Few pastors throw their hat into a political race. But many engage in politics in other ways, both in the public square and in church sanctuaries.
W.T. Edmonson, associate pastor at Second Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo., sees political activity as part of his pastoral role. Looking at his own black church tradition, Edmonson noted the key roles pastors like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. played in the civil rights movement a half-century ago.
“During the period of racial segregation, pastors were often anointed leaders of communities, especially if their employment were full time with the church, thereby not beholden to the control of local business owners for their livelihood,” Edmonson explained.
“People of faith cannot allow injustice to take up residence in our lives; we must stand up and speak out against such acts. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’
“Pastors can’t be so focused on saving souls that lives in front of them daily are lost for lack of physical needs being met,” Edmonson added.
A former president of the Jefferson City chapter of the NAACP, Edmonson now serves as president of Faith Voices for Jefferson City, a local faith group engaged in politics and community organizing. He sees those efforts as part of his ministry.
“My involvement in the civil rights and social justice movement, I am convinced, is a calling from God,” Edmonson said. “Having the privilege to sit at the table with preachers of various faiths, denominations, races and genders has been enlightening and an honor.”
As the Missouri legislative session neared an end in May of 2014, Edmonson joined nearly 300 other people in singing, chanting and praying at the state Capitol. The group gathered to urge expanding Medicaid through the funding provisions in the Affordable Care Act. For Edmonson and other clergy leading the rally, this cause came as not merely a political issue but also a faith issue.
“It is estimated that expanding Medicaid would benefit appropriately 300,000 low-income Missourians and save some 700 lives per year,” he explained. “The basic question of the clergy and other concerned Missourians was this: ‘Do the poor deserve the same quality of health care as the legislators who continued for political reasons to deny the same to the poor and working poor?’”
After the main rally that day, many of the group moved to the Senate gallery where Edmonson and 22 other clergy and faith leaders decided to engage in civil disobedience, a political protest strategy heavily used by King and other clergy during the civil rights movement.
While a state senator spoke, a loud voice rang out from the gallery. Then other voices. For several minutes the clergy shouted a liturgy — often in unison — urging senators to “pass Medicaid expansion, do justice, love mercy” and “bring dignity” to the poor. Under an agreement previously reached with Capitol Police, the 23 remained in the gallery until tapped on a shoulder by an officer. The protests garnered national media attention.
Months passed before the 23 — mostly African Americans — learned they would be charged with trespassing and obstructing government operations. Other Baptist clergy charged with Edmonson included Emmett Baker of St. Louis and Chaunia Chandler, Lloyd Fields and Wallace Hartsfield Sr. of Kansas City.
In August, a jury found the clergy guilty of trespassing in the public gallery but not guilty of obstruction. They face a fine of up to $500 each, though they plan to appeal. The trial brought new attention to the issue of Medicaid expansion, which Missouri’s legislators still have not passed. Despite the guilty verdict, Edmonson feels confident they did the right thing.
“[We] argue that we were falsely prosecuted on a charge of trespassing in Senate gallery at the Capitol, public property, the people’s house,” Edmonson said. “None of the 23 desired to go to jail on the May 2014 day, but we were prepared to do so. It is not a quaint saying ‘What Would Jesus Do’ (WWJD). Jesus sought out the poor, fed and provided healing. We are called to do no less.”
Election Day Communion
In the midst of a divisive presidential campaign, some Christians are seeking to offer an alternative political response within church sanctuaries. One national effort is called “Election Day Communion,” which promotes churches holding a special communion service on that day to help Christians focus on a more important commitment.
Launched in 2012, the idea quickly sparked national media attention. On election day that year, nearly 900 churches in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., held an Election Day Communion service.
Jason Boone, who works for the Mennonite Mission Network and is helping promote Election Day Communion in 2016, called the purpose of Election Day Communion twofold. The initiative is designed “to help us remember our true and ultimate allegiance is to Jesus and to offer an opportunity to participate in an act of reconciliation and unification after the decisiveness of the campaign.”
Many churches in 2012 held a service in the evening after polling places closed and while other Americans stared at TV screens awaiting results.
Other churches had communion elements out for people to stop by and partake as they could during the day. This even occurred at churches used as voting locations, which meant someone could go vote and then walk down the hallway and take communion. Several Baptist churches across the country joined the effort, and in many cities churches crossed denominational lines to hold joint Election Day Communion services.
The Election Day Communion website, electiondaycommunion2016.com, includes information about the effort and a place for churches to add themselves to the list. Boone hopes churches will recognize the need to engage the campaign instead of pretending we can be apolitical. He sees Election Day Communion as a way for churches to offer a positive alternative way of thinking about faith and politics.
“The church can’t pretend things like elections don’t have a huge impact on the thinking and lives of people,” he said. “And not just the outcomes of elections, but the very process we swim in for 18 months. The church has something better to offer in response — infinitely better. We just have to make it known.”