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US Senator Raphael Warnock, who earned two degrees from Union Theological Seminary, drops in to chat via Zoom

With hundreds of friends listening in, the senator from Georgia is interviewed by the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, Union’s president

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock, D-Georgia, earned two degrees from Union Theological Seminary.

LOUISVILLE — Union Theological Seminary in New York City honored one of its favorite sons Friday with an hour-long Zoom conversation attended by hundreds of friends and admirers of U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock, D-Georgia, who earned a Master of Divinity at Union in 1994 and his doctoral degree there 12 years later. Watch Warnock’s hour-long conversation with the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, Union’s president, here.

Jones touted Warnock’s books, including “The Divided Mind of the Black Church: Theology, Piety and Public Witness,” which began as his dissertation at Union, as well as Warnock’s memoir, “A Way Out of No Way.”

You forgot one, Warnock politely informed Jones: He’s just published his first children’s book, “Put Your Shoes On & Get Ready.” “It’s a shameless plug,” Warnock said with a laugh, pausing during the conversation to deal with the noise level of children enjoying their Friday evening in the Warnock household. At one point, a daughter announced to her father the senator and everyone listening: “We’re going to watch a movie and eat key lime pie.”

“Children help you not take yourself too seriously,” Warnock said with a laugh.

The senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and just the 11th Black person ever to serve in the U.S. Senate told Jones his decisions to attend Morehouse College and Union Theological Seminary “are two of the best decisions I ever made.”

“In the midst of challenges, I bottled all I could from those experiences and took them with me,” he said. He called Union “the classroom” while places like Harlem and Abyssinian Baptist Church were his “laboratory.”

Warnock recalled a distinguished faculty at Union that included his advisor, Dr. James Cone; Dr. Phillis Trible; Dr. Delores S. Williams; and Dr. Christopher Morse, who had “the best sense of humor on the faculty.” He and his fellow students “would argue about what was wrong with the church and what we were going to do to fix it.”

But there was also gun violence and police brutality during his student days, and Warnock was arrested for the first time protesting the killing of an immigrant. Now he finds himself a U.S. senator “thinking about what it will take to build on police reform.”

“As awful as police brutality is, it is predictable given the current circumstances, and it is as inevitable as it is tragic,” he told Jones. “I see it not just as a problem but as a consequence of a more fundamental policy problem, and that’s mass incarceration, which Michelle Alexander writes about powerfully.”

The nation has just 4% of the world’s population and yet incarcerates 25% of the world’s prisoners. “For me, this is the domestic moral issue of our time,” Warnock said. “We have built an overgrown carceral beast … which eats Black and brown bodies. We have to reimagine our public policy and the society, a reordering of our priorities.” It’s not enough to debate “fund or defund the police. I think the issue is more fundamental than that.”

As rights are rolled back, including women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights and voting rights, Jones said that people might wonder if it matters if they vote.

“It matters!” Warnock replied. “Part of the work that voter suppression is trying to do is leave the electorate so demoralized that they stop trying. It absolutely matters. The moral work we’ve got to do, y’all, is reclaim democracy.”

“We’ve got to fight dark money and we’ve got to give people their voices back,” he said. “I’m glad we passed the first gun safety bill in 30 years. It was modest, but it was important to do.”

The Rev. Dr. Serene Jones is president of Union Theological Seminary.

Jones asked a few questions on behalf of those in on the call. One Union faculty member wanted to know how Warnock’s pastoral care training showed up in his political life.

“I think it’s what made me a better candidate,” Warnock said. “My bearing and orientation as a pastor show up in how I do politics and in the way I am as a candidate. People say they feel it and I’m glad because I mean it. I am a preacher.”

When he started making TV ads for his campaign in 2020, “what I learned that I didn’t know was that I could project the love, concern, empathy and humanity of a pastor in a 30-second TV ad. It got me just enough above the partisan fray to literally make the difference in the outcome.” Today’s issues are complex, “but I tell people I will walk with you even as I work for you,” he said. “There is so much hunger for community and authenticity.”

Warnock said he’s proud of legislative work he did to help cap the cost of insulin at $35 per month for Medicare patients. “I have seen up close what happens when diabetes is unmanaged,” he said. “I have been with people who got the news of [an impending] amputation and dialysis.”

Asked about how much legislation can be passed in a divided Congress, Warnock said that bipartisan work “doesn’t get a lot of attention” from the media. One day he found himself nodding in agreement on the Senate floor when Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was talking about a bill that would boost construction on I-14 in the Lone Star state.

“That same interstate runs through Georgia,” Warnock said. At the end of his speech, Warnock found himself saying something that surprised him: “Mr. President,” Warnock said, “I would like to associate myself with the words from the senator from Texas.”

“Even with my progressive bonafides, I’ve done a lot of bipartisan work,” Warnock said. He’s found an ally in Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, on reproductive health. “If you value life, and certainly I do, you ought to be offended by the high rates of maternal mortality in our country,” Warnock said. “I’m willing to work with anybody if it will help me get stuff done for people I care about.”

On Thursday, the Agriculture Committee on which Warnock serves was discussing the reauthorization of the Farm Bill. Warnock managed to work both Micah 6:8 and Matthew 25 into a discussion about food insecurity. He’d like to see more senators citing scripture even as they’re debating significant bills to help care for underserved people.

“We can’t cede the moral and spiritual space to people who are giving cover to the powers and principalities, the wickedness in high places,” he said.

“We could talk for hours,” Jones told Warnock. “The experience of having someone immersed in ministry and social activism is an unparalleled experience for many of the people sitting here tonight.” She wondered: “Can you bring us to a close by sharing what you would say to Raphael Warnock who was sitting in The Pit [at Union Seminary] in 1992, taking a James Cone class for the first time? What do you say to that student?”

“I’d say to that kid, ‘You’re in the right place,’” Warnock said. “I remember not feeling so sure about that.”

“Stay with the journey and find some sojourners to go with you,” he advised his younger self. “I’d also say, ‘Spend a little more time in the stacks — and have some fun.’”

“When you’re a student and it feels like what’s going on out there is more interesting and compelling, there is something to be said about staying with the process,” Warnock said. “I’m glad I was nerdy and eggheaded enough to stay with it.”

Jones told Warnock he would be in her prayers every day.

“Keep praying!” Warnock urged those in attendance. “Pray with your lips and with your life, with your hands and your feet — and keep the faith.”

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