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Black Holiness groups unite on voter drive for first time

Black Holiness groups unite on voter drive for first time

Bishop Charles Blake (center) of Church of God in Christ and pastor of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles, joins hands in prayer with Dr. Dwight Riddick (right), the senior pastor at Gethsemane Baptist Church in Newport News, Va., and Dr. William Curtis (left), senior pastor at Mt. Ararat Baptist Church in Pittsburgh, at the 94th Annual Hampton University Ministers Conference, June 3, 2008. | (Photo: AP Images / File)

The Church of God in Christ, a predominantly African American body of 6.5 million members, is holding its first-ever national ballot drive. Another 10 or so smaller Holiness denominations, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church with 2.5 million adherents, are joining COGIC in urging people to go to the polls.

Holiness churches tend to believe in a second work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life that brings noticeable change morally, such as stopping smoking, curtailing pornography and ending cursing. Going back to those ways could signal the person is no longer saved. Pentecostal Holiness denominations such as COGIC think this second blessing also can lead to spiritual gifts such as healing or tongues.

Stringent Holiness groups historically have refrained from entering or emphasizing politics, which they see as worldly in nature. Most civically active black pastors are Baptist, including the Revs. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and the late Democratic Congressman John Lewis.

COGIC Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake has initiated “Press to the Polls,” part of a campaign to register 250,000 COGIC faithful and get them to vote in November.

COVID-19 caused the denomination to cancel its annual Holy Convocation, which nightly features a different section of the body’s work. The format has moved to social media this week, as those groups discuss the top issues in the campaign and the importance of casting ballots. The Evangelism Department hosted Monday night’s streaming, for example.

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“We could have had one clarion call by presiding bishop, but we thought utilizing those leaders and their influence over their constituents would be more effective,” Bishop Talbert Swan, senior adviser to Blake, told The Christian Post.

Blake was one of 26 Pentecostal/charismatic African-American church leaders to sign “An Open Letter to Hillary Clinton Regarding Religious Freedom for Black America,” that was released within 10 days of the 2016 presidential election.

The document took issue with her statement that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed” to secure “critical access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth.” It also expressed concern about her championing gay marriage and willingness to censor and undermine biblical expressions in public life.

Swan, who also signed the letter, told CP that while COGIC stands by those positions, there are others that voters in 2020 should consider too.

“We’re in the middle of the deadliest pandemic in 100 years with one of three black businesses closing due to this, millions are out of work, so it’s a grave concern,” he said. “The present president appointed nearly 200 justices, not one African American, so that is a concern as well.”

However, Pew Research found that in Trump’s first 3½ years in office, he has appointed eight black federal judges, 4% of his appointments.

The drive is COGIC’s contribution to the Black Church Action Fund’s “Souls to the Polls,” initiative, headed by Pastor Jamal Bryant of Atlanta’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, formerly led by the late Eddie Long. The fund is backed by Black Church Political Action Committee, which has endorsed several Democrats, among them Joe Biden, for president. However, Swan said his denomination is not affiliated with or giving money to the PAC.

The Rev. Benjamin Stephens, head of the Youth Department, is excited about getting teens and young adults to the ballot box next month. He told CP that 2016’s election didn’t strongly motivate those groups in the African-American community to turn out, but the 2020 contest has them seeing “voting as a protest.”

“We must continue to push for justice for the countless African-American females and males who’ve succumbed to public lynchings in America at the hands of police,” he said to CP.

An analysis of officer-involved shootings by The Washington Post found a total of 10 unarmed African Americans were killed in 2019, which is fewer than the number of unarmed white people killed in altercations with the police.

“Whether we had 10 of them, two of them, or one of them, it’s too many,” Stephens said. “Jesus would leave the 99 to get the one.”

The Youth Department head conceded to CP that the parties’ mix of positions can make it hard when deciding on which candidate is best to vote for. 

There will be a COGIC Counts Vote-A-Thon on Nov. 2, the day before the election, to make sure all possible are registered and ready to fill out ballots. Swan said the denomination will have observers at polling locations to ensure no voter suppression activities take place.

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