SUMTER, S.C. (AP) — Zach Somerville says he felt called to work in ministry in his youth, but he ran away from it until early experiences in the U.S. Air Force changed his perspective. Now, he’s among a group of pastors in the Sumter community trying to help lead efforts toward racial reconciliation.
Somerville, a young adult pastor with Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, who splits his time moonlighting as a contract government cyber security analyst in Columbia for his primary source of income, sat down recently to discuss his life, dual career and mission.
Somerville’s family consists of several preachers, and his father, Dwayne, is a bi-vocational pastor as well. During Somerville’s formative years in the early 2000s, his father was a part-time outreach pastor at a church while being one of the first Black IT managers at Coca-Cola’s headquarters in Atlanta.
He would often juggle a few jobs to provide for the family and would still help lead Bible studies and other ministry efforts at church. Sunday was generally an all-day affair at church for the family, even after Dad pulled a night shift on Saturday.
From that, Somerville, 31, said he developed a personal conviction that church was not about money but about helping those who needed healing, and God would always provide gifts outside the church to make a way financially.
Another conviction he got from his father in his youth was a deep appreciation for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s. He remembers the books in their house on the subject while growing up.
“So, I was a big fan of the Martin Luther Kings, the John Lewises, Andrew Youngs, C. T. Vivians and Joseph Lowerys and those types of leaders,” Somerville said.
Still, there were things, he said, he saw in church that he didn’t care for, and Somerville decided to stay away from ministry.
But while in basic training in the Air Force at age 19, personal events changed his outlook and moved him toward ministry work, particularly with a focus on racial reconciliation.
One night while reading his Bible and praying, Somerville said a Filipino recruit approached him and expressed interest. Then, a week later, he came back and wanted to learn more about salvation. After a couple days of them studying the Bible together, a white recruit came by with the same questions and sat with them. Eventually, Somerville said, a wide range of ethnicities and backgrounds were represented in the study group, praying, learning and growing together.
“During that time, over about an eight-week period, I was able to help lead several people to Christ, just from me being willing to sit down and do my Bible study,” Somerville said. “And that was really my first experience of understanding that God created all of us all equal. It wasn’t anything about skin color. It wasn’t about age. It wasn’t about your background. It was just about Him and the love that He brings. So, being in the military really shaped my ideologies, how I feel like the world should be.
“That was my first understanding, and it made me eventually believe that our world and our community was so much better when we come together.”
He has held part-time associate pastor positions locally since 2009.
Somerville was stationed at Shaw Air Force Base for most of his six years in the military and earned four degrees, including a Master of Divinity in Religion and another master’s degree in cyber security. He left for a Department of Defense contractor position. Now, he’s with the Department of Justice in cyber security.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
The bi-vocational ministerial path that Somerville has chosen is a lot like his father’s.
His contractor position in Columbia is five days on, five days off, then two days back on and two days off. His shift is 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. He also has two hours of commute time to and from the capitol.
“It’s a hectic schedule,” Somerville said.
Sometimes, also like his father, he gets off work on a Sunday morning and gets home just in time to dress and go to church at Trinity.
But he says bi-vocational ministry and helping those in need is his passion.
America’s history of racism and police brutality that has been become a mainstream topic in recent months following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and ensuing protests have also raised the topic of racial reconciliation to the forefront, which is Somerville’s other passion.
Like many who take an interest in the subject, Somerville said, developing relationships and connections across races is critical to change taking place.
“You can’t change people’s hearts until they understand your story,” he said. “A lot of times, we come to preconceived stereotypes about people without even knowing them - just by the way they look. So, when you are able to sit down and listen to them and understand that, hey, this person is not really so different from myself, you begin to create a certain level of conviction, care and sympathy for certain people when they go through things that are unjustly done.”
Recently, in response to the heightened national issues, close to 70 Sumter pastors of different races and Christian denominations have organized efforts to build unity.
A nine-member taskforce was created to try to steer efforts and a broad strategy against racism and for nonviolence, and Somerville was selected as the taskforce lead.
He said he’s been impressed with other members’ genuineness in wanting to change, understand racial issues better and create relationships.
“The taskforce has been huge for that,” he said. “Especially for my generation — millennials — being able to see older whites and older Blacks come together and talking about, ‘Hey, how do we fix this?’ Because a lot of times, it’s a lot of talk and not a lot of doing. So, seeing people that want to do has been huge.”
He said he thinks if the group of pastors deals effectively on the issues, their congregations will do so as well.
Racial reconciliation comes down to being about God’s business, he said, which is love.
“Love, loving thy neighbor as thyself,” Somerville said. “The Bible says, ‘The greatest of these is love.’ If we show love, in showing love, that will get rid of a lot of the racial issues. That will get rid of a lot of the barriers, like the social class systems, all that.”