At East Mount Olive Baptist Church, there's a funeral in progress for Port Arthur's senior pastor, Reverend Dr. Arthur Trainer. A line stretches out the door, and Kelley takes his place at the end of it. He's wearing a seven-button pinstriped suit, red shirt, red tie, red silk handkerchief folded into his lapel pocket. Trainer officiated at Bernadine Kelley's marriage to Dale Branch. "He was like a father to the entire community," says Kelley. A band is tuning up inside. A bass line thrums soft and close like a pulse. While waiting to enter the sanctuary, dozens of people want to shake Hilton Kelley's hand. "I saw you on the news," they say. "Keep doing it, brother Hilton."
This is a solemn event for Kelley, and a strategic one as well. You can do all the protesting you want in West Port Arthur, you can win Goldman prizes and score meetings in Washington, but you'll never really get the people here on your side unless they see you standing with them in prayer. And Hilton Kelley is still looking for a congregation of his own—not just followers but fellow activists. CIDA has 120 members in a city of 54,000.
A couple of nights later, Kelley calls a CIDA meeting at his restaurant. Seventeen people attend, including his wife and brother. "The first time I called one of these," says Kelley, "it was just me and some empty chairs. So this is progress." He sits on a stool at the front of the room, blocking the pull-down screen where Sade is usually singing. His 9-year-old grandson, Nook, Marie's daughter's kid, is teetering on a football on the dance floor. "This'll be short," he says. But 20 minutes pass, and he's just getting started. "We're going into Carver Terrace," he says, evangelically, "to teach the mothers how to take care of their kids' breathing." He asks the assembly to raise hands if they know somebody who's died of cancer. Everyone does.
Twenty more minutes pass. "Leaders are needed," says Kelley. He takes another 20 explaining how he became one, until he arrives at this: "Nobody can do it alone." Kelley slams his hand on a table. Even with its deep faith, the West Side doesn't have all the time in the world. His disciples respond with yeses, amens. Nodding and clapping. Nook starts doing something like a dance.
Elsewhere on Austin Avenue, Motiva is flashing its lights, blowing its smoke, groaning with expansion while, in this dimly lit dining room, the self-appointed savior of Port Arthur, Texas, is giving his sermon late into the night. He's come home—this time, from Washington—pounding his fist, waving his hands, speaking as if thousands are listening. Outside, there's no telling what's ascending. In here, Hilton Kelley is rising.
Do More For the World Around You
We Hear You!