Georgia faith leaders rally in Washington, urge passage of federal election law

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, speaks during a rally led by Atlanta faith leaders who traveled to Washington seeking passage of new federal voting laws. Photo by Tia Mitchell/AJC
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U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, speaks during a rally led by Atlanta faith leaders who traveled to Washington seeking passage of new federal voting laws. Photo by Tia Mitchell/AJC

WASHINGTON — A trio of gospel singers from Turner Chapel in Marietta helped kick off an event in the historic Mayflower Hotel that was part political rally and part worship service.

Above them was a banner encouraging passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a proposal in Congress that would reinstate a federal review of new election laws passed by states. A separate measure, the For the People Act, was also at the top of the minds of the faith leaders who traveled from Georgia to the nation’s capital to push for new federal voting laws.

“We are here for a fight,” said Lee May, the former DeKalb County chief executive who now leads Transforming Faith Church in Decatur. “We are ready to fight for free and fair elections.”

The worship service Tuesday night was the beginning of a multiday trip for the clergy and a small group of parishioners and local activists hoping to help change the minds of members of the U.S. Senate who thus far have been unwilling to commit to passing new voting laws.

Wednesday morning, they held another event at the hotel before walking down Black Lives Matter Plaza to the White House, where they prayed for God to change hearts and minds.

May is among a core group of four pastors that began to work together on voting rights after individually coming out in opposition to Georgia’s new election law, passed by the state’s Republican-led General Assembly. The group also includes Pastor Jamal Bryant of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Stonecrest, the Rev. Timothy McDonald of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta and Bishop Reginald Jackson, who oversees over 500 Georgia congregations in the African Methodist Episcopal denomination.

Although their opposition to Georgia’s election law and support of the two proposals in Washington align with Democrats’ positions, the pastors say their work is nonpartisan and about something bigger than who wins or loses any given election.

Bryant said he got involved in pushing for the federal laws after witnessing record turnout during January’s U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia. Young voters were more engaged than ever, Bryant said, and he felt the new state law was intended to stifle that newly found voting power.

During Tuesday night’s service, he laid out the groups’ mission as one intended to strengthen American democracy.

“We are here because we don’t want to tear the nation apart, but we want to build it up,” Bryant said.

The four pastors also tapped lobbyists to help them schedule meetings at the Capitol with senators on both sides of the aisle. And they met with Biden senior adviser Cedric Richmond at the White House on Wednesday afternoon. The pastors say they want Biden to use his bully pulpit more forcefully in favor of voting rights.

And they set up workshops to help teach members of their congregations and others how to engage with their elected officials. Each event was livestreamed for the people back home who couldn’t make the trip.

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson attended Wednesday morning’s event, where he encouraged the pastors and audience members not to lose faith.

“We’re going to get this done,” the Lithonia Democrat said.