CLEVELAND (RNS) — The Rev. Tony Minor concluded the Sunday (Aug. 6) service at the Community of Faith Assembly, a Pentecostal church in Cleveland’s North Broadway neighborhood, by reminding the congregation of the cost African Americans had paid for the right to vote.
“Voting is holy ground! ” said Minor, standing in front of the church’s wooden altar. “This is holy ground! Blood was shed that we might have a right to vote.”
On Tuesday, Ohioans are voting in a special election on Issue 1, a ballot initiative aimed at fending off efforts to amend the state constitution to include a right to abortion. But Minor and other Ohio faith leaders say Issue 1 about more than abortion. It’s a matter of democracy, and of faith.
For the last six months, Minor has been one of dozens of faith leaders across Ohio — many of them Black clergy — hosting rallies, news conferences and educational sessions, encouraging early voting, offering rides to the polls and canvassing as part of a broader statewide movement against Issue 1.
“We have to be ready and prepared to deal with public policy,” Minor told Religion News Service. “It’s at the heart and soul of who we are as people of faith, as a prophetic, African American community who understands that our faith calls us to love one another, and to try to make this world a better world for all.”
The measure, the only issue on Tuesday’s ballot, would raise the threshold for passing citizen-led ballot initiatives to amend the state’s constitution from a simple majority to 60%. It would also require signatures from all 88 Ohio counties to place an initiative on the ballot. Currently, signatures are required from only 44 counties.
If approved, Issue 1 would make it more difficult to pass a November ballot initiative that would codify the right to an abortion with “reasonable limits,” including restrictions after a fetus’s viability outside the womb. It would also raise the bar for passing future ballot initiatives on any issue.
The vote on the initiative has become a national fight, drawing money and activists on both sides of the abortion debate from across the United States. Black faith leaders, with a long history of defending voting rights for their congregants, are concerned about Ohioans’ ability to make change via the ballot.
The Rev. Raymond Greene Jr., executive director of Black Led Organizing Collaborative in Akron, just south of Cleveland, said Issue 1 could result in what he called “collateral damage” that would silence the voices of Ohioans in the long term.
“This is in direct contradiction to the work that we’re doing, that allows for where people are upset with their elected officials, to go to the ballots themselves and put things on a ballot and allow people to vote for it,” said Greene. “As a faith person, as a former pastor, as a leader in a community, my No. 1 job is to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. And this will directly contradict that.”
An Akron native, Greene served as pastor of the city’s St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church before becoming full-time executive director of The Freedom Bloc, a nonpartisan, Black-led group that fosters civil engagement throughout Ohio. Though the group isn’t religious, it regularly partners with local churches.
Greene said his political activism is about building the kingdom of God on earth, rather than focusing exclusively on the kingdom of heaven. On Issue 1, that’s meant hiring over 30 canvassers from Akron to knock on more than 90,000 doors to make sure their neighbors know about the ballot initiative.
On Monday morning, Aisha White, a longtime Freedom Bloc team member, met with around a dozen other canvassers wearing black shirts inscribed with “Black Voting Matters” and “Voting is Savage” at the Freedom Bloc headquarters in Akron. The cool, damp morning was good canvassing weather, according to White, who, with the vote a day away, was pulling both a morning and afternoon shift.
“Yesterday, we knocked on the door of a man who said he was a Christian. And we was like, well, we are too. And then he went straight into abortion. And so we were telling him that this is not about abortion, this is about our rights to make a change in our community,” said White. “It was very important that we broke that down for him, letting him know that we’re just trying to keep it at 50%, one person, one vote.”
On Monday, she headed to East Akron with fellow canvasser Jason Lee, handing out literature on Issue 1 and asking residents if they would be voting. Each of them aimed to hit over 100 doors by evening. While most people didn’t answer — and at least twice, the canvassers were met with unleashed dogs — in a few hours, they said, they had connected with a handful of voters who hadn’t heard of Issue 1.
“I don’t go to church, but I believe in doing the right thing,” said White. “I want to let people know that they are part of this, that their voices matter.”
Lesley Jones, organizing director of the AMOS project, a network of clergy and congregations working for social justice in Ohio, told RNS that Black faith leaders are driving the movement against Issue 1 in Cincinnati as they partner with other civil rights groups such as the NAACP and Black Voters Matter. In July, Jones said, more than 40 clergy and denominational leaders representing “thousands of people of faith” statewide joined a campaign kickoff call.
“I think our faith community is waking up to the fact that there are various attacks on our voting rights and our ability to let our voices be heard,” said Jones.
She added that many Black clergy and Black people of faith see Issue 1 as part of a broader strategy to “really attack voting rights and ultimately uphold white supremacy.” Jones pointed to similar attempts to restrict ballot measures in Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi and North Dakota.
On the eve of the election, Minor met with a small group of faith leaders and church members from the Greater Cleveland area, all volunteers gathered for a final canvassing push. Before heading out to walk along Broadway Avenue, a main thoroughfare in the Slavic Village neighborhood, the group circled together, holding hands and praying for God’s blessing. Then, the group took off, noticeable in their bright red shirts, handing out flyers and telling people at gas stations, grocery store parking lots and fast food joints about Tuesday’s election.
“I’m a vessel! Full of power! To vote!” the group shouted together. “Vote no on Issue 1!”
Between leading chants and stopping passersby, Minor explained that mobilizing voters for Tuesday’s election is preparation for next year’s 2024 presidential election. In taking to the streets, the Black faith community had already shown that it isn’t afraid to take action.
“It’s during these extreme times, and this is an extreme time, that it brings out the best of the African American prophetic tradition. We’re not deterred at all, but we are vigilant in our effort,” said Minor. “Winning is fighting back, and that’s what we are doing, so we have already won.”