Election Day Poll Chaplains Report Intimidation Attempts, Stories of Hope | Sojourners

Poll Chaplains Report Intimidation Attempts, Stories of Hope

Rev. Kwasi Thornell, right, offers faithful presence outside a polling site in Miami, Nov. 3, 2020. Photo: Tony Barreau / Sojourners

In Alabama, polling sites in low-income areas of Birmingham were relocated with no explanation and very little warning to residents – many of whom typically struggle to acquire a reliable means of transportation. Luckily, poll chaplain commissioner Sheila Tyson was there to galvanize the community and organize free rideshare services to get these voters safely to the polls and back home.

In North Carolina, a man came to the polls with a gun and stood outside after he was done casting his ballot, causing many to feel uneasy with his presence. Luckily, poll chaplain Bishop Claude Alexander was on hand as the threat was safely addressed and law enforcement quickly showed the gunman on his way.

In Ohio, the election officials chose a private building under construction as a voting site. But when people showed up to vote, the construction crew blocked the voters from entering until poll chaplain Angela Shute Woodson showed up and appealed to election officials who forced the construction company to allow voters inside.

These are just a few of the examples of voter suppression and intimidation that the Turnout Sunday/Lawyers & Collars network was able to correct peacefully on Election Day. Together, Skinner Leadership Institute, the National African American Clergy Network, Sojourners, and other allies were able to organize over 1,000 interfaith and multiracial leaders who volunteered their time before and during Election Day to ensure peace at a time when voter suppression and intimidation at polling sites of vulnerable voters has escalated. Poll chaplains were supported by the Lawyers & Collars Clergy Hotline and Command Center which was staffed by election protection lawyers through the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

This campaign was never meant to be purely political. Its roots remain theological and spiritual. For too long, we had witnessed efforts to steal the Black vote and to suppress and intimidate communities of color in the districts where our clergy serve. Our spiritual calling mandated action; we believe protecting the vote in those communities is tantamount to protecting the people’s voices. Standing up for their right to vote is a stand for their best interests. As our pastors stand alongside them, we honor Jesus’ fervent commitment to those pushed to the margins.

Our work did not begin in 2020. It is borne of relationships cultivated over time and of trust built over several years. The National African American Clergy Network is comprised of African American denominations and independent churches representing 15 million members who have been collaborating on public policy issues since 2013. Together, they worked during the 2014 midterm election, and again during the 2018 midterm election to educate, protect, and turn out the Black vote. Through this steadfast focus on community-oriented policies — ranging from health care reform, to the census and voting rights — our network shared early victories, such working partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) through local church networks to provide access to health insurance to nearly 2 million African Americans. While the Affordable Care Act was signed into law in 2010, as late as 2013 HHS reported that there were still 7 million African Americans who still had not been enrolled. The department invited the National African American Clergy Network to partner in a Black community health care enrollment drive.

Even during this global pandemic, we continue to equip and galvanize clergy. We hold a deep conviction that we must meet this defining moment with nothing less than moral clarity, a commitment to justice, and the energizing spirit that comes from our faith. This is what will be required to provoke our nation to live up to the best version of itself.

It is why pastors stepped in when they saw their communities being stripped of their right to vote, emboldened by the imperative that every American has a God-given right to vote their convictions.

Prior to Election Day, members of our congregations and communities expressed fears of widespread violence at election sites. They expected intimidation and confusion. By the time the day was over, our on-the-ground network of poll chaplains relayed story after story of interventions deterring countless attempts at turning these fears into reality.

But while our poll chaplains stood up in the face of voter suppression many times over on Election Day, they also experienced a renewed energy among their communities.

Back in Alabama, commissioner Tyson personally escorted a 106-year-old woman who was determined to “hand this ballot in myself.” Even though the woman’s polling place had been moved, Tyson and the community rallied around this woman to make sure her voice and her vote counted.

In Philadelphia, millennial pastor and poll chaplain Keon Gerow described the atmosphere as “electrified” as he shared firsthand accounts of staggering turnout at different polling stations. Many white suburbanites also caravanned into predominantly Black neighborhoods to ensure Black residents were able to vote.

It is our hope that soon all states will embody what we saw in Philadelphia and become filled with “brotherly love.” It is only by digging into this well of hope, resilience, and love that we will transform the world. Until then, we will be there as protectors of the polls and keepers of democracy to ensure there is, in fact, equality and justice for all.

We know that these angels on assignment will be needed in the coming days as we all dig deep into our well of patience ­— and in a principled stand against the deep divisions that still scar our country.

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