Clergy Corner, March 15, 2019

Clergy Corner, March 15, 2019

When the Rev. WILLIE COMER JR. traveled to Champaign to watch his beloved Michigan Wolverines take on Illinois, little did he know that the Big Ten football game would change his life forever.

Confronted during tailgating by an inebriated fan, Comer said he received a message he believes came from the Holy Spirit: Start a church in Champaign-Urbana.

That church turned out to be the now 10-year-old Berean Covenant in downtown Champaign, where 65 parishioners gather each Sunday to worship God and listen to Comer's emotional sermons.

Staff writer Tim Mitchell sat down with the 53-year-old senior pastor to talk about finding true love at a Burger King, adopting three children from DCFS and how the midnight basketball program he launched in Champaign is providing young people an alternative to drugs, gun violence and gangs.

What's your earliest memory of church?

As a kid, I went to Fidelity Baptist Church on 75th Street on Chicago's South Side. My earliest memory was playing drums for the choir. When I was a kid, I got a set of drums, so I started tinkering with it for our church choir.

Still have your set?

Yes, I still play. If our drummer doesn't show up here at church, I get out my drumsticks and play.

What high school did you attend?

Simeon Vocational High School. That's the same school that Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker and Deon Thomas attended. I played percussion in the band. And I played second base, shortstop and pitcher for the Simeon Wolverines.

I didn't hit for power. I was a thin kid. One game, I happened to be on the mound when my pants split in the middle of a pitch. I had nothing on underneath but a jockstrap, so that was memorable.

But later on, I got a single in the game in which we won the Chicago City Championship.

Have a favorite team?

Even though I lived on the South Side of Chicago, I have always rooted for the Chicago Cubs. When I was born, I was born into a family of Cub fans.

My great-grandmother loved Ernie Banks and Don Kessinger. My entire family is made of die-hard Cub fans.

How did you end up in the Army?

My parents didn't have any money to send me to college. So I joined the Army for eight years. I served in Fort Bliss in Texas, at Fort Knox in Kentucky and Berlin, Germany.

I was a stinger gunner, so we shot down airplanes.

We did do live firing and practiced on live missiles. It was pretty cool.

As a former Army gunner and a current minister, what is your message to people who shoot guns today?

I don't have a problem with people with legal guns and FOID cards and people who do things the right way. But I do have a problem with people who buy guns to put on the street.

Here in Champaign-Urbana, kids are getting their hands on guns now. Some have been involved in recent shootings. How do kids 14, 15 and 16 years old get their hands on guns?

When people who don't have any care for life get their hands on guns, that's a very dangerous situation.

What did you want to be when you were young?

I wanted to be a television cameraman. When I got out of the military, I went to school and majored in radio and television. My college had a television studio and a radio station.

I had my own show on WKKC radio. I played late-night love songs. I came on after the gospel show.

One day, I suggested to the station manager that my show should feature gospel music. He said that's a great idea, but someone else should do it, not me. So he fired me from my show.

That was the day I realized God was calling me away from that field and into ministry.

Where did you meet your wife?

Zabrina is an eighth-grade reading and social studies teacher at Jefferson Middle School. I met my wife at Kennedy King College in Chicago, which we both attended. I was pursuing an undergraduate degree in broadcast television, and she was working in the broadcast office.

Initially, I didn't like her at all because she was really mouthy to my friends. I thought, "This girl talks too much." So when I spoke to her the first time, I planned to let her have it, and she asks me, "When are we going to lunch?" I said we could go tomorrow.

We went to lunch at Burger King. And after that, we went to dinner at Bennigan's. We will be celebrating 25 years of marriage in August.

So Burger King changed my life.

How did you end up adopting three children?

We have three children — Marcia, who is 32; Tyanna, who is 30; and Vernon, who is 23. All of our kids were adopted out of DCFS.

My mother-in-law was a DCFS worker. We had no intention of adopting anybody out of DCFS. One day, my wife went with her mom to Milwaukee because two girls were being abused. The girls had been struggling with a mom who was doing drugs.

When I came home that night, Marcia and Tyanna, who were in seventh and eight grade, were in my house. At the time, we were living in a one-bedroom apartment in Midlothian, Illinois. It was crazy, but we kept them and raised them in the Lord.

Marcia ended up graduating from Eastern Illinois University, and the other one went to Western Illinois University. When those two went to college, we got a call from DCFS, who had a little boy who was 5 years old. Would we take him until they could find a permanent place for him?

A year later, we decided he was ours. We adopted him, and he has been with us ever since. Marcia and Tyanna moved back to Milwaukee to help their biological mom, who was really struggling with drugs. My son is now a manager at the Jimmy John's on Springfield and Mattis.

How were you called to become a minister?

One day, I was walking down the middle of the sanctuary at Fidelity Baptist and saw about 30 kids in the choir loft clowning around. The Holy Spirit literally stopped me in the middle of the room. The Holy Spirit said to me, "Do something with these kids." It was as clear as day.

I asked, "Do what?" The Holy Spirit said, "Start a youth choir." And so I did. So I walked to the kids and suggested we start a youth choir.

Within the next six months, 40 new kids started coming to our church. Two or three years later, I got the call to preach the Gospel, and so I did that and later became a youth pastor.

How did you end up starting this church?

I was a die-hard Michigan fan because I had played for a high school team called the Wolverines, with blue and gold colors. My brother-in-law had season tickets down here, and he invited me to come for Michigan's football game at Illinois.

I had never been at a tailgate before. I met a man who was inebriated. I asked him how old he was. He said he had just turned 21, had been drinking all night and was still partying. It bothered me. I couldn't believe this guy was looking for more to drink.

Just then, a man pulled up with a truck that had a full-sized casket on the trailer. He had insulated the casket and made it a cooler. When he opened it, the casket was filled with all kinds of alcoholic beverages. So this kid goes over there and starts drinking again. Just then, I heard the Holy Spirit tell me, "This is why you are going to move here."

I said to God, "No, I'm not coming here."

"Yes, you are," God said.

So I told God: "If I am coming to Champaign, you figure it out." Three days later, I received a telephone call from Don Davenport from the Evangelical Covenant Church in Chicago. He said the church was looking for ethnic pastors.

"If we were to choose you," he said, "where would you be planted?"

And I said, "Champaign."

He said the church had been praying to put a Covenant church in Champaign. Two days later, they flew me out to a church planter's training in California. In February 2009, Zabrina and I had packed everything we had and were driving to Champaign. But we had no place to stay.

I said to God, "If I get to Champaign and have no place to stay, I am turning around and going back home."

Minutes later, my phone rang. A friend of a friend of mine who lives in Champaign said the house next door to him was vacant. He would call the woman who owned it for me.

By the time I got to Champaign, the lady was standing outside the house, and I handed her the first month's rent and security deposit. Now it is 10 years later, and our church is still going strong.

Tell us about the midnight basketball program you started.

We do a midnight basketball program every Friday night for middle school kids at Stratton Elementary and high school students at Douglass Park. Midnight basketball had been something I was involved with in one of the tough neighborhoods in Chicago. We do it to help curb the violence among young people.

When I came to Champaign, we needed a program that would be impactful. Violence had started picking up here in Champaign-Urbana. I knew if we could get kids to come out to play basketball, we would be able to reach them with the Gospel. Youth basketball is an effective way to teach Christ to young people. We have a Bible study and prayer every night. We draw about 50 to 60 kids each Friday at both gyms.

For these kids, midnight basketball is the place to hang out. This is the important thing: On Friday nights, our kids are in a place that is safe. They won't be in trouble. They won't be on the streets. They won't be in gangs doing something crazy.

We talk about gangs openly. We have some kids who were involved in these gangs and cliques. We can't save them all. But, for the ones who want to hear it, the ones who want to change, I'm here for them.

And for the others, I can pray for them.

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