Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church in the Mount Pleasant area of Cleveland was packed this past Sunday and the mood was celebratory. The service marked the 25th anniversary of the arrival of Pastor Larry L. Harris, with speakers and musical performers paying tribute to the minister and his family. However, economic hard times were not far from the minds of residents of this hard-hit neighborhood. A call for donations to pay for renovations to the church (including a wheel chair lift) was tempered by an acknowledgment that money is tight, and guest preacher Rev. Melvin T. Jones of the Union Missionary Baptist Church in Lansing spoke during his sermon about the severe impact of the economic downturn.
At the end of the service, Pastor Harris had a special message for his congregation. Parked on the tree-lined street outside the red brick church were two buses waiting to transport churchgoers to the Board of Elections in downtown Cleveland. The minister spoke about the history and importance of the precious right to vote and urged the members of his flock to ride the buses downtown so they could cast their votes early and celebrate the act of voting. He also emphasized the importance of voting in advance of Election Day, in order to reduce the crowding and confusion that has been experienced in low-income and minority polling places in the past.
The buses were there because of "Vote Early, Vote Big," a nonpartisan project sponsored by a coalition of organizations including the Cleveland NAACP and PowerPAC. Its goal is to mobilize and empower unprecedented numbers of Cleveland low-income and minority residents to vote early by providing not only transportation but also an atmosphere of celebration, including a post-voting reception near the Board of Elections with refreshments and speeches from community leaders. These festivities are to occur on each of the Sundays during the early voting period, and other targeted days as well. Participants are not encouraged to vote for any particular candidate, and voting is not required for participation in the ride and refreshments.
As the service at Mt Olive drew to a close I mingled with people waiting to board the buses. Church members Sherry and Caroline were happy to talk about the significance of voting and of having buses provided. "For me, its what our grandparents and we talked about, that we have a hand in history, and we have a legacy that we can pass on to our children," Sherry said. "This is more than just voting this year, this is a movement."
Caroline said that she was part of the movement when it started, "back when Dr. Martin Luther King started this dream." It is "so exciting to see this, that this is about to happen," she continued. "We are just standing here anxiously waiting for the congregation to get out so that we can get on the buses and go vote!"
A volunteer named Manda, who was helping to coordinate the buses, told me she got involved with the project because "I just think it's an incredible thing to see people in their communities going out with the support of each other and the kind of camaraderie and fun that can be involved in getting them to vote early in this particularly historic election."
I boarded one of the buses with about forty people and sat next to Mary, who is not a member of the congregation at Mt Olive but was glad of the opportunity to be driven to the Board of Elections. "I'm getting a little old and I don't like to walk far," she explained.
Andretta, sitting across the aisle, told me that she was very excited about riding the bus. "Voting is very important," she said. "I'm glad to see so many people on the bus and I'm excited about going. This is a very important election this year, and I'm just glad to be part of it." As to early voting, she said that it helps to avoid the chaos on Election Day. "For me, I can get up that day and go to work, without worrying about it." Another passenger, Denise, explained that she is a poll worker so she needs to vote ahead of time, and she is very aware of the need to encourage people to vote early in order to reduce the congestion on election day. The buses are an "excellent idea" to get church people out to vote early, because "a lot of people, they can't get out and get to the polls, and there is a lot of chaos going on" at the polling places.
Arriving at the First United Methodist Church at 30th and Euclid Avenue, the passengers from our two buses sang hymns while disembarking and marching to the nearby Board of Elections building. There we were greeted by solicitous employees and directed to a spacious early voting facility in the basement, except one church member who moves very stiffly with the help of a cane and was encouraged to vote on the first floor. There were more than twenty voter assistance stations set up in the basement, each with an employee seated before a computer terminal to process early voting applications, and additional workers patrolled the room to help guide the voters efficiently through the process. About fifty booths had been set up for marking the paper ballots, with ballot boxes standing nearby. Only about ten or fifteen minutes passed before church members began walking from the Board of Elections building back to the church, where the reception was underway in the fellowship hall.
Buses from the Antioch Baptist Church had come and gone before we entered the reception room, and voters from another Cleveland church were already seated at large round tables covered with colorful tablecloths. Our group of voters signed in at a front table and received a pledge form, on which they were asked to write the names of five friends whom they will encourage to vote early. After signing in we went to a buffet line where volunteers served us spicy meatballs, fried chicken, potato salad, and chips with salsa, accompanied by lemonade.
I sat down to eat near Cherie, who explained that for her it was a great honor to have been able to vote that day. "Within my culture it has not always been a right that we have," she explained, "so I'm very proud to do something that many of my ancestors were not able to do." She also said that it was "an extra special treat" when the buses came and took everyone down to vote together. "Not only do we fellowship in our church, we fellowship in our community by voting and becoming part of the political process and part of the process of change."
Cleveland attorney Subodh Chandra, who has been working with the NAACP on "Vote Early, Vote Big," spoke briefly to the assembled group. Referring to the history and importance of the right to vote, and how much has been sacrificed by so many to secure that right, Chandra urged the participants to honor that history and sacrifice by inspiring five friends to exercise the precious right of voting. "We live in a time when there is so much at stake," he said, "The choices that we make will determine our destiny in ways that we haven't seen in our lifetime. So making sure that everyone who is registered to vote understands their solemn obligation to honor their ancestors and their heirs by exercising their right to vote is so very important."
After the refreshments and lots of conversation and laughter, I joined the churchgoers in boarding the buses for the trip back to the church. Here Alli, an organizer for the project, gave the passengers one last enthusiastic message about writing down five names on their pledge sheets. "You are now in charge of those five people, and getting those five people to vote," she declared, and thanked everyone again for their participation. With a rumble the buses were started and we headed back to Mt Olive Church.
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