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Presbyterian pastor joins hunger strike for voting rights

The pastor of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, seeks a congressional breakthrough

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Bart Smith, pastor of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, is taking part in the Hunger Strike for Voting Rights. (Photo by Irvin Richards)

LOUISVILLE — The pastor of a Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, has joined a hunger strike by an interfaith coalition that wants Congress to pass voting rights legislation by Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 17.

The Rev. Bart Smith of St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church is on a hunger strike with Faith for Black Lives, a coalition of about 25 faith leaders pushing for passage of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

The right to vote is a “civic sacrament” and “a reflection of the God-given dignity of all people to have a voice in the democratic process,” said Smith, a fellow activist and acquaintance of the Rev. Stephen A. Green, the New York minister who planned the strike.

“These (voting rights) bills and other really important legislation is held up by the filibuster, which I believe to be a Jim Crow-era relic,” Smith said.

The House passed a combined version of the voting rights bills on Thursday as part of a plan by Democrats to expedite the consideration of the bills in the Senate. But Senate passage appears dim because of opposition to changing the filibuster rules, according to The New York Times.

Smith, who was interviewed before Thursday’s happenings, said he joined the hunger strike because he believes that voting rights are under attack in this country.

“Since the 2020 election, there has been a concerted effort … to suppress the right to vote, through gerrymandering to restricted early voting access to voter ID laws to other pieces of legislation that specifically impact historically marginalized communities like people of color and low-income folks,” Smith said. Many of the states that are involved are “swing states, and so these voter restrictions are going to have an immediate impact on the composition of Congress and in future presidential elections.”

Thus, the need for the federal voting rights legislation and calls by groups such as the Poor People’s Campaign to change filibuster rules that hinder the chance of the voting rights legislation moving forward. (Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, said on Thursday that she would not support the change, a major blow to efforts to pass the voting rights legislation, according to the Times.).

Earlier this week, President Joe Biden made his feelings known while making a visit to Georgia.

“I support changing the Senate rules, whichever way they need to be changed to prevent a minority of senators from blocking actions on voting rights,” Biden said during his Tuesday speech in Atlanta.

Biden also raised some tough questions for lawmakers to reflect upon, according to CNN: “Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis? This is the moment to decide, to defend our elections, to defend our democracy. If you do that, you will not be alone.”

Smith was heartened by Biden’s speech. “I was grateful that he offered a strong and unequivocal response, and I appreciate his leadership on this, and now we need the Senate to follow through.”

In the meantime, Smith, who hasn’t had solid food since late last week, is staying hydrated and relying on God to get him through the hunger strike. “The Lord is my strength,” Smith said.

The Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett is president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

The Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, issued a statement Thursday in support of the hunger strike.

“We should be making it easier for citizens to vote, not harder,” Moffett said. “Every voice matters. Every opinion counts. This hunger strike is speaking up and speaking out against injustice, the only way that change comes.”

The hunger strike kicked off on the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and is expected to end on Monday, a deadline previously set by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, for a vote on changing the filibuster rules.

Smith is the only Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastor on the coordinating team for the strike, which mostly includes AME pastors but also some United Church of Christ ministers and a few other leaders.

“As faith leaders, we are called to speak truth to power and to raise the conscience of this nation through moral resistance,” Green, pastor of The Luke NYC, St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem and the chair of Faith for Black Lives, said in a news release. “This hunger strike reflects our deep commitment to radical love in action to redeem the soul of this nation. As we approach midnight for our democracy, the United States Congress must act urgently to pass voting rights legislation now.”

Smith, who will be taking part in a vigil by the coalition Sunday night, explained further why the matter is viewed as urgent.

“We as a nation, we as individual communities, can’t make any progress on the most pressing … issues of our time if we don’t secure the right to vote,” Smith said. “Like climate change, health care, immigration reform, we can’t move on those fronts if the right to vote is diminished.”

Smith hopes that other Presbyterians will support the coalition’s fight.

“Please pray for us,” he said, “but in addition to praying for us, pray with your feet by calling your United States senators and urging them to vote for the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Act.”

The Office of Public Witness also has been asking people to call their senators to get them to support the voting rights legislation to protect the right to vote and hold states and jurisdictions accountable for administering elections fairly.

“As people of faith, we have a responsibility to ensure that everyone can participate in politics for the good of the community,” OPW said in recent Action Alert. “It is essential to ensure that everyone has the ability to make their voices heard in our democracy.”

Moffett also has called for Presbyterians to get involved. “I invite each of us to find fresh ways to embody what Matthew 25 calls us to be — welcoming, just and engaged. I encourage you to write your senator, congressperson and local leaders. It will take all of us working together to envision a better, brighter future for our nation and world.”

The Office of Public Witness is one of the Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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