‘It’s very important to have your voice heard’: N.J. Black churches bring ‘souls to the polls’

A civil rights era Black church tradition came to the Garden State for the first time on Sunday as New Jersey rolled out an early, in-person voting period this weekend.

People walk into the Cure Insurance Arena

People who attended a "Souls to the Polls" rally in Trenton crossed the street into the Cure Insurance Arena to vote early on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021" (P. Kenneth Burns/WHYY)

For the first time, South Jersey residents Paul and Monique Wylie spent their Sunday going from church to the voting booth.

“It gives us the opportunity to show the younger generation that we’re out here voting, and we set a good example,” said Monique Wylie, who voted with her husband at the Willingboro Public Library after attending worship earlier in the morning at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Burlington.

The couple was among many New Jersey residents who took part in “souls to the polls” on Sunday, a civil rights era-Black church tradition that has become a national movement and has now expanded to the Garden State as it rolls out its first-ever early, in-person voting period. On the first day, 19,426 people cast ballots at early voting sites, according to a report from the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

Churches across the state plan to dedicate one of the two Sundays in the nine-day early voting period, which began on Saturday and ends on Oct. 31, to the event, in which congregations go together to the polls in an effort to mobilize Black voters.

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“We’re going to take a picture and show the world that Tabernacle is voting,” said the Wylie family’s pastor, the Rev. Cory Jones, during church announcements on Sunday morning.

While the Wylies opted to vote this week so they could take their two small children trick-or-treating, Jones announced his congregation will go to the early voting site at the Willingboro Library next Sunday so people have time to plan.

“We wanted to make sure that we were full participants,” he explained. “In order to do that, you got to let people know. You have to plan it.”

Jones said he sees voting as “not optional,” citing the trauma and injustice African Americans went through to get the right to cast their ballots. Historically, he said, the Black church has been involved in important issues to the community, especially civil rights.

“Our ancestors fought, died, bled, worked hard for us to have this privilege and this right and we deem it our responsibility to participate,” he said.

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Congregants like the Wylies said they plan to spread the word through social media and by placing fliers at barber shops over the next week.

Sharon Stevens, of Lawrenceville, wasn’t familiar with the event until her pastor, the Rev. Charles Boyer, promoted it at her church. She thought it was important to participate after hearing about it.

“I think about our fore founders who didn’t have an opportunity to vote, who couldn’t be heard,” she said. “It’s very important to have your voice heard and to be able to take any opportunity as possible to help people get to the polls.”

Boyer is director of the group Salvation and Social Justice, one of the participating organizations, and pastor of Greater Mt. Zion AME Church in Trenton. He said the first Sunday is about getting the word out to people so more Black voters can show up next week after services.

He was at an event in Trenton that was organized with help from Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s re-election campaign. After speeches from Murphy, South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn, and others, dozens of people who attended crossed the street to the Cure Insurance Arena to vote.

Boyer said he, too, plans to organize a caravan with his congregation to come to the arena to vote next Sunday.

“We’re going to worship, we’re going to praise God, we’re going to talk about the issues at hand,” he said, “and then we’re going to get in the car after worship and drive on down here and vote as a congregation.”

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