July 10, 2014

Slices of Life: Willie Summerville: “Somebody say ‘Amen'”

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Willie Summerville directs a rehearsal of Messiah as Davion Williams sings a solo at Canaan Baptist Church in Urbana.

Darrell Hoemann/The News-Gazette

Willie Summerville directs a rehearsal of Messiah as Davion Williams sings a solo at Canaan Baptist Church in Urbana.

By Samantha Bakall — Willie T. Summerville sits behind the church organ, his fingers dancing on the keys and his lips slightly pursed at the microphone, ready to sing. He does not need his hands to conduct. His elbows, shoulders and upper body serve as the signaling baton. His close-cropped hair is sprinkled salt and pepper, showing his 67 years against his dark skin. His large, grandfather-esque bifocal glasses overshadow the rest of his face, but through the thick lenses, his eyes are smiling.

“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, what a wonder You are ” the choir echoes after Mr. Summerville’s lead, as the organ rises forth, full and authoritative, modulating up a key. The choir members are old, young, white, black, lifelong Christians and recent born-agains. Some of them sing at the top of their lungs, others are shy and almost mute. For some, this is their first choir rehearsal. Others have grown up in church choirs, just like he did.

“Beautiful rose of Sharon, what a wonder You are ”

“Somebody say, ‘Amen,'” Mr. Summerville dictates to the group in his raspy and resonant voice above the low drone of the receding organ. “We come every week to be unified and offer God something that should be offered for him, in decency and in order.”

Eruptions of “Praise the Lord” and “Amen” follow.

Read more here … 

This story was written by a University of Illinois journalism student in Professor Walt Harrington’s Literary Feature Writing class taught in collaboration with The News-Gazette. Funding for the class, which was taught at the newspaper’s headquarters in downtown Champaign, came from the Marajen Stevick Foundation. The story was part of an occasional series titled “Slices of Life” that ran in the newspaper’s Sunday Living section. All the stories in the series are also collected in the book “Slices of Life.”