Rev. Earle J. Fisher, senior pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, has provided a template for black clergy who want to lead their congregation into political power as well as spiritual power – and provided an argument for why these two forms of power are connected rather than opposed.
Frustrated by the lower voter turnout in black districts with black churches in November 2016 that saw the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, Fisher was called to action. He organized #UPTheVote901 (“901” is the area code in the City of Memphis), a nonpartisan collaborative that is committed to giving more political power, information and representation to more people and increasing voter turnout in Memphis and Shelby County.
“I wondered how we had disconnected the shouting, singing, dancing and preaching that happened at these hubs of black dignity on Sundays from the need to organize for political power on Super Tuesdays,” Fisher told a crowded room of community organizers, elected officials and activist clergy at the Deaconess Foundation’s Just 4 Kids Community Conversation on Monday, December 9.
“And I vowed to put my faith into political action because the lives of disempowered people (made in the image of God) depends on it.”
His bold leadership in the political space has shown results.
“And despite establishment subversion, being demonized by the mayor, ostracized by white and black clergy and scrutinized by some of the same people we aim to help, we trained pastors to canvas their congregations for increased voter engagement and we helped increase turnout in three of the four elections we’ve had since 2016,” Fisher said.
“And we’ve ushered in a more (potentially) progressive slate of candidates with a group of people more engaged and empowered to hold them accountable.”
At this charged event at the Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being (headlined by Rev. Jim Wallis, president and editor-in-chief of Sojourners), Fisher was preaching to the choir – that is, a choir of activist preachers. The moderator was Rev. Starsky Wilson, president and CEO of the Deaconess Foundation, who left the pulpit to protest in Ferguson and then to co-chair the Ferguson Commission. Listening intently was Pastor Traci Blackmon, another clergy leader in Ferguson and now a national leader with the United Church of Christ. Responding to Wallis and Fisher were Rev. Michelle Higgins of Faith for Justice and Deborah Krause, yet another spiritual first responder in Ferguson who would be announced as president of Eden Theological Seminary the following day.
However, his message must be heard and resonate beyond this group of activist clergy and community organizers. We encourage every clergy of conscience to heed his call and call your congregation to consciousness and action as the crucial election year of 2020 looms.
“Maybe we need more tension and dissonance. Maybe the answer is not shying away from the crisis, but instead of reacting to the crisis, embracing and revolutionizing the crisis,” Fisher said. “God is calling us to face this crisis head-on and understand that some of us have never had the luxury of doing anything other than that. It will take all of us. It will take our time, our talent and our treasure.”
For a slightly edited version of Rev. Fisher’s complete remarks, see the Religion page or The St. Louis American website.