ATLANTA — The third Sunday in January, known as "King Sunday" in Atlanta after Martin Luther King Jr., easily could've been called "Obama Sunday" this year.
King's words again filled the pews and pulpits at black churches across the country, only this time, they found new weight with Barack Obama's pending inauguration as the nation's first black president.
Many black preachers touted the moment — the 23rd federal observance of King's birthday falls on the eve of the inauguration — as a mark of America's progress toward a racially just society. Black worshippers sang "We Shall Overcome" and prayed to protect Obama's family and to help the country follow Obama's leadership.
At Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King preached from 1960 until his death in 1968, the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock was met with applause while he praised Obama's victory and imminent swearing-in.
"Praise the Lord as we look forward to Tuesday," Warnock said. "We ought to all celebrate this morning ... that we've moved closer to who we say we are."
At St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City talk of the pending inauguration was subdued, although there was a smattering of hats bearing Obama's name.
"This is a historic Sunday because on Tuesday, something that should have happened a long time ago takes place," the Rev. Dick Vogel, a member of the church's pastoral staff, said to applause early in the service.
More than 300 people filled the pews at First Cathedral in Bloomfield, Conn., to praise King and Obama before many headed home to pack for bus trips to Washington on Monday.
"Obama talked about hope — this solidified it," the Archbishop LeRoy Bailey Jr. said at the service, in which members of the suburban Hartford congregation watched tapes of King giving speeches that included his 1963 address at the Lincoln Memorial.
"On Tuesday, Jan. 20, this nation will do the almost unthinkable," said the guest speaker, the Rev. Harold A. Carter of New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore.
"A black man will lay his hand on the Bible, one of the justices will lead him in swearing that he will uphold the Constitution. ... Four hundred years ago, this was not supposed to be. We were brought here as slaves, as chattel," he said.
The proximity of the King holiday and the inauguration was not lost on the parishioners at Bethel AME Church in Baltimore.
"Dr. King pursued his dream for racial equality and we see the manifestation of that dream in President Obama," the congregation heard in the litany read during the service.
"Dr. King went to the mountaintop, saw the Promised Land, and assured us that we would get there one day," the litany continued. "Thank you God, that today is the beginning of that day."
The Rev. Frank Reid said he wanted to thank God for "letting us live long enough to see Barack Obama elected president of the United States."
Back in Atlanta, Warnock cautioned the diverse congregation of more than 1,000 that Obama's victory was not the realization of King's dream of racial equality, but a stop on the journey to freedom.
"We celebrate on Tuesday, but there's a day after Tuesday," he said. "There will be difficult days ahead ... we are on the brink of transition, at the threshold of a movement."