SUMMERVILLE, Ga. — He entered in a black robe, a thick book pressed to his ribs. He wiped sweat from his forehead, his face. He clutched his clerical collar.
"Praise the Lord!" he sang.
"Yessss!" they yelled back.
The Rev. Solomon Missouri, 33, has been the pastor of Hemphill AME Zion Church since May. It's an unassuming church in an unassuming neighborhood in an unassuming city. There is no wide, gravel parking lot outside, no welcome desk or projector screens inside. But there's a rich history here, where the members' great-grandfathers established a church in 1889, where black children attended classes before integration, where current members have spent Sundays for the last 70 years.
Behind him, three women swayed and sang gospel hymns. In front of him, he saw 10 women, one man, two communion trays and a pair of lit candles.
Missouri wanted to talk about the week before, about how the Chattooga County commissioner ordered the Sons of Confederate Veterans to lower their flag from the group's monument on the courthouse lawn. About how a group of 100 marched downtown the next night, chanted about heritage and wrapped their own battle flags around that same pole.
Missouri's father had been a preacher, too, a militant man obsessed with justice for the black community. He brought the family to an AME Zion church in Alabama after reading that Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman were disciples.
But Missouri knows not to lead any movements here. He knows he's an outsider. Before a bishop assigned him to the Summerville post, Missouri had never been to this town of 4,400. On his first trip down Lee Street, he drove past the church with white siding. And he still only comes here on weekends after he works his day job at Clark Atlanta University.
Missouri feels comfortable preaching about problems for the black community — the national problems, at least. He told his congregation to pray for the Southern black churches that have burned down. He lit candles last month to honor those in South Carolina who died during a prayer service.
But local issues, the concrete ones Missouri wants to point to? The county's education funding? The recruiting of more manufacturers? The battle flag? Careful — he could be moved to another town next week at a bishop's request.
On this Sunday morning, six more people trickled in. Missouri opened his Bible to Philippians 4:12. Be content, he told his congregation. Careers and money and clothes won't quench your thirst the way God can.
He yelled. He sang. His voice broke. He reached for the ceiling, punched the air, wiped away sweat. Women flicked fans in front of their faces through the thick, humid air. A man in the back clapped, rose from the pew, shook his body and yelled, "Go ahead, pastor! Come on!"
Missouri preached for an hour. The congregation prepared for Communion and to sing "The Blood Done Signed My Name." But first, Missouri told them, he needed to talk about something.
About the protesters, about the battle flags.
Christians bring peace, he told them. But they also must push back against what they think is unjust. A Confederate flag in a public place, outside a capitol or a courthouse, no matter the county, is unjust. And if somebody calls it a symbol of heritage, he said, that heritage doesn't belong in an office of the government.
Missouri reminded his congregation that they have their own heritage. He didn't say "slavery." He didn't have to. Remember your ancestors, he told them.
He closed his eyes.
"God, let us heal from those wounds that are old," he prayed. "Let us heal from those wounds that keep opening themselves. Let us heal. Let us heal completely."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at email@example.com or 423-757-6476.