Though President Barack Obama's former church on Chicago's South Side wants to avoid the political limelight of four years ago, the church has been rolling out a campaign to make sure minorities, senior citizens and the poor overcome any obstacles standing in their way at the polls this year.
The Rev. Otis Moss III, senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, has invited ministers across the nation to find and register thousands of young voters before the Oct. 9 deadline. He also has urged them to take up collections for cash-strapped voters in states requiring the purchase of IDs and stage a 24-hour prayer vigil on Election Day.
"The right to vote is something that the African-American church has fought for for decades," said Moss in an exclusive interview with the Tribune on Tuesday. "To see policies put in place that could diminish someone's ability to be able to vote? This is a civil rights issue. This is a democracy issue. This is a human rights issue. That's something Trinity has always stood firm on as a church."
Trinity's initiative is driven by laws recently proposed or enacted in 33 states that would require voters to present identification before they're allowed to cast a ballot. Supporters of the laws say they would curb voter fraud. Moss and others contend that the timing of the laws seems suspicious because youth and minority turnout was at an all-time high during the last presidential election, which resulted in the nation's first African-American president.
To launch the initiative, Trinity is working with the Black Youth Project at the University of Chicago, which recently reported young people of color will be disproportionately affected by the legislation because they possess photo IDs at lower rates than whites.
"It's a postmodern poll tax," Moss said. "This has nothing to do with protecting democracy and everything to do with suppressing the vote and moving back to a time period where it was difficult for people of color, people who were poor, people who were elderly to exercise their right to vote."
Voter ID legislation is pending in Illinois. On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the Illinois attorney general said the office could not quantify the frequency of voter fraud in Illinois. Moss said he and others would keep an eye on the legislation in Springfield. But he's especially concerned about voters in states such as Indiana, Georgia and Pennsylvania, where photo IDs are already required at the polls.
Last week, Moss traveled to churches across the nation to recruit pastors for what he calls the "Turn Out Tuesday" campaign. Churchgoers will be encouraged to take people with them to the polls on Nov. 6 who might not otherwise have transportation. Pastors will be urged to transport voters on Election Day in church vans and buses.
The Rev. Wm. Marcus Small, senior pastor of New Calvary Baptist Church in Norfolk, Va., said Moss' call came as no surprise. While he has seen Trinity as a social justice champion for decades, he wondered if the firestorm of the 2008 presidential campaign would stifle the church's voice.
The problem erupted soon after Moss took over as pastor in March 2008, when the fiery sermons of his predecessor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., sparked a national debate on religion and race. On Sundays, media swarmed the church, pressing members for comment. Protesters parked themselves across the street, hurling insults at worshipers as they filed inside. Church attendance dropped as more members stayed home to watch services online.
In May 2008, Obama and his family severed ties with the church.
Small said the voter registration drive proves a sense of normalcy has returned to Trinity.
"Trinity is an awesome church in terms of justice, equality and liberation," Small said. "They're always going to do that, whether it's popular or not popular. They were doing that before the election, before the world knew that was Barack Obama's church. They're going to continue."
Trinity member Jessica Disu, 23, a hip-hop artist who goes by the name FM Supreme, joined the church a year after the 2008 election.
She never imagined herself a churchgoer. But being a devoted member of Trinity transcends sitting in a pew on Sundays, she said. To coincide with National Voter Registration Day on Tuesday, FM Supreme debuted her new music video, "No Turning Back," at the launch of the Chicago International Youth Peace Movement.
"The power of church can reach further than religion," FM Supreme said in an interview before the show. "Back in the day, if you couldn't read or write, you couldn't vote. We were locked out of the voting for a reason. They knew the power in numbers. My peers don't understand the importance, the relevance, the history. I'm bridging that gap."
Twitter @TribSeekerCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun