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.
Thursday evening choir rehearsal at Urbana's Canaan Baptist Church is just one weekly activity that fills Mr. Summerville's busy schedule. His daily alarm goes off at 6 a.m. In fasting season, the day starts with Bible study and prayer. His grandson has band practice at 6:50 a.m. Regular Bible study and group prayer is on Wednesday nights. He also has to prepare for his Monday evening class — "Harmonizing Differences using African American Sacred Music" — at the University of Illinois. Meetings and doctor appointments are ever present, as are funeral services to play for, reference letters to write and rehearsals to conduct.
In his busy schedule, Mr. Summerville doesn't spend much time reflecting on his mortality. In fact, he is pretty confident he's on God's saved list.
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For once, he is not sitting behind an organ. He stands tall, proud, in his dark brown suit, while rows of white-topped and black-bottomed clad singers file silently past him onto the stage, ready to sing. The audience sits, patiently waiting for the last person to walk on stage. Mr. Summerville is taking it all in. He ambles up the aisle of the church, taking time to greet members in the audience and acknowledge his colleagues. By the time he reaches the front, the choir is ready and it is time to sing.
The friendly man who leisurely strolled to the front of the room is transformed. He raises his arms swiftly, in one gesture, and cues the organist to begin. Within the first few measures of the opening song, he is part of the choir. His age disappears. He conducts with such joy and fury that his energy outshines that of many young choir members.
He dances to the music, letting every chord progression and modulation guide his movements and lift his spirit. He is a show unto himself.
In this moment, it is just Willie T. Summerville, the music and Jesus.
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Born in Sunshine, Ark., near the Louisiana-Mississippi state line during the late 1950s, Mr. Summerville has lived what he calls a "blessed" life. He was the middle child of five born to Moses and Lenora Summerville. The only boy. He grew up in Crossett, a town about 40 miles west of Sunshine. His father was a lumber mill worker, church choir director and a quartet singer. His mother was a cook whose lemon sour cream cake was so good it has been passed down several generations. All the children had to sing and participate in church at least until they moved out of the house.
"Being in the choir was not an option," he says, laughing.
Music and faith in Jesus Christ have been ways of life for him, and sources of comfort, ever since he was a little boy. He learned piano from his father and started playing at church when he was 14. He can quote numerous scriptures off the top of his head, knowledge he refers to as "an insurance policy I'm walking around with that's paid up."
He is also one of Champaign-Urbana's best-known citizens, a literal icon in the sacred music community. After attending the UI for his master's degree in music education, he spent three years teaching music in the Champaign public schools and 35 years in Urbana's schools.
This year marks his 34th year at Canaan Baptist and his 45th year at St. Luke's Christian Methodist in Champaign. He has participated in more than 80 workshops and clinics at churches, universities and air force bases all over the country and world. He is even asked to occasionally hum a few bars at city council meetings.
"You know what will make you known with people and you don't even be trying to?" he asks. "Serve the people. There's so much to do; it's that kind of involvement. I've been blessed. There have been people who have shown me how much they appreciate my work."
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Mr. Summerville has believed he is going to heaven since he was saved in elementary school. But he's not in any sort of rush — too many things still left for him to do here on earth, and too many people who depend on him.
"I know that I do a lot of things that people depend on me," he says. "And I don't know if others would be as passionate about doing them if I was asked to go to heaven earlier."
Christians, he says, do not look at retirement like regular people do. Retirement for them — for him — is heaven.
"If I have health and strength, I want to be serving and helping others, and I do that."
Mr. Summerville is thankful for the little things. At his age, many of his contemporaries are in nursing homes and hospitals, but he is still able to get around easily, drive his car and maintain his vision, he says, thanks to God.
"I want to live out my life and do what He tells me He wants me to do," Mr. Summerville says. "I don't treat going to heaven like gambling."
Samantha Bakall is a University of Illinois journalism student. This story was done last spring in a version of Professor Walt Harrington's literary feature writing class that included students and News-Gazette staffers. Funding came from the Marajen Stevick Foundation.