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Why Our Church Decided to Be a Voting Site

Racially diverse pastors and members of North Shore Baptist Church stand in front of the building wearing masks. A sign stating “Black Lives Matter” hangs on the side of the building. Image supplied by Becca Hartman-Pickerill.

Like many others, my church hasn’t met for worship in person since mid-March. We believe that the church is its people and we miss one another fiercely.  Yet our Church Council, comprised of many different kinds of people, affirmed one member's statement“The most important thing we can do as a church this year is to serve as a polling place.” North Shore Baptist Church, located in Chicago’s north side, will do whatever we must to help people vote for this election.  

Churches commonly serve as voting sites during elections. According to the Cook County website, 16% of polling places in Chicago are religious institutions. Given their historic role in the civic and religious life of the nation, you’ll often find a church every couple of blocks. Depending on where you live, increasingly you’ll find synagogues, mosques, and gurdwaras alongside Park Department buildings and Community Centers - all serving as voting sites. I believe that church buildings - these spacious buildings with a significant physical footprint - exist to serve humanity, to serve the communityAs questions arise about the public health risks of in-person voting during a pandemic, and as polling places are being consolidated, the pressure is increasingly on houses of worship to open their doors to help the public vote 

We still have a lot of questions that we are working through as we partner with our Alderperson’s office.  Given our commitment to the safety of our congregation as well as our neighbors, we are wondering if we can shift the voting from the basement with no access to open windows to the sanctuary, with access to natural ventilation. What happens if it snows in early November? Does utilizing sacred spaces violate the civic regulations of voting sites? Does it matter what the iconography looks like? The sanctuary is on the second floor – does our elevator serve the appropriate COVID-19 health needs? How can we accommodate the city’s need with our commitment to life – to the health and safety of those who enter through our doors? Who will provide the sanitation stations? How will restrooms be serviced? Our building hosts a daycare center; what will cleaning services look like ahead of their opening the following day? 

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“Is there a better place? A building in a better position to serve this role in our district?” one council member asked in our September Church Council meeting Our answer was no. We recognize that our historic prominence and our current physical presence in the neighborhood come with an obligation to the flourishing of the community. 

More than that, we believe, as followers of Christ and lovers of humans, that every voice matters. Every vote counts.

 We honor those commitments alongside our call from Christ to serve the community through opening our doors to an Early Learning Center, Alcoholics Anonymous, a homeless ministry, practice rooms for local musicians, and opening the gym to local groups – in non-pandemic times. Since the pandemic we have, heartbreakingly, had to say no to everyone but the Early Learning Center, because we couldn’t operate safely and ethically with all of these groups using the same building.  

We’ve hesitated to be an ‘activist church in years past. Groups from the church have always marched. One of our beloved elders marched with King. Groups have mobilized for tax and immigration reform. Many in our church care deeply about LGBTQIA rights and welcome. Many feel a visceral theological connection to caring for the earth. And still, we’ve made space for the many voices that find a home at NSBC. That is the American Baptist way. As I learned growing up, I may not believe what you believe but I’ll fight for your right to believe it, for when your voice is silenced, my voice is also silenced.

 If there’s a line in the sand, if there’s a litmus test for this Baptist church, it may just be the right to vote.  

We’ll do whatever it takes. We may not worship in our building for another six months to a year but, God help us, we will be part of the American project of our diverse democracy, enabling every vote to truly count. 

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.