Seminary student Sam Shields says he knows how important it is to vote. He’s a resident of Columbus, Ga., where there is a hotly contested race for governor between former state Rep. Stacey Abrams and current Secretary of State Brian Kemp. Kemp has faced criticism for not recusing himself from overseeing the election and has been accused of voter suppression after the Associated Press reported that more than 53,000 voter registration applications — from predominantly black applicants — had been sitting on hold.
"My faith informs my agency in the world and we are called to use whatever resources are at our disposable," Shields told Sojourners. "Luke 11: 5-13 is a story of persistence. And when I see injustice in our system or at the least, morally gray positions held by people in power, that is a call to act in the world. As a Christian, Christ calls us to the ministry of reconciliation, and that include the process of voting.”
Shields attends Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va., and applied for an absentee ballot on Oct. 7 so he could vote in his home state. His absentee ballot never arrived.
According to Shields, he followed up on Oct. 29, and learned that there had been an attempt to deliver the ballot on Oct. 23, but the postal worker couldn't locate his address, so the ballot was returned. Still, the Georgia office marked the ballot as received.
Shields says he tried again, giving another address at the seminary where he could receive mail, but his second ballot never arrived either. The reason? The voting office had spelled his address wrong, even though, Shields says, he had spelled it out loud on the phone. He said he was asleep, exhausted after days of ordination exams, when they called on Oct. 31 to let him know about the error. Finally, on Nov. 1, he applied for a third time.
On Nov. 5, Shields shared in a Facebook post that his third and final attempt to receive an absentee ballot had failed — it hadn’t arrived by the deadline.
In his post, Shields said, “My ballot did not arrive today, which means I am not voting because of ‘clerical errors’. The same ballot requested three times, and nothing.
As a Georgian, I'm disappointed.”
A couple of hours later, a friend offered to take up a collection to fly Shields to Georgia so he could vote. “Not joking,” the friend said.”I’d chip in.” His comment was quickly followed by a number of others who also said they’d contribute.
At first Shields protested. He had work to do for school and a worship meeting he needed to attend. He couldn’t leave on such short notice. But the encouragement and offers kept pouring in. Finally, Shields updated his Facebook post to share out his Venmo account and a plan: he would fly to Atlanta at 5 a.m. the next morning, then catch a shuttle to Columbus. He would have to first go to the election office there to prove his identity and cancel the request for an absentee ballot, then he would vote, catch the bus back to Atlanta, and land in Richmond that same evening.
At 3:30 a.m. on Election Day, Shields posted a photo of his watch on his wrist, with the Richmond airport in the background. He followed up with a series of photo posts: on the plane, in the air, arriving in Atlanta, on the shuttle to Columbus, at the elections office, and then, finally, another photo of his wrist complete with a Georgia voting sticker. His watch read 10:23 a.m.
“I am frustrated by a system that is seeking to steam roll through fairness for greed and power," Shields told Sojourners after the ordeal. "I understand the ministry of Jesus Christ to be one that holds systems accountable for the wrongdoings it commits, whether intentional or otherwise.”
But, he said, the community that surrounds him – and that helped him make it home to vote – gives him hope. According to Shields, friends, family, and community have chipped in about $1,000 so far.
“I belong to a community of people that strive to change the world with intention and thought, with feeling and work, not through apathy and indifference, cynicism and fatalism," he said. "These are the people of God for the churches and in the world. They are a blessing to me and to whomever they meet.”