting his lyrics to music on a keyboard.
"His poetry is basically about love and freedom, and he writes a lot about God," said his mother, Juanita Jones, an eighth-grade teacher and minister who Dane considers his defining influence. "He has a real care and sensitivity about people and the world."
Just months ago, Dane said he had an epiphany that the ministry was his mission. He's already mapped out his path, planning to attend Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and study drama at Boston University.
"I want to go to any place in the Bible that will set an example on how to live our life," he said. "I can't stand to see anybody sad or crying. Even if there are kids being picked on at school, I'm always going to stick up for those people. I like to help people do things they can't do."
Such self-determination was woven into his recent sermon.
"The Bible says a just man falls seven times. Not once, not twice. Seven times," he preached, looking sharp in a dark suit and tie. "A just man gets up again and again and again and again and again, 'cause God lets you do that. God doesn't hold against you what you did three years ago, what you did five years ago. He has so much everlasting love for you."
A man in the crowd shouted, "Reach out! Reach out!"
Like attending school
Jesus, Dane continued, used parables "so he could give the word to people who would listen, so they could hear and understand."
"We have to take our burdens and throw them away, give them to God," he said. To him, having faith "is like coming to school in the morning -- you've got to pack your lunch box, because if you don't it's gonna be lunch down there with the devil."
"All right!" some churchgoers cheered.
"There's nothing that would ever turn me away from wanting to do this," he said later.