Less than 24 hours after the Senate passed its massive pandemic relief package during a marathon session in early March, Raphael Warnock was back in Atlanta doing what he’s done for years — preaching in a church.
Donning his kente cloth-trimmed minister’s robe, the senator from Georgia smiled as he slowly walked to the pulpit to the tones of an organ emanating bluesy chords.
“There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place. There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this virtual space.”
Warnock is here most Sundays in his role as senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church. The tall red brick church sits largely empty for the livestreamed service due to coronavirus restrictions.
After a reading from the Gospel of Luke, he asks those watching to consider the women around Jesus. He speaks using a lilting sostenuto voice, elongating his words and pausing to emphasize each phrase: “I am fascinated.”
“By what is said. And by what is not said.”
“About the women around the cross,” he says, stretching out his right hand on every point for emphasis. “And at the cross, and at a distance, and on the other side of the cross.”
“By what we know and what we do not know in a world that seeks to erase you and marginalize you and invisibilize you to act like you don't even matter.”
“My beloved, it can be a powerful and radical thing just to declare that you were here.”
He drops his right hand and jitters it slightly, with pauses after each sentence: “I am here. I do matter. I do count.”
“You cannot erase me. You cannot dismiss me. You cannot ignore me.”
This particular Sunday that Warnock speaks to his congregation marks the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights activists marched from Selma across the Alabama River on Edmund Pettus Bridge to protest against racial injustice. Among the marchers was the late Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon and member of the Ebenezer church.
By the end of his hourlong sermon, Warnock makes the connection clear: “I just want to thank God for John Lewis.”
“I want to thank God for Amelia Boynton,” he says of the first female Democratic candidate from Alabama to run for Congress, who was also among the marchers beaten on the bridge. “I want to thank them for crossing that bridge.”
A balancing act
Warnock, who styles himself as Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock on his official Senate website, has consistently sought to inhabit the common language of faith and politics. He sprinkles his sermons with references to Black history, political figures and the social justice issues he advocates for on the Senate floor.
The balancing act between church and Congress is a difficult one to negotiate, said Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, who previously served as pastor at St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City.
Cleaver once wrote sermons mid-flight between Missouri and Washington. And while he joked the altitude’s “heavenly experience” inspired his sermons, he said “it’s a tough deal” to shuttle between pastoral work and lawmaking.
By 2012, Cleaver realized he needed to bow out of full-time pastoral duties. “I had to face the hard reality that I was not providing optimum ministry to my congregation … the first time I had to get someone to do the funeral of somebody who was like a pillar of the church,” he said.
Cleaver, who is also a Black pastor, points out expectations at Ebenezer are different, with pastors expected to be national leaders. “That’s a part of the ministry,” he said.
Founded in the 1880s, the church was the spiritual home of Martin Luther King Sr. and his son Martin Luther King Jr. Both used their ministry to challenge segregation laws and advance civil rights.
“I’ve long believed that my service doesn’t stop at the church’s doors — that’s only where it begins,” Warnock told CQ Roll Call in an email. “When we center people in our policymaking, we have a better chance of getting it right.”
Not all ordained members in Congress serve as church pastors, according to Daniel K. Williams, professor of history at the University of West Georgia. Warnock is one of two ministers in the Senate. The other — Oklahoma Republican James Lankford — did youth ministry at summer camps.
Lankford still preaches occasionally but resigned from his ministry position before coming to Congress. “Your first focus is your Senate responsibility,” he said.
Williams notes that lawmakers who come from ministry backgrounds often distance their vocation from Congress, but Black lawmakers are an exception.
“African American pastors of politically progressive churches have tended to see their pastoral work as integrally connected to social justice, which means that there is a close relationship between ministerial work and political advocacy,” Williams said.
He draws a parallel between Warnock and another famous minister who came to Congress: Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who was senior pastor of New York City’s Abyssinian Baptist Church and a civil rights leader.
As for Lankford, who is vice chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, he likens members still involved in ministry to those who still manage a small business or farm. Doing so requires working with Senate ethics rules.
Government and ethics watchdogs argue that while Warnock is fine continuing in his ministry role, he should be transparent about his financial ties to the church to avoid conflicts of interest.
“The whole purpose of these rules is to ensure that the public interest is first and foremost, that he’s not using his Senate position to promote his church,” said Meredith McGehee of Issue One, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
Warnock did not answer questions about whether he currently collects a salary from the church, but his office said he observes Senate rules.
Even if ministers in Congress decide to shed their robes, colleagues tend to keep seeing them anyway. Other lawmakers come to them for guidance.
Lankford prayed on the Senate floor for the Capitol Police and injured members and staffers after a gunman opened fire on a congressional Republican baseball practice in 2017.
Cleaver says he’s been a fixture for occasions needing a minister on the Hill, at times saying opening prayers for Democratic caucus meetings and visiting fellow members in the hospital. He’s done weddings for chiefs of staff to Gregory W. Meeks and Steny H. Hoyer. It’s been bipartisan — he officiated a wedding for Sen. Roy Blunt’s brother. He’s also counseled two fellow House members who died from pancreatic cancer.
“John Lewis, I knew his situation, but I couldn’t tell anybody because I was told as a pastor. Same with Alcee Hastings,” Cleaver said. “I think they come to somebody who made a pledge to God, to honor confidentiality.”
Jim Saksa and Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.