At 4:30 a.m. in Scottsville, Va., it's pitch dark and there are very few cars on the road. A family of four packs into their Lincoln, smelling of early morning after-shave and cologne, storing the collapsible stroller and the extra sweaters and umbrella.

"Look, the moon is following us," says Nikki Kerley, 4, staring out the back window as the car winds its way to the train station in Charlotteville. "The moon is Jesus."

"No it isn't," says her brother, Joey, 6. "Jesus is a person. He's not the moon."

Jesus is not the moon, Jesus is Joey's personal savior, and his mother Sheila's, and his father Joe's. Even his grandfather, Bryan Wheeler, found the Lord last year when he was almost dying, crippled as he is with rheumatoid arthritis and lying in a hospital with a staph infection. He started to improve the day after he accepted The Lord.

Sheila and Joe Kerley, both 26, took the day off from their jobs yesterday to participate in a "Washington for Jesus" rally along with about 200,000 other people from all 50 states and Canada. They think the country needs to be turned around, back to the biblical principles they believe America was founded on, away from the liberal ideas that allow things like abortion, homosexuality, bad public schools, drugs and sin to flourish.

"If it was up to me, I'd buy everyone [in his plumbing business] a ticket and close up the shop," Joe Kerley says. "I really want to do that much for God and the United States."

It's like this, he says, opening the 16-page tabloid special edition of the Washington for Jesus Newspaper. He reads from II Chronicles 7:14 in a soft, slow Tennessee accent:

"If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from Heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land."

And he closes the newspaper with the air of someone who has said all there is to say.

Sheila and Joe met in Charlottsville in the summer before her senior year. He had dropped out of high school in Pikeville, Tenn., and was staying with a sister in Virginia and "just running around." Sheila was going to Watson's Beauty School. She wanted to be a cosmetologist. Joe got his license at Watson's too, but never used it. Now he is vice president of his father-in-law's plumbing and heating supply business, which has 20 employes and pays him $16,000 a year plus benefits.

Sheila is a small woman with bright blue eyes who was once a large woman with bright blue eyes. She used to weigh 200 pounds, she says as she shreds lettuce into a salad bowl for dinner. Now she weighs between 110 and 115 -- that's another thing she says Jesus helped her with.

"I just handed it over to the Lord," she says. "The last 20 pounds were the hardest. But a friend of mine was praying for me too; I didn't know that until later . . . I know this sounds corney to a lot of people. But this was the first time I had personally witnessed that through prayer something had happened to me."

She has, as she says, an "outgoing personality." She is friendly and talkative, and loves her job as a teacher's aide at the Merridale Christian School, which her two children attend.

"I take my children everywhere," she says.

Joe, in contrast, is dark and laconic, a little shy and also obviously devoted to his family. He is an estimator with the plumbing and heating firm, and he likes his job very much.

Joe and Sheila do not go to the same church.

"I know people think it's weird, but I think it's really brought us closer.

I wanted to go to a church that had more children in it. And Joe goes to the Church of God in Crozet; it's mostly an older crowd. I wasn't quite comfortable there either; they don't like women to wear makeup or jewelry or pants. They're changing a little on that, but I don't like people to judge me on those things."

Sheila goes to the Christian Missionary Alliance, which also runs the Merridale School. There are two tiny gift-wrapped boxes sticking to her refrigerator door. She says they remind her to pray for their missionaries.

Both Joe and Sheila pray often. "I pray when I'm doing the laundry, or when I'm driving. If I'm working inside and my children are outside, I pray they are safe. You can do it anywhere."

Sheila does all the housework and cooking in addition to her job. "Joe had never made me work," she says, "He has always footed the bills. My jobs have been sort of playing at working, until now."

They own a 100-year-old farmhouse, which they have almost finished renovating. It is about 10 miles from Charlottesville, and their finding it, after months of seeing houses that were wrong or too expensive, was also the work of The Lord, they believe.

The 5:50 a.m. train from Charlottesville doesn't depart until just before 8 a.m., leaving a crowd of about 50 people in "Washington for Jesus" T-shirts singing hymns in the shabby waiting room of the train station.

Travel coordinator Chuck Armstrong reads the group a letter from "national headquarters," which describes the demonstration as ". . . the most important event of the decade . . . the impact will be felt worldwide." The letter also asks everyone to help defray the expected $300,000 deficit; please "make checks payable to One Nation Under God."

Washington is a mystery to the Kerley children, who have never been on a train before. Told that he is going to walking to the Mall, Joey looks downcast. "I don't want to go to a mall," he gripes. "Don't worry, it's not the same as going shopping," his father explains.

Carolyn Powell, the wife of Sheila's pastor and the head of Merridale School, leads a group through the train singing. "That Carolyn, she's too much," says Sheila. "She'll do anything.'

After getting off the train, the group is somewhat overpowered by a loud group from Alabama that is shouting "Hallelujah" as they go through the station. The Alabamians lead Jesus cheers outside ("Give me a "J", give me an "e" . . .).

"Are we traveling with a bunch of fanatics?" asks Sheila.

"That's what we're here for," her husband answers.

They walk to the Mall, where thousands have already congregated and a series of speakers and singers are booming out over a loudspeaker system. The Kerleys and their friends station themselves on a section of sidewalk. The Kerleys do not move from that spot for an hour and a half.

There is a group from Indiana with spangled Bible T-shirts, and a small group carrying signs that say "The Lord Is My Shepherd and He Knows I'm Gay."

The Hallelujah Chorus is ringing out over the Mall, and a man in a long white robe sits locked in conversation in the middle of the sidewalk with a young man in a sport coat. Another man insists on hugging everyone that goes by. When evangelist Pat Robertson calls for everyone to pray while holding hands, two girls hold onto a policeman, who looks slightly abashed. Lunchtime joggers run underneath the clasped hands.

"No one's asking you what church you belong to," Sheila says. "That's nice."

"I feel right at home," says Joe.

Joe and Sheila were "saved" at different times and in different ways. But one thing they agree on -- if they hadn't been saved, they would be divorced by now.

"I had actually made up my mind to leave Joe," Sheila said. "Joey was about six weeks old and I'd come home to Charlottesville for a visit and I was convinced I was just going to stay. Then after about a week Joe called from Pikesville and said he'd been saved and he was coming up to get me. And I thought, this I've got to see.

"He came up and he was a different person. He said he loved me and he opened the door for me, things like that. I couldn't believe it."

Joe had had a "miraculous" saving, a sudden turnaround from a rebellious life. He grew up on a farm, the youngest in a family of eight, and strayed away from the "Bible believing" fundamentalism that his mother had instilled in him.

Sheila was converted in a slower way. She says she'd always been a "good sinner," attending church regularly, especially to impress Joe's mother. But the "holy rollers" at their Church of God embarrassed her; she felt self-conscious about her weight and didn't want to display herself by walking up to the altar in front of everyone. "I resented what he had," she says. "But I hid it. I was real cute and cunning."

It wasn't until Joey, as an infant, was sick and the congregation was praying for him that she went to the altar. "I just sort of got convicted," she says. "I made a total turnaround in my ways."

If she are saved, she explains, "you aren't looking to fault people, you are looking to help them." Their childen have no sibling rivalry, Joe Kerley says. They rarely fight and are each other's best friends.

Even Joey has been "saved." "At a revival last year he just said, Daddy, I need to go pray. I need Jesus in my heart.' I knew I couldn't hold him back," his father recalls.

The Kerleys don't believe in the E.R.A., and they don't want evolution taught to their kids. One main reason they took the time to go to Washington is that they believe this country is in danger of being taken over by communists.

They're a little vague on exactly how the E.R.A. will "tear down family life," and their proposed solutions to the world's problems essentially boil down to, in Joe's words, "if everyone is good, and lives according to the Bible, then the world will be good."

"We should know more about these issues," Sheila said. "That's why I think more Christians should get involved in politics."

They love people of other religions, but they don't accept the idea that someone could live a moral life and yet not believe that Jesus Christ is God. Jews, Joe said, are "the chosen people, but they're still looking for the messiah."

Nikki, who wants to be a cheerleader when she grows up, is asleep in her stroller. Joey, who wants to be a baseball player, is hanging onto his father in utter fatigue. He doesn't want to pray, he wants to sit down. The Mall is crammed with people, and they decide to try to find someplace to spread their blanket and rest.

They have never seen so many people "standing up for God."

"That's what's important," Joe says. "Praise the Lord."