I work in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of northwest Washington in a building called The Festival Center. A lot of different things happen here: job placement orientations, AA/NA groups, church services, community celebrations, Servant Leadership School classes, and more. When I cover the front desk, people come in with all sorts of questions, assuming that I work for the organization they saw here before. Often I can connect them with the social service they are seeking, sometimes I cannot.
A few times each year, The Festival Center is used as a polling place for elections. So lately the questions I have received while covering our receptionist's lunch period have been about voting. One of these interactions in particular has stuck with me.
A home health care worker from Cameroon came in and asked for an absentee ballot. She said that Mavis, an African-American woman in her 80s whom she works for, wanted to vote but was unable to make it across the street to do so. I made it clear to her that I did not work for the Board of Elections, but I could help her fill out a request for Mavis's absentee ballot online. She left happy, with a form for Mavis to sign and send in to get her absentee ballot.
Earlier this week, the woman came back. Mavis was anxious because she had not received her absentee ballot. We called the Board of Elections office, and after being on hold for 15 minutes, we were told it should come in the mail in the next couple days. In the meantime, her home health care worker and I had devised a plan to bring Mavis over to vote on Tuesday in a wheelchair. If her absentee ballot doesn't show up, I'll be getting a call to go pick up a wheelchair and head over to her apartment.
I've read and written a lot on voting from a Christian perspective these past few months, but these brief interactions have taught me more than all the essays and books I've read on the subject.
It seems that Mavis is not concerned with crude political effectiveness-if that was her reason she wouldn't have gone through the trouble to vote. The District of Columbia is hardly a swing state (or even a state, for that matter). In her 80-plus years, she has seen enough broken promises-particularly ones made to the black community-to not be that naïve.
So why jump through all these hoops to vote? I'm guessing it is because she has a hopeful realism for the future of this country, even as she knows is was built on the backs of her own people. I'm guessing it is because she believes with Martin Luther King, Jr. that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." It is because she knows that we are slowly marching on toward Zion, not returning to it.
This is why the black church bled for civil rights, including the right to vote. These days, the black church engages vigorously in the political process and is not afraid to be downright partisan. This is not because they have placed their faith in 'the system,' but because they have been given a vision of beloved community which comes from the shared experience of life on society's margins. Engaging in the political process is one way they work towards that vision.
I imagine that is why Mavis is going through such a hassle to vote, even if her individual ballot won't matter that much. And it is because of her example and that vision that I'm going to vote too.
Tim Kumfer serves as coordinator of the Servant Leadership School in Washington, D.C., and previously worked as a Sojourners intern. His occasional essays and sermons can be found at timkumfer.wordpress.com.