Although none of the children who marched at the National Shrine yesterday was alive when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. struggled and died for peace and justice, the signs they bore in their small clenched hands were a vivid testament to his living legacy.

More than 2,500 people from various races and religions filled the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast D.C. to remember King in solemn song and prayer on the eve of the first observance of his birthday as a federal holiday.

Many attending the 3 p.m. interfaith service were still garbed in their Sunday morning best as they listened to scripture readings from the Torah, the Koran and the Bible.

The services opened with a procession of about 100 elementary school-aged children from area churches, schools, synagogues and community groups carrying banners and signs that read, "Living the Dream," and "I Still Believe," evocative of the stirring messages of the slain civil rights leader.

Serena Braxton sat balancing on her lap a sign more than twice her size, bearing the name of her church.

Dressed yesterday in white knee socks, shiny black patent leather shoes and a lavender chiffon dress, Braxton knew King's message well although she was born more than two decades after King led the turbulent struggles of the civil rights movement.

"He loved people," Braxton said. "He loved people and he helped them fight for civil rights."

Shane Graznow, an 11-year-old from Herndon, said he had discussed King at school. "He made all people equal, he made it so people wouldn't have to put signs over bathrooms. He did something real special for a lot of people."

Donita Adams, 12, said, "Without Martin Luther King Jr., I wouldn't be able to do the things that I like to do today. I wouldn't have freedom."

D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy, a Baptist preacher who was chairman of the historic 1963 March on Washington, delivered the sermon at the two-hour service and drew a standing ovation with his a capella rendition of "The Impossible Dream."

Wrapping King's civil rights themes and nonviolent activism around the more immediate problems of drug abuse, poverty, homelessness and South African apartheid, Fauntroy stirred the crowd to applause. "I know Martin would want us to put flesh on the dry bones of our dreams," he said.

"Martin Luther King was a dreamer of what many considered an impossible dream, but he was not content to dream; he didn't rest until he made those dreams living realities. We need to be doing what he would have been doing to pursue those dreams," Fauntroy said.

Later, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry urged the congregation to spend the holiday trying to keep King's dream alive.

"Instead of just shopping or watching television or staying home from work, let us commit ourselves to to King's unfinished agenda."

"I loved it," said Laura Thalley, 23, of Northeast, who attended the service with her mother. "I wanted to do something meaningful to celebrate his birthday, and this was very moving."