The Senate race places the Black America’s Church within the highlight
ATLANTA (AP) – For decades, the red-brick church where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached has been a memorial to the story of black Americans’ struggle for civil rights and the legacy of an iconic activist.
It took a high-profile Senate race and a Trump-era culture debate to put Ebenezer Baptist Church at the center of the current political debate.
His senior pastor, Rev. Raphael Warnock, is running for the Senate in one of two runoff elections that could determine which party will ultimately control Congress in the early years of President-elect Joe Biden’s new administration. But Warnock’s sermon has become a focal point in the race and justice debate in the election.
His opponent, Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler, has run ads of aggression containing excerpts from sermons Warnock preached from Ebenezer’s pulpit accusing him of being a radical socialist on the far left who does not support police officers or members of the military.
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The intense spotlight isn’t new to King’s former church. The 6,000 members are used to holding services only on Sundays, thanks in large part to visitors outside of town who flocked to the church. Still, Loeffler’s criticisms have drawn attention to a pillar of black life in Atlanta and a tradition of political activism that it represents.
“The Republican attack is directed not only against Warnock, but also against the black church and the religious experience of blacks,” said Rev. Timothy McDonald III, pastor of the First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, who served as deputy pastor from 1978 to 1984 von Ebenezer acted.
McDonald describes Warnock’s views as consistent with the Church’s opposition to racism, police brutality, poverty and militarism. Loeffler’s attacks include selectively edited portions of Warnock’s sermon in which he criticizes “the power of the police, which appears in a kind of gangster and thug mentality,” as criticism of law enforcement practices that have historically driven a wedge between departments and black residents.
“I don’t care what you think of Warnock,” he said. “We must defend our church, our preaching or prophetic tradition, our engagement and involvement in the community. We will defend that. “
Ebenezer is Black America’s Church, added McDonald. “It’s bigger than anyone.”
Loeffler responded and said in a tweet last month that she is not attacking the black church. “We simply exposed your file in your own words,” she wrote in a reply to Warnock.
Ebenezer is commonly referred to as the “Martin Luther King Church” and is located in the middle of a national park dedicated to the life and legacy of the civil rights icon, which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors and tourists annually. Warnock’s leadership in the Church is his primary identification, a position so prestigious that the US Senate is stepping back.
Warnock has continued to preach as he stood up for office – although this was recorded in an empty sanctuary due to the pandemic. In a message posted on Sunday, Warnock appeared to hint at the runoff election, telling viewers that if they accept that God has already endowed them with the ability to win against their opponents, they are “on the verge of victory” in their lives.
“If God is with you, you can defeat giants,” said Warnock, who ended the early morning service by also encouraging Georgians to vote on Tuesday.
“It is so important that your voice is heard in our country at this crucial moment,” he said. “I wouldn’t be presumptuous enough to tell you who to vote for.”
The church has kept its distance from Warnock’s offer. Ebenezer declined interview requests for pastoral workers. Instead, she issued a statement detailing her public ministry, including social services for the poor, the elderly, and formerly incarcerated, as well as more recently free COVID-19 tests and flu vaccinations.
“Ebenezer Baptist Church embodies the mission of Jesus Christ through acts of service aimed at feeding the poor, freeing the oppressed, welcoming the stranger, clad the naked and visiting those who are sick or imprisoned,” said the church emailed a statement to the AP.
Since the abolition of slavery, the Black Church has played a role in mediating the relationship between parishioners and political power. It is not uncommon for politicians, mostly Democrats, to camp out of black church pulpits. But it is still relatively rare for church leaders to move to public office.
If elected, Warnock would be sworn into a small group of other ministers who have served in Congress, including at least one other black pastor, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri.
In the past year, Ebenezer has been part of a number of major national news events.
This is where the funeral took place for Rayshard Brooks, a black man who was fatally shot in the back by Atlanta police in June. Nationwide police protests against George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis took place in late May.
Warnock was an officer for that service and for the funeral of civil rights icon and Atlanta Congressman John Lewis, who was a member of Ebenezer, in late July.
“This church is in the heart of Atlanta, and its leadership has always opened its doors to the ward,” said Daunta Long, pastor of Seed Planters Church of God in Christ in McDonough, about 40 miles southeast of the city.
The balance between pastoral duties and a national public profile is a common source of tension, noted McDonald, the former assistant pastor. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was absent from the voting march now known as Bloody Sunday as he was supposed to be preaching in Ebenezer on Communion Sunday, the first Sabbath of the month, according to Clayborne Carson, the historian who entertains King’s Papers Stanford University.
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Ebenezer was founded in 1886. His second pastor, Rev. Adam Daniel Williams, gave birth to his son-in-law, Martin Luther King. Sr., 1927 as assistant pastor. His son King Jr. was a co-pastor from 1960 to 1968.
The elder king, who served as Ebenezer’s pastor for more than 40 years, remained in the lead after his son was murdered in Memphis in 1968. The Rev. Joseph Roberts Jr. became Ebenezer’s fourth pastor after King. Sr. retired in 1975.
Warnock, who has served Ebenezer’s fifth pastor for more than 130 years, was elected Robert’s successor in 2005.
Ebenezer’s members, many of whom support Warnock’s candidacy, are concerned they might lose his leadership.
“People love him as their pastor,” said Xernona Clayton, 90, a confidante of the King family and a member of the Church since 1963. “Selfishly I think they don’t want to lose him.” They want the best of two areas: good representation in politics and a pastor in the pulpit. “
“I would envision these two jobs being full-time,” she added.
Morrison is a member of The Associated Press’ Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.
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