As millions of Americans went to the polls to vote today amid anxiety about the results, concerns about voter intimidation, and even worries about post-election violence, some clergy showed up as election chaplains to bring a calming presence and safeguard voter rights.
Carol McEntrye, pastor of First Baptist Church in Columbia, spent four hours this morning in a shift as a election chaplain. She told Word&Way that as she reflected on “how important voting is,” she wanted to “help to ensure that the process goes smoothly, that people have access.”
“I was thinking about what can I do on election day that will be positive, that will be a contribution,” said McEntrye, who is also moderator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. “I was also thinking about all the conversations I’ve had with church members and friends and people who are concerned” about possible voter intimidation or even acts of violence on Election Day.
“And then I saw this [opportunity] and thought, ‘gosh, that sounds right up my alley.’” McEntrye added since it allowed her to be there as a minister and “being myself.”
Another Baptist minister, Bob Perry, told Word&Way about his similar experience checking in on five voting sites in Greene County, Missouri, today.
“I served as a roving polling place observer; checking for any voter intimidation or inappropriate behavior,” Perry explained. “We were trained to express appreciation to poll workers and offer water bottles and snacks to folks standing in line.”
Perry reported all the sites he visited “were calm and peaceful,” and only one had a long line with “about 250 in line expecting a two-to-three-hour wait.”
“No sign of guns or inappropriate campaigning anywhere, “he added. “We had hotline numbers to call if we saw any issues, but I did not. It was a very good experience, and I felt positive about doing my part to make voting safe and accessible.”
Before Election Day, both Perry and McEntrye participated in election chaplaincy training by Missouri Faith Voices, which explained voter rights and aspects of Missouri election laws so they could advise people with questions or concerns. MFV trained election chaplains for several cities across the state. And groups in other states launched similar efforts this year to train and mobilize election chaplains.
The training also included de-escalation tactics in case an incident occurred at the polling location. McEntrye said that “knowing how anxious people are about the election,” she thought through this role she could be “a calming presence for church members but also for other people.”
“Clergy can sometimes have a calming effect. At least for some people, clergy are respected,” she added. “People curse less around clergy, so it does effect behavior. So, just trying to think about how to be a positive presence.”
Given the potential impact of clergy presence, the trainers advised McEntrye and other chaplains to mark themselves as clergy. She wore a MFV stole and held a sign with voter rights information.
For her shift, she went to the designated polling site and walked about the parking lot to greet people, ask how their voting experience went, and prayer walked. As people left, she asked what the wait time was like and if they had any issues to monitor if the process was working as it should for voters.
“It was good,” she reflected. “Nobody was having issues, but a lot of people did thank me. Like, ‘thank you for your service,’ ‘appreciate you being out here doing this.’”
McEntrye also noted she greeted people as they came with “hello,” “good morning,” and “how are you doing?” She hopes that helped people since “even just small interactions of kindness and care are good for us and just creates a sense of neighborliness and community.”
When not talking with people, McEntrye said she was “just walking the parking lot and praying as I was walking — praying for our country, praying for the people who I saw.” This experience, she said, was “a kind of prayer in action.”
“For me, it was very positive because I spent a few hours this morning prayer walking,” she added. “That was a very positive, centering experience. We’ve all been kind on all edge about this week and what it was going to look like. I’ve had friends or church members say, ‘I hope there’s not violence this week.’ So, for me to spend a couple hours praying and walking and being in God’s presence and seeing that it was going smoothly was very good and centering for me.”