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How Harlem Shaped Warnock’s Faith and Politics

Four days before the November midterm elections, Senator Raphael Warnock slipped away from the campaign trail in Georgia to deliver a eulogy in Harlem.

His mentor — the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, a powerful and politically astute preacher who led Harlem’s storied Abyssinian Baptist Church — had died at the age of 73. At the memorial service, Mr. Warnock told the crowd of mourners about the intersections of faith and public life that had shaped Mr. Butts’s work, and his own.

“Calvin Butts taught me how to take my ministry to the streets,” Mr. Warnock said at a service that drew former President Bill Clinton, Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. “He understood that the church’s work doesn’t end at the church door. That’s where it starts.”

Mr. Warnock now finds himself locked in one of the last and most closely watched elections of the 2022 midterms — a Georgia runoff on Tuesday against a Trump-backed Republican rival, Herschel Walker.

The hallmark of Mr. Warnock’s political persona has been firmly rooted in the present, through his position as senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had preached. But a lesser-known chapter from Mr. Warnock’s past — his time spent in New York City starting in the 1990s, as a student at the Union Theological Seminary and as a pastor at Mr. Butts’s church — in many ways set him on a path to politics, shaping how he operates in the Senate and on the campaign trail as he runs for re-election.

According to nearly a dozen seminary classmates and elected officials who knew him at the time, Mr. Warnock’s New York experience helped cement his instincts to channel the teachings of his faith into social justice activism. It’s an approach that propelled him to Washington, where he was one of seven ordained ministers when he arrived in Congress last year.

“In the beginning it was really watching him straddling the church and the academy,” said the Rev. Cathlin Baker, a friend who attended Union Theological Seminary with Mr. Warnock. “Expressing his faith in the public square emerged through his time in New York.”

One of the young men Mr. Warnock worked with as a youth pastor at Abyssinian went on to become the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg.

Mr. Bragg got to know Mr. Warnock during visits home from college and described a “remarkable consistency” in his dual emphasis on pastoral duties and “what that means for greater Harlem, and the social issues, and the things we see him advocating for in Congress now.”

“There’s an indelible imprint of the church and Rev. Butts on him,” Mr. Bragg said, “and certainly of him on the church.”

Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, pictured here in 1965, has long been associated with Black civic engagement.Credit…The New York Times

Mr. Warnock was 22 when he arrived in New York in the fall of 1991, and he stayed for about a decade. The city was in the throes of a social and civic upheaval that would mold the next generation of Black political power, locally and nationally, serving as a proving ground for activists, pastors and elected officials.

There was Mayor David N. Dinkins, New York’s first Black mayor who confronted the Crown Heights riots the year Mr. Warnock came to town. And there was Eric Adams, a police officer who challenged police brutality and would become the city’s second Black mayor. The Rev. Al Sharpton made waves with his civil rights activism, while against that backdrop Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklynite and future Democratic House leader, was beginning his career.

What to Know About the Georgia Senate Runoff

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Another runoff in Georgia. The contest between Senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, and his Republican opponent, Herschel Walker, will be decided in a Dec. 6 runoff. It will be the state’s third Senate runoff in two years. Here’s a look at the race:

What is a runoff election? A runoff is essentially a rematch, held when none of the original candidates meet the criteria for winning. Under Georgia law, candidates must receive a majority of the vote to win an election, but Mr. Warnock and Mr. Walker both failed to clear the 50 percent threshold in the Nov. 8 election.

How long will the process take? Two years ago, Georgia was the site of two Senate runoffs that weren’t decided until January 2021, but a new election law shortened the runoff period from nine weeks to four. This year’s runoff will be on Dec. 6, with early voting that began on Nov. 28, the Monday after Thanksgiving.

Why does Georgia have a runoff law? Georgia’s runoff law was created in the 1960s as a way to preserve white political power in a majority-white state and diminish the influence of Black politicians who could more easily win in a multicandidate race with a plurality of the vote, according to a report by the U.S. Interior Department.

What are the stakes? Even though Democratic victories in Arizona and Nevada ensured that the party would hold the Senate, a victory by Mr. Warnock would give Democrats an important 51st seat ahead of a highly challenging Senate map in 2024.

Where does the race stand now? Both sides are pouring money into ads and courting national allies for visits. But the outcome will probably come down to one big factor: turnout. With the shortened window for runoffs, the parties are investing heavily to mobilize voters during the early voting period.

Mr. Warnock found work at Abyssinian, the spiritual home of the late Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. that has long been associated with Black civic engagement. It was during that time, as he absorbed the influences of Mr. Powell and Mr. Butts, that he believes running for Congress first crossed his mind, he wrote in his 2022 memoir, “A Way Out of No Way.”

He was living in New York when his brother was sentenced to life in prison in a nonviolent drug-related offense involving an F.B.I. informant, a seismic event in Mr. Warnock’s life that profoundly shaped his views of the criminal justice system. (His brother was released from a federal prison in Georgia in 2020.) And as episodes of police violence convulsed the city, Mr. Warnock came to believe that “it didn’t make much sense for us to be talking about justice in the classroom and singing about it in church if we weren’t willing to get in the struggle in the streets.”

He was arrested at a protest against police brutality as he honed his activism, the first of a few civil disobedience arrests in later years.

Mr. Warnock, who declined an interview request, grew up in Savannah, Ga., giving his first sermon at age 11, and headed to New York soon after graduating from Morehouse College. He struck his peers at the progressive Union Theological Seminary, in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights, as notably driven.

“He had a kind of seriousness of purpose and kind of like a clarity of career path that at that age I almost couldn’t imagine,” said Beth Stroud, a classmate who is now a lecturer at Princeton.

She and other classmates also described Mr. Warnock’s sense of humor. One night, she recalled, a group tried on each other’s eyeglasses — and one participant noticed no discernible difference upon trying on Mr. Warnock’s.

“After saying he wore them so he wouldn’t look so young and people would take him more seriously,” she added in an email, Mr. Warnock humorously demonstrated how the glasses could punch up a reading. “He said something like, ‘Our Scripture reading this morning is …’ and put them on with a flourish, as if to see the Bible more clearly.”

Participants in the prayer vigil on the steps of City Hall in April 2000.Credit…Ruby Washington/The New York Times

Asked about that anecdote, Michael J. Brewer, a spokesman for Mr. Warnock, replied, “Reverend Warnock wears prescription eyeglasses.”

Dr. Stroud and Mr. Warnock studied under the Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, a founder of Black liberation theology, which emphasizes the experiences of the oppressed. “We were all thinking about politics all the time, not necessarily in the sense of electoral politics,” she said, but, “if we believe in liberation, if we believe in God’s love for all people, how do we realize that in our work?”

At Union — and through his friendships with Dr. Stroud, who is a lesbian, and with other gay people — Mr. Warnock reconsidered church teachings opposing homosexuality, he wrote in his memoir. And at Abyssinian, Mr. Warnock plunged more directly into the world of New York politics and activism as he rose from intern minister and youth pastor to assistant pastor.

Abyssinian has long occupied a prominent place on the New York political landscape, propelled by leaders like Mr. Powell and Mr. Butts, the preacher who was deeply involved in civic issues and navigated relationships with a diverse array of politicians.

As an assistant pastor, Mr. Warnock publicly criticized the Giuliani administration’s implementation of a workfare program — which required welfare recipients to work for benefits — and made an impression on a number of elected officials himself, as well as on Mr. Butts.

“He could laugh easily, he could smile,” Mr. Butts told NY1 in 2021. “That made it possible for him to impress upon people the importance of an issue.”

C. Virginia Fields, the former Manhattan borough president and a member of Abyssinian, said that Mr. Warnock was regarded as part of a “bench” of future leaders.

“I don’t think he ever expressed it that way — that ‘I’m interested in running for office,’” she said. But “those of us in the political arena certainly saw him as someone one day running.”

Demands outlined by seminary students and young clergy at the vigil in April 2000.Credit…Ruby Washington/The New York Times
Mr. Warnock, to the right of the cross, with other leaders of the prayer vigil in 2000 to protest police brutality.Credit…Ruby Washington/The New York Times

Republicans, especially in his previous campaign, have used Mr. Warnock’s career and past sermons to try to paint him as radically left wing, characterizations that drew criticism from Black pastors.

This year, the Walker campaign has also slammed him over the housing allowance he receives from Ebenezer and over alleged conditions and eviction threats at an apartment complex with ties to that church. Mr. Warnock has called the allegations a “desperate” effort to attack Ebenezer. A representative for the complex told The New York Times that no evictions had been carried out since 2020.

His previous Republican opponent, then-Senator Kelly Loeffler, noted that Abyssinian had hosted Fidel Castro in 1995, and claimed that Mr. Warnock had “celebrated” and “welcomed” Castro to the church.

More on the Georgia Senate Runoff

  • How Walker Could Win: Despite the steady stream of tough headlines for Herschel Walker, the Republican candidate, he could prevail. Here’s how.
  • Warnock’s Record: An electric car plant outside Savannah could be the central achievement for Senator Raphael Warnock, the Democratic incumbent. But Republicans aren’t giving him credit.
  • Insulin Prices: The issue is nowhere near as contentious as just about everything else raised in the race. But in a state with a high diabetes rate, it has proved a resonant topic.

Mr. Warnock’s team did not respond directly when asked whether he attended the Castro event but pointed to fact-checks disputing Ms. Loeffler’s statement. A spokesman previously told PolitiFact that Mr. Warnock “doesn’t agree with the dictator’s beliefs and actions” and that Mr. Warnock was not making decisions at the time about who spoke at the church. The fact-checking outlet determined there was no evidence to Ms. Loeffler’s claims.

Stephen Lawson, who served as a top Loeffler campaign aide and advises a pro-Walker super PAC, said that Mr. Warnock’s time at Abyssinian was “part of a larger life story for him that helps kind of illustrate his beliefs.” Mr. Lawson cast those beliefs as left-wing and relevant to independent voters. “Part of me wishes that Herschel’s campaign would try to tell that story a little bit more,” Mr. Lawson said.

David A. Paterson, who was New York’s first Black governor and who met Mr. Warnock while representing Harlem in the State Senate, noted that Republicans have struggled before to define Mr. Warnock as outside the mainstream.

He is not “demanding that we turn the whole system upside down,” Mr. Paterson said. “I think he really seeks equality.”

Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1988.Credit…Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

A series of stunning incidents of police brutality galvanized him to protest injustice more forcefully. In 1999, Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant, was killed by officers who fired 41 shots, less than two years after another Black man, a Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima, was brutalized at a Brooklyn police precinct.

“Those real awful examples of police brutality that were happening in the city at the time kind of called a group of us into the public square,” Ms. Baker said.

After the Diallo shooting, Mr. Warnock went to a protest where, he wrote, he was arrested for the first time, shared a police van with then-Representative Eliot Engel and was quickly released. In his memoir, he described a scene in which groups of protesters “crossed the line of demarcation” and were arrested.

“He was not a activist that would do it every day like I would, but he would take a moral stand,” said Mr. Sharpton, who was heavily involved in organizing major protests after the Diallo shooting.

Mr. Sharpton described Mr. Warnock as “the guy that wanted to be a bridge between those of us that were active” and those who did not engage in civil disobedience. “He understood both worlds,” Mr. Sharpton added.

Just over two decades after that arrest, Mr. Warnock returned to Abyssinian for the eulogy.

“So much of who I am, and what I’ve become and what I’ve managed to do — and, as we say in Georgia, what I’m fixing to do again” — he owed to working with Mr. Butts, he said.

“I got a few things happening down in Georgia,” he told the New York audience. But, he added, “I had to be here.”

Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

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