Sen. Raphael Warnock has used his pulpit at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church to convey his message for nearly two decades.
The red brick church on the corner of Jackson Street and Auburn Street is where civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. was baptized, ordained, and ministered from 1960 until his assassination in 1968. The Church has always been at the forefront of religious, political and social change. Ebenezer’s parishioners have run the gamut from those who have not been lucky to US Presidents Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
For Warnock, Ebenezer has been home since 2005 and has not only played a crucial role in shaping his views on religion and politics, but has also given him a powerful platform to share those ideas.
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“When you think of Rev. Warnock, you think of Ebenezer,” said Leslie Griggs of Augusta Washington Examiner. “The two will always be connected.”
Warnock’s sermons have been carefully crafted over the years to sometimes make parishioners uncomfortable. He called on black churches to be more inclusive of gay people, claiming they are pathetically behind the times on gender equality. He has also taken on white churches, accusing some of being involved in “slavery, segregation and other manifestations of white supremacy.”
Ebenezer is also a place where Warnock has celebrated professional and personal milestones.
During a Watch Night service on New Year’s Eve 2015, he asked his then-girlfriend Ouleye Ndoye, 16 years his junior, to come forward. There were cheers and roars from the crowd, and a woman was heard shouting, “Work, pastor!” according to news reports at the time. As the clock struck midnight and the year 2016 dawned, Warnock pulled out a red box, dropped to one knee, and popped the question.
“So, will you do me a favor and do me good?” he asked. “Will you marry me?”
The couple married in Ebenezer on Valentine’s Day. They had two children but divorced in 2020.
A few years after becoming the church’s youngest senior pastor, Warnock took parish representative John Lewis to lunch and told him he was considering running for office. Warnock wanted Lewis, an iconic civil rights activist and longtime congressman who died in 2020, to mentor him. The two had met while Warnock was a student at Morehouse College, and Lewis held heroic status in Warnock’s mind and heart.
However, a life in politics wasn’t what many saw for Warnock, who grew up in the projects of Savannah and was the 11th of 12 children in a mixed household. His father salvaged cars and preached at a Pentecostal Church of Holiness on Sundays.
“My parents were very, very conservative evangelicals,” his sister Joyce Hall told dem New York Times. “Raphael was formed in an environment where our parents taught us biblical values. And they let us vote.”
The family celebrated when Warnock was admitted to Morehouse – but they were short on money. He used a Pell grant, low-interest loans, and scholarships to pay for tuition. During a summer internship at Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Alabama, Warnock shifted from a primarily prayer-based perspective to one that advocated activism. It was the lessons he learned there that would stick in his memory and propel his career as a pastor and politician.
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A few months after being hired at Atlanta’s famous church, Warnock led a caravan of residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina back to New Orleans so they could vote. He also took up the case of a young black college student who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for having a sexual encounter with a 15-year-old when he was 17.
After Trayvon Martin, a black teenager wearing a hoodie when he was fatally shot in Florida, Warnock showed up for his Sunday sermon wearing a maroon Morehouse hoodie in solidarity.
In 2020, Warnock entered the race to unseat Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler, who had been appointed to the post by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp after Senator Johnny Isakson resigned.
The crowded field of participants started with 20 candidates and was reduced. No candidate received 50% of the vote on Election Day, so the top two finishers, Warnock and Loeffler, went to a runoff.
Warnock received impressive endorsements from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) . ) to name a few. He also secured endorsements from Obama, Carter and Stacey Abrams, as well as several players from the Atlanta Dream, a WNBA team Loeffler had helped own at the time. Loeffler had made controversial statements about the Black Lives Matter movement and received backlash from her payrolls.
Loeffler and her allies tried to portray Warnock as a “dangerous” and “radical” candidate bent on imposing progressive policies on Georgians.
Two weeks before the runoff, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson showed video of Warnock’s then-wife captured by a police body camera.
“I’ve tried for a long time to keep his behavior a secret, and today he crossed that line,” she is heard telling authorities. “So that’s what’s going on here and he’s a great actor. He’s phenomenal at putting on a really good show.”
The footage was armed and used in ads against Warnock alleging he had abused his wife. Warnock has denied his ex-wife’s allegations.
Despite the allegations, Walker defeated Loeffler, who was backed by former President Donald Trump, to become Georgia’s first black senator. His victory was propelled by a surge in African American voters across the state — in cities like Atlanta and Augusta, as well as smaller rural towns.
After winning, he returned to his pulpit, ready to discuss not only his historic victory but also the attack on the US Capitol the day after.
“Who would have thought that in Georgia we would see people rising up and sending an African American man who grew up in public housing to the United States Senate?” he said.
“As we then basked in the glory of all that was represented, it seemed like we only had a few hours to celebrate,” he added. “The ugly side of our history, our great and great American history, began to emerge as the rude, the angry, the disrespectful and the violent invaded the People’s House, some with Confederate flags, signs and symbols of an old world order gone by.”
Among his first acts after being sworn in in the Senate was voting to convict Trump for his role in the January 6 attack on the Capitol. He would later move on to co-sponsoring legislation that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. On March 17, 2021, the preacher-turned-politician delivered his first Senate speech in support of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
Warnock also announced that he would seek election to a full term.
Georgian football legend Herschel Walker, a Republican and political newcomer, has been tapped to take on Warnock. Despite being knee-deep in scandal, Walker and Warnock were neck and neck in the general election.
Neither candidate had enough votes for an overall victory on November 8, and the two were forced into a December 6 runoff under Georgia law.
Millions of dollars have already been poured into the race as the candidates once again faced the electorate.
Savannah Mayor Van Johnson (D), a longtime friend of Warnock, said that Washington Examiner that the race has less to do with Walker and more to do with Warnock’s fall.
“Of the Republican candidates vied for the seat, Herschel Walker hit the demographics and was the most controllable,” he said, adding that Republicans had told him they knew Walker was “an extremely flawed candidate.” , but that “It’s not about Herschel Walker. It’s about the seat.”
Johnson cheekily added that he would vote for Walker if there were a “flag football competition” but said the Heisman Trophy winner lacks the political skills to effectively represent and advocate for Georgians.
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Johnson said Warnock practiced for the role all his life.
“Personally, I’ve always thought he was someone that God had his hand on,” he said. “We see someone who was able to translate his philosophical beliefs into legislative and political action. We’ve seen him be consistent not only throughout his career but also in the Senate.”