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‘Participatory democracy can be fun’

Webinar explores the church’s role in protecting voting rights for all

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Element5 Digital via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Panelists convened Tuesday to discuss protecting voting rights that in many states are increasingly imperiled decided by the end of the hour-long webinar that churches do indeed have an important role to play.

“I believe the church is an underutilized asset. Participatory democracy can be fun,” Valerie Rawls, co-visionary and co-founder of the EcoWomanist Institute, said during “Protecting Soul Rights: Voting and Human Dignity,” which was convened by the Center for Social Justice & Reconciliation and the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership at Union Presbyterian Seminary. “For us, [the church] is the place where we engage … a safe haven for information from trusted advisors and a body of believers.”

Barbara Arnwine

“Who do people want to hear from? Who do they trust? In the top five on the list are ministers,” said Barbara Arnwine, an attorney who’s president and founder of the Transformative Justice Coalition. “When they sit on their hands and they don’t engage, it’s a mistake. People want to hear from you. It’s you they trust.”

“America doesn’t behave as though [voting] is a right. There are so many ways you can get that right taken away,” said Andrea Miller, a member of the board of directors for the Center for Common Ground, a nonpartisan voting rights organization led by people of color. “Many of us have the ability to vote. But if you don’t use that ability, you’re going to lose it.”

View the hour-long webinar, moderated by Dr. Rodney S. Sadler Jr., the seminary’s Associate Professor of Bible and director of the CSJR, here or here.

Dr. Rodney S. Sadler Jr.

Sadler said he and students recently returned from a civil rights travel seminar. “We saw pictures of freedom riders, buses burned out, people who’d been beaten and battered, and memorials to so many people,” maybe none more famous than Medgar Evers. “Voting rights are imperative for all of us. If we are to truly respect each and every individual, we need to respect their ability to go to the polls. What that fails, our nation is never quite what it’s meant to be.”

“We live in perilous times,” Sadler said, and that peril ratcheted up in 2013 following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision, which opened the floodgates in many states to laws restricting voting.

“There have been hundreds of laws passed,” Arnwine said, “and they’ve been devastating for our democracy.”

Valerie Rawls

Rawls said the EcoWomanist Institute has targeted turning out African American rural voters in Georgia. “During COVID, we were concerned with putting people in harm’s way, and so we leveraged a lot of technology,” Rawls said. One message invited voters to stand on the shoulders of civil rights pioneers including Fannie Lou Hamer and Rosa Parks. That same strategy can and will be used in other states, Rawls said. “The rural sector is waiting for us,” Rawls said. “When we started to just communicate using the voices of women these women respected, they said, ‘Wait. There’s a familiarity here. I will do the work my soul must have.”

One strategy that worked in Georgia was organizing votercades, Arnwine said. “We got people to follow us to the polls like a pied piper. There were food trucks at the polls and so much voter support. When you do that, democracy works,” Arnwine said. “People don’t vote when they think someone doesn’t want them to vote. If you think your municipality wants you to vote, you’ll vote.”

One suggestion proposed by Arnwine: During a church event, pull out your phone and offer to help the person nearby to check their voter registration. “The churches can do this!” Arnwine said. “There is so much power at our fingertips we can use.”

Rawls has participated in voter registration events in church parking lots. “I think we need to go back to those good old days where church was a place of social and spiritual development,” Rawls said. “I believe the church can be revitalized” if it ministers to widespread public needs including economic development, education, public safety and housing, Rawls said. “If we put civic education back into church and Sunday school classes, we’ll be all right.”

It’s racism that drives anti-voting measures, Arnwine said. “We are better for the diversity, and instead we run and hide,” Arnwine said. “History will blame all of us for not fighting forthrightly and saying, ‘This racism that’s undermining our democracy has to end.’”

Near the end of the webinar, Sadler implemented a speed round of questioning. Why, Sadler asked, are Black women “so far ahead leading this?”

“For those of us trained for such a time as this, we are doing what we’ve always done,” Rawls said.

Andrea Miller

“We are lionesses defending our cubs,” Miller said.

“We think differently,” Arnwine replied. A poll of Black women living in North Carolina indicated that “social justice is foremost in our mind. We are obsessed with it. We’ve inculcated social justice as our spiritual base. That’s who we are as Black women.”

Then Sadler asked, “What’s one thing you would say to faith communities?”

“Be active,” Arnwine urged. “Commit yourselves to this fight on two levels: education and mobilization of the community you serve, and fight publicly for these voting rights laws … Let’s just do better, and let’s be active. It’s essential to the future of the church.”

Mobilize and reach out, Rawls suggested. “And don’t think this is about ‘the other,’ because you are the other too,” Rawls said. “It’s the responsibility of every person of faith to be fighting for those they claim to be their brothers and sisters.”

“The people we work with — they get it,” Miller said, quoting this saying: “Your liberty is bound up with mine. Whatever I don’t have, you stand to lose.”

After thanking the panelists, Sadler asked those viewing the webinar to “continue to do the work necessary to make sure every human being has their rights respected and is able to fully represent as someone made in the image of God.”

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