Andrew Dys

Hopeful delivers strong message, sermon-style

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., a presidential hopeful, speaks at Northwestern High School in Rock Hill on Saturday night.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., a presidential hopeful, speaks at Northwestern High School in Rock Hill on Saturday night.

For about 2,000 believers, church came early this weekend.

On Saturday night, in a high school gym, a guest preacher who isn't a preacher at all, but talks and walks like one, came to Rock Hill and ended his sermon with these words: "Now let's go change the world."

Nobody knows if Barack Obama, the senator from Illinois, will change the world and be the first black nominee and maybe first black president of the United States. But it sure seemed like he found a congregation to try and help him.

"A black man just like me, running for president, in Rock Hill on a Saturday night," said a guy named Jim Brown, who was born in this city and left 40 years ago to find a better life in Connecticut. He came back after retirement and he found someone who looked like him and knows his life -- and you betcha he was going to hear every word Obama said.

Because Obama tried to reach people not through a politics lesson, but through their hearts and souls, like a preacher would. The crowd, mainly black but some whites, too, were rapt by the sermon.

Three ladies, whose job it is five days a week to clean that school, volunteered to work to clean it Saturday night. Ella Baccus, Rosa Ann Lytle, Daisy Mobley. These three wonderful hard-working black ladies have lived in Rock Hill all their lives, 50-plus years for each, and all said they wouldn't have missed Obama. That's what Obama was Saturday: An event, not to be missed.

"Amen" hailed down from the audience several times, just like when a preacher gets going real good and the spirit is in people.

He excoriated the war in Iraq, and the audience went wild. He spoke to people about their families, how the economy and the war and the widening gap between rich and poor was about them.

And like in church, there was one person who had her own personal conversation with the preacher, like she was the only person there.

That lady was Shirnetha Belk. Belk had no microphone. She didn't need one. She was on the third row of the bleachers. Her voice sounded like a foghorn.

Obama railed against George W. Bush and Belk called out, "That's right! We need a new coach!"

Obama said he was impatient with the way things were going in the country and Belk called out, "I got it too, impatience!"

Obama told the crowd that parents had to do their part. Turn off the TV, make sure the homework gets done, and Belk called out, "Parents get after it!"

The loudest applause came for kicking at Bush. The problems with injustice. The shame of Katrina response.

But near the end of about an hour's worth of speech, when Obama was almost done talking about hope and so much else, Belk screamed out the only words that matter: "We must vote!"

Pep-rally atmosphere

Election Day for the Democratic primary is three months away. Not a single member of that congregation got to vote Saturday night. The cheers were loud and the audience joyous but nobody ever got a single vote on a Saturday in October.

It was an emotional pep rally in a high school gymnasium during football season, where the home team crowd jumped up and down and waved signs, and the cheerleaders and school band's drummers cranked people's emotions.

But the vote in January in the Democratic primary is what matters. And then the vote next November, 13 months from now. Who knows if the sermon will work for Obama and his supporters? One thing is for sure. After every pep rally, a game is played, and somebody loses.

That final score means everything. But the winner-take-all reality of politics doesn't change what happened when all these people gave up their Saturday night to crowd into a gymnasium.

It doesn't change the fluttering heartbeats of Dolores Williams and Tasha Roberson, who came hours early to sit close enough to the rear gym entrance to get hugged by Obama as he walked by and fall back into their seats with delirious joy.

Like all those people in that gym, whether they will vote for Obama or not, it was clear they believed in something Saturday that wasn't just about elections.

They were part of America. And to be in that gym and be a supporter meant you heard a man, or if you were lucky touched hands with him, or luckier still got a hug from him. And that man was black.

Whether Obama wins anything, that was something to be in the middle of and see, all right, on a Saturday night in Rock Hill.