A D.C. public school auditorium was transformed into a sanctuary yesterday as the Rev. Jesse Jackson preached an antidrug sermon and then prayed over 80 students he had called to the stage to confess their sins.

Jackson talked about the Bible, Jesus Christ and his own experiences as a youth and encouraged a crowd of about 600 students at Johnson Junior High School to "make this a drug-free school. When your mind gets clear, watch your grades go up, watch your scholarships go up."

Then, Jackson, who has led similar "healing" sessions across the country, asked the students to hold hands, bow their heads and repeat the words of a prayer: "Our Father, we thank Thee for a new day and a new opportunity. Forgive us of our sins . . . help us to get well and then tell the story that others might get well . . . . We are coming unto ourselves to get well, never again to sink into the trough of drugs and alcohol."

Afterward, one ninth-grader who admitted that he had used marijuana, told a reporter that "I feel like it's a new day. I don't need 'herbs.' It makes me tired and sleepy."

Last March, Jackson persuaded about 100 Spingarn High School students to admit to drug use and march forward. School officials later said that some of those students enrolled in a peer-group counseling program. Others had stepped forward because they wanted to register to vote, which Jackson also urged in a two-hour emotional speech.

Also joining in the prayer yesterday were D.C. School Board member Calvin Lockridge and City Council member Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8), as well as D.C. police officers who coordinated the drug-awareness program, the principal, several teachers and counselors at the school.

School Board President R. David Hall, who did not attend the program, said yesterday's prayers did not violate the constitutional separation of church and state. "According to the Supreme Court, compulsory prayer is prohibited, however public speakers are not prohibited from asking for persons to pray if the prayer is voluntary," Hall said.

Rolark agreed: "The prayer was a voluntary, personal-type prayer for those who came forward. It was extraordinarily inspirational." She said, antidrug events often persuade youths to "just say 'no' " when pressured by others to "get high."

She said, "Those who came forward now know that they are not the only ones who have feelings of remiss. It may really be the trigger they need to get onto a drug-free path."

Jackson described his antidrug campaign as a "crusade" to make drugs unstylish. He said his new mission is just as important as his presidential campaign last year.

"I have inspired these youths to come forward," he said, pointing to the cluster of teen-agers standing before him at the edge of the stage. "They've taken the first step toward solving their problems. Now parents, teachers and others must sustain this. We must say, it's in style to be sober."

He said, "During the presidential campaign the focus was on the budget and defense . . . now, in this campaign, the focus is on spiritual rejuvenation and character development. What does it matter if we have a strong defense and a strong budget, if our youths and armed service people cannot resist drugs?"

Johnson Principal Ann Thomas said, "Drugs are a problem in the neighborhood and it impacts upon our students. Though all are not involved, many are exposed to it in the area and in their homes."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson lectures Johnson Junior High School pupils who admitted using drugs or alcohol. By Rich Lipiski -- The Washington Post