On the last week of February, the Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant, pastor of Empowerment Temple in Baltimore, called together the heads of 30 black church denominations. He wanted to talk about how they could get more involved in social and civic issues.
"I felt that the black church had lost its prophetic voice in the community, relative to what's taking place in our community," Bryant, 40, told The Root of the meeting, which included presentations from members of Congress, journalists and leaders from various black professional organizations. "After that, we moved to formalize this covenant as the Empowerment Movement."
The Empowerment Movement, a nonpartisan organization headed by Bryant, harnesses the collective support of more than two dozen church denominations, including African Methodist Episcopal, Church of God in Christ, Progressive and Baptist.
Their first order of business is pushing for increased voter participation — starting with registering 1 million voters on Easter. With an estimated 500,000 black churches in the United States, the Empowerment Movement is calling on all of them to register at least 20 members this Sunday. "Easter is the most church-populated Sunday on the Christian calendar," Bryant said, laughing. "So that day gives us the most bang for our buck."
The mass effort is partially in response to battles over recent state voting laws that require government-issued voter ID and curtail early voting periods, as well as local redistricting, all of which disproportionately affect people of color. "We felt we had to take an active role in this presidential election because there's a lot at stake," said Bryant.
The organization opted to keep their voter-registration push electronic. Pastors are encouraged to walk their congregations through the process of registering en masse during church services and on their smartphones, laptops and iPads. This approach will help them track registration numbers in a more streamlined way and lets them reach people who aren't "churched," as Bryant put it. "We want the church to drive the initiative, but because it's through technology, you don't have to be in church in order to participate."
Keeping it online also helps them deal with laws that hamper voter-registration drives. Although in March the U.S. Justice Department rejected a Florida law that placed severe hurdles to community-based voter-registration operations, Texas has a similarly restrictive law. "In places that are restricted from doing voter registration, the churches are encouraging people to visit [voter registration] websites as soon as Easter services are over," said Bryant.
Ambitious as the Empowerment Movement's goal sounds, Bryant is confident that they'll reach it. "If you take a church like Bishop T.D. Jakes' [the Potter's House mega-church in Dallas], that has 24,000 members," said Bryant. "If you go to a storefront church in Southeast D.C., that may only have 50 — but Bishop Jakes will be able to register way more than 20. I think the math is in our favor."
Registration, however, is only the first step for the coalition. "The voter process is three-pronged," said Bryant. "There's voter registration, voter education and get-out-the-vote."
In the upcoming voter-education phase, churches are strictly prohibited from endorsing candidates but will focus on the issues at stake, such as health care, Social Security, Pell Grants, the social safety net and education funding. "We're going to deal with issues that are germane to our community," said Bryant. "We have not had a collective platform to discuss these things. It's an incredible opportunity to now be able to do so."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.