Mount Airy Pastor Rev. L.B. West discusses the importance of the March on Washington anniversary. (Hamil R. Harris/The Washington Post)

They stood side by side in Mount Airy Baptist Church in Northwest Wednesday night, the aging Civil Rights leaders and the young people who benefited from their struggle. Black and white and Hispanic. Men and women and children.

There were songs of freedom and lifted up prayers among the group that had gathered to mark the start of a week of events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

“Oh Freedom, Oh Freedom,” sang members of the worship team from Bridgeway Community Church in Columbia, Maryland.

On Saturday, thousands are expected to trace the historic 1963 route of the March on Washington. A second, smaller march will be held on the anniversary itself, Aug. 28. And in between seminars and panel discussions will be held by a variety of groups to recall the march and the movement. But Wednesday night was dedicated to worship.

Rev. Kendrick E. Curry, pastor of the Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church, told the crowd of several hundreds that the “prayer and praise service grounds the 50th anniversary march so that it can become transformative.”

“ If we simply gather without the very rooting that the original march had, and the spirit that King had, then we are forever off course and out of order,” Curry said.

D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and former D.C. Council member Frank Smith (D-Ward 1) were among those at Mount Airy who attended the 1963 March on Washington, as was Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Amos Brown.

Rev. James Baucom Jr. of the Columbia Baptist Church, who is white, drew loud applause when he said, “That same fight that freed you from oppression freed me from being an oppressor.”

Rev. L.B. West of Mount Airy Baptist Church said the gathering reminded him of the civil rights meeting he witnessed as a child.

“We had these mass meetings and those mass meetings would be the kick off for any march and those mass meetings would always be in the church,” West said.

But much has changed since the 1960’s when such gatherings attracted scrutiny from some elected officials. Rev. Joshua DuBois, former director of the White House office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, acknowledged the work of those early civil rights workers.

Rev. Barbara Williams Skinner, co-chair of the National African American Clergy Network and a spiritual advisor to President Obama, gave the closing charge for the evening. She she said that it was important to remember that march began in a sanctuary.

“It suggests that prayer and worship was behind the civil rights movement,” Skinner said in an interview. “It was then and it is now. Without the power of God we won’t get anywhere, we won’t have voting rights… we won’t have anything that we are really seeking.”