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‘Park & Praise’ The new ‘Souls to the Polls’

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

Leading up to the start of early voting in Florida this week, local leaders scrambled to galvanize their communities during this untraditional election cycle.

Get out the vote efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic have required a different approach. Unlike previous election cycles that allowed for door-to-door canvassing and in-person voter registration drives, voter outreach must now follow proper social distancing guidelines.

Father-and-son duo Alphonso Jackson Sr. and Jr. – pastors of separate Black churches in Miami-Dade – will lead a new early voting initiative called “Park & Praise,” instead of the “Souls to the Polls” events of voting years past.

Souls to the Polls has been a long-standing tradition by Black clergy to coax their congregations to populate polls, held the immediate Sunday before Election Day. It is typically a mass gathering accompanied by music, food and entertainment. Mobilizing efforts would include filling up buses or walking to the nearest polling site after church services. Efforts may look different this year but the end goal is the same: amplifying the Black vote.

“Scripture supports Christians not only being good church folks, but being responsible citizens,” said the younger Jackson, pastor of Greater New Macedonia Baptist Church. “It is a responsibility to [cast] our votes and voice our values. We’re looking to galvanize our local communities to participate in the healing and advancement of our communities.”

Park & Praise events are scheduled to take place either at respective supervisor of elections offices, polling stations or near early voting sites. In Miami-Dade County, South Dade Regional Library, Doral Central Park and the Florida City Youth Activity center are among the few locations hosting events.

On Nov. 1 at 2 p.m., voters will park their cars and tune in to an advised radio station to hear from local leaders, pastors and other entertainment. Depending on the location, voters will then be directed to the nearest polling site or informed to return their ballot at a drop box supervised by supervisor of elections staff.

“We can protest, but voting and holding politicians and public servants accountable is where we’ll find substantial impact in the years going forward,” noted Jackson Jr.

His father, pastor at Second Baptist Church in Richmond Heights, plans to organize shuttles to transport voters to polling sites. Precautionary measures will be enforced through social distancing inside transportation vehicles and sanitation procedures after each pickup and dropoff point.

Jackson Sr. is prepared to offer support to the community by providing food, music, entertainment and absentee ballot guides if need be. He encourages his parishioners to not only vote during this election, but in the ones to come.

“People voted for Obama but didn’t vote for the cabinet to support him. It doesn’t matter who the president is if you don’t go back to vote for Congress and state judges,” he said.

Second Baptist Church kicked off early voting Sunday with a caravan led by local elected officials. Jackson Sr. spoke before the crowd and urged voters to focus on candidates’ values.

“Our faith is not in a party but in the people,” he said. “It is [about] voting for the people in the positions that will make a difference. In the past there’s been a spirit of apathy among some of our elected officials, but that has to change. That changes when we put the right people in the right positions, then that could make a difference,” he said.

Michael Blake, a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and lay minister of Calvary United Methodist Church, has a similar belief.

“Faith is bigger than a party, but our policies communicate that the premise of how to empower a life extends beyond just one issue. The Biden-Harris campaign is serious about having people of color at the table, from investments in those communities to training programs,” he said.

Blake, a New York State Assemblyman, revealed that his presence in Florida during early voting is a sign of the campaign’s dedication to reach Black voters both in and outside of faith groups. Over the weekend, he met with Rev. Johnny Barber of Mount Sinai Baptist Church to participate in voting efforts.

Though Blake expresses full support for events like Souls to the Polls, he believes it is equally important to mobilize voters who may not make up the church population. The “Shop Talk” ad series that mimics meaningful conversations taking place inside barbershops featured a cut-to-the-chase segment to turn out voters.

Sunday “Soul of the Nation” gospel concerts and a “Faith Not Fear” prayer call before the election remain Biden’s alternative methods to target Black faith communities.

As the backbone of marginalized communities, faith leaders will not solely rely on those campaigns to increase voter turnout, and will continue to take the torch through Park & Praise.

The Equal Ground Education Fund, a community-driven organization devoted to increasing equal access to voting education, is behind the Park & Praise events that will soon pop up in more than 11 counties in the state of Florida. The organization has partnered with several congregations, including both pastors Jackson, to provide the resources needed to sustain the efforts.

“We are intentional about making sure this happens during early voting. We don’t want there to be any barriers, whether natural or man-made, that blocks folks from voting,” said Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder and consulting director of Equal Ground Education Fund.

Florida’s I-4 corridor – a region running east to west between Daytona Beach and Tampa that’s key in determining election outcomes – is normally the target for voter turnout events.

This year, Burney-Clark thought it best to also target counties outside the region. Even Florida’s hard to reach rural communities in the Panhandle will feel the urgency of this election through such initiatives.

In preparation for the event, the Miami-Dade pastoral alliance worked with community partners to recruit voters through 20,000 voter contact attempts via phone calls.

Kevin Chambliss, youth minister of Covenant Missionary Baptist Church and District 117 state representative (Democrat), emphasized the importance of turnout in communities like those in South Dade.

“Faith without works is dead. We have to lead by example, we need to vote. If we sit out this one, we might not be able to recover. Efforts like Souls to the Polls, which really drive the heart and character of Black South Dade, are the ones we do based on moral convictions,” said Chambliss, who participated in the caravan. “Many times people try to discourage us from getting involved because they know the power that we hold. It’s not the time to criticize the party, it’s time to lead the party and know the power of the Black voice. If you don’t like what the party has done, take leadership.”

Already, Park & Praise has received national attention and support from the NAACP, Tyler Perry, and sororities and fraternities that will play a crucial role in turning out the Black vote.

Burney-Clark and community partners hope to attract 200 voters to each event, but advise against delaying votes to participate in Park & Praise. Jackson Jr. invites all to such gatherings that uplift Black communities, regardless of their spiritual beliefs, if any.

“We want to also create joy around voting, to remove the daunting feeling around this Election Day yet boost inspiration tied to [the] sacrifice [of waiting in line],” said Burney-Clark.

Statewide collaboration for Park & Praise will work to address issues of voter disenfranchisement and early voting conditions through resources and education for minority communities.


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