One the most powerful speakers during the Democratic National Convention earlier this month was Representative John Lewis. The Georgia Congressman recalled being in North Carolina more than forty years ago on a Freedom Ride to challenge segregation in the South. He explained that as he and a fellow rider attempted to enter a white waiting room, an angry mob beat the men and left them lying in a pool of blood.
Many delegates cried when they heard Lewis explain how, following President Obama’s election, one of the men from that angry mob apologized; Lewis accepted his apology and forgave him. Addressing the delegates as “brothers and sisters,” Lewis talked about the sanctity of voting, and how that right is being threatened by suppression schemes.
Many people agree with Lewis that voting is a sacred act, and some are organizing their religious communities—their brothers and sisters—to defend what’s previous. One of them is Nelson Pierce Jr. A doctoral candidate in the Micah program at New York Theological Seminary, he’s also the pastor of Beloved Community Church Cincinnati, and the lead organizer with The AMOS Project. As Nelson explains, for him, voting rights are a matter of faith.
Voting Rights: A Matter of Faith
In 1984, the Reverend Jesse Jackson declared his candidacy for the Democratic Party’s nomination for the president of the United States. I was 6 at the time, but I remember my parents’ anguished conversation over the dinner table. Both of my parents had been involved at different levels of the civil rights struggle in the United States. My father was one of the first African-Americans to attend what was then Louisiana State University in New Orleans. My mother had been involved with the Black Panther Party in Detroit. By 1984, all of that was a lifetime ago to them. They had met and married in the late 1970s, both of them eager to build a life and raise a family; they had become deeply reconnected to their Christian faith, both of them taking on positions of leadership within the church. And, perhaps most surprisingly, they both had become Republicans.
At the time, my parents were part of the religious right that was growing all over the United States. They believed that the morals and tenets of the Christian faith were embodied by the Republican Party. They also were strong supporters of the work that Rev. Jackson had done, both in the civil rights movement, and with corporations. They felt that Rev. Jackson could best speak to the needs and hopes of people who had been marginalized, not just by racism but by sexism and classism as well. Should they vote for their faith or should they vote for their community?
I grew up believing in that same tension. At one point in my life, I rejected my community responsibility as an attempt to fully own my faith. During another point in my life, I put my faith on the back burner to fully present in my community’s struggles. At best, I thought that these were two trains that ran on separate tracks. It may have been convenient to do civic engagement with the community out of a church, but I did not see it as a part of the life of the church.
I was operating in this “separate track” mindset when I started seminary. On the first day of my Old Testament class, my professor began with the following text, and it was like I read the Bible for the first time when I came upon Exodus 3:7-8a:
Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey[…].
In Egypt, God was concerned because the government became unjust. God became active because the people were crying. So God sent Moses to change Pharaoh’s labor policy. God worked on behalf of those who had the greatest need. Later, when the children of the people whom God set free from Egypt were forming their own society, they would be warned to remember that their parents were once vulnerable, and that they should always provide for the vulnerable, because God cares about what happens to the vulnerable.
Ohio’s 2004 election process was the source of national ridicule. Long lines forced many people to make a choice between voting and going to work on time, or voting and picking up their children on time from school or daycare. Machines broke down, causing already long lines to be still for hours at a time. In addition, many people were told that they were not eligible to vote, much to their surprise and dismay. As I saw reports of what was happening, and I heard the frustration and disbelief of United States citizens and Ohio residents who were kept from the voting process, I could not help but imagine that the same God who called Moses to speak to Pharaoh was not pleased with what was happening in Ohio.
As it turned out, God was not the only one not pleased. The external pressure by the media and voting rights organizations helped create internal pressure by the state government. A bipartisan effort to reform the voting process got underway, and by 2008 many positive changes occurred. Among these changes were the advent of early, in-person voting and the expansion of vote-by-mail or absentee voting. These reforms made it possible for our state and nation to live up to its responsibility of hearing the voices of all of its citizens.
The sad news is that it was not long before the positive changes began to slowly erode. The in-person early voting hours were cut back in 2010, again in 2011 and, most surprisingly, even further in 2012. I believe that this is the reason so many clergy from across Ohio have been engaged in conversations with the Boards of Elections over voting hours. I believe that this is why fifty clergy representing different cities and denominational traditions gathered as a part of Ohio Prophetic Voices to meet the Secretary of State Jon Husted about his decision to cut the early, in-person hours back from what they had been in 2008. It is not simply because we have access to so many people, and it is not just because we care about the people. I am in this fight because of what my parents did not realize as they debated across the dinner table: that there is no distinction, let alone a difference, between the claims of my faith and civic engagement within the community. I am in this fight because I believe that God is concerned about what happens to the most vulnerable in our society, and I want to help our elected officials to be concerned about the very same thing that God is concerned about.
—Nelson Pierce Jr.
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.