Raphael G. Warnock: You don't have to look hard or far to see what needs to be done

Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA

The Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, center, addresses a crowd at a gathering for social justice.
Photo courtesy of Ebenezer Baptist Church

The senior pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, says you don’t have to be in a prestigious pulpit to work for justice and the gospel. Look around at the issues in your own community, he says in this interview.

Being senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church has given the Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock an extraordinary platform for ministry. But pastors don’t have to be at an Ebenezer Baptist in order to work for justice and the gospel, he said.

“It’s all around you,” Warnock said. “You start locally with whatever’s going on in your community. … It’s about being plugged in to what’s going on in the world and being sensitive to human suffering.”

Ebenezer Baptist is the church where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. served as co-pastor with his father from 1960 until his death in 1968. Warnock became the church’s fifth -- and, at 35, youngest -- senior pastor when he was appointed to the post in 2005.

Whatever church they serve, pastors who are interested in “justice making” can find plenty of issues to address, he said.

“You don’t have to look hard or far to see what needs to be done.”

Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GAWarnock received a B.A. in psychology from Morehouse College and holds an M.Div., an M.Phil. and a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Union Theological Seminary. He is the author of “The Divided Mind of the Black Church: Theology, Piety, and Public Witness.”

Warnock was at Duke Divinity School recently to lead worship services for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture series and spoke with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What was it like, as a young pastor, to step into a leadership role at a historic pulpit like Ebenezer Baptist Church? It must have been incredibly intimidating.

Serving as senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, spiritual home of Martin Luther King Jr., is the highest honor of my life. I have long been a student, a disciple, a devotee of Dr. King and the meaning of his ministry, and so to have been asked to come and serve in that pulpit is an honor that I cannot capture in words.

It’s also an incredible opportunity, because it allows me to do on a larger platform the kind of work that I would be doing anyway. For me, justice making and the work of struggle on behalf of the most marginalized members of the human family is central to the meaning of the gospel and the mission of the church. Being at Ebenezer gives me a platform, a larger microphone if you will, and every day of my ministry, I try to leverage that for the sake of others.

Q: What advice do you have for other Christian institutional leaders who want to do that kind of social justice work but who don’t have that kind of platform, who aren’t at an Ebenezer Baptist?

It’s all around you. You start locally with whatever’s going on in your community.

A lot of the work that I’m doing and the things that I’ve found myself involved in, I didn’t go looking for. It came looking for me. It’s about being plugged in to what’s going on in the world and being sensitive to human suffering.

I serve in an urban, inner-city context where there’s both wealth and influence and deep poverty and overwhelming needs all around me. Every year since I’ve been at Ebenezer -- in fact, every year of my ministry (I served in Baltimore before coming to Atlanta) -- I’ve found myself involved in work that speaks to the needs of people who suffer.

When I came to Ebenezer, it was right after Hurricane Katrina, and the church had already been responding by providing care and food and supplies to people in New Orleans. But then many of those people were displaced throughout the country.

Katrina happened in August, and I came in October, and by the spring, they were planning a municipal election in New Orleans that did not include the people who had been so recently displaced.

They were in some 40 states without the opportunity or ability to cast a vote, to raise their voice, to feel that they had a stake in a community that many of them planned to return to.

Ironically -- this was 2006 -- we had gone into Iraq, and our elected officials were boasting about the fact that they’d brought democracy to Iraq, and Iraqi citizens who were living in the state of Michigan could vote by absentee in Baghdad. Meanwhile, American citizens who had been displaced from New Orleans couldn’t vote there.

That, for me, was a deep contradiction that spoke to a larger issue of voting rights in our country. After many of us tried unsuccessfully to get the election postponed, I decided that we would do all we could as a church to amplify this issue, and to take as many Katrina evacuees as we could back to New Orleans so that they could vote.

I didn’t know exactly how we were going to do it. I’d literally been at the church about six months and was finishing up my doctoral dissertation, but I was determined to do this. So I went on the radio and announced that if you were a Katrina evacuee, a citizen of New Orleans, and you wanted to vote, Ebenezer Baptist Church would take you back to New Orleans.

Q: So you announced that before you knew how it was going to happen?

Well, it was coming together. We basically planned to do a bus caravan, but we didn’t know how many people would want to do this. We set up a hotline at our church, and we raised the money and rented buses and took people back to New Orleans to vote.

The media got interested, so it gave me an opportunity at that same time to talk about voting rights. And so we took people back to New Orleans. The election was close. It ended up with a runoff, so a month later we had to do it again.

And every year since I’ve been at Ebenezer, something has come up. Last year, I was fighting for Medicaid expansion in our state. I was part of the Moral Monday movement in Georgia, and was arrested in the governor’s office arguing the Medicaid expansion.

Last fall, I was very involved with voting rights in Georgia as we were going into the election.

So every year, I’ve been doing this kind of work. And it’s because I really do believe that justice making is not the only thing the gospel is about, but it is central to the meaning of the gospel. So it’s always been central to my mission and my work as a pastor, and it’s something that I try to preach and embody.

Q: And for folks who feel the same way, you say opportunities will arise for them as well.

Yes. If you’re just looking around at the day-to-day conversation and politics in your own church, you might miss a whole lot, but if you’re in conversation with people who are doing the work of the church, often without the name of the church -- people who are in peace and justice organizations -- you don’t have to look hard or far to see what needs to be done.

You’ll find some issue you can sink your teeth in -- you can’t do everything -- and you’ll engage it. And some great things have come out of that. We’ve had some really great ecumenical and multiracial coalitions in Georgia around gun reform that brought together everyone from the Baptists to the Episcopalians to Jewish sisters and brothers and Muslim sisters and brothers and Sikhs, all saying that we needed reasonable gun reform.

Q: This morning, a noose was found on the Duke campus, just the most recent in a series of racial incidents on university campuses across the country. What’s your advice for how to deal with these events?

Yes, it was disturbing, because these are kids who were born in the ’90s, and that’s just amazing, because I was in grad school in the ’90s. It doesn’t feel like long ago. It’s yesterday.

But all of this is happening in a larger context, here in North Carolina and across the country. The killings of Muslim students just a few months ago (in Chapel Hill), allegedly over a parking incident -- if nothing else, it shows a kind of cold dissociation from the humanity of someone who is other. So we just have to be vigilant.

We have to continue to condemn xenophobia wherever it rears its ugly head, and we have to be undivided in our commitment to justice. Black people who are concerned about racism cannot be silent on Islamophobia and homophobia. And white people who are proud of the heritage of America, of what it represents in the charter documents -- justice, and liberty and justice for all -- have to insist, as Dr. King put it, that America be true to what it wrote down on paper, that it live out the true meaning of its creed.

You’re going to hear from the African-American community and people of color in response to something like that, because the history is so deep and painful. But what is needed is white sisters and brothers who are willing to stand up and condemn it with the same kind of passion that says that this can’t stand.

White people have to stand up for black people. Those of us who have some level of privilege have to stand up for poor people. Christians need to stand up for Muslims, not just in terms of our rhetoric, but in terms of the kind of structural inequality that happens in a country where there’s a budget being pushed right now that is cruel and mean to the poor at a national level. And on the campus, we have to insist that tokenism is its own form of racism.

This is an ongoing work. It’s a process, and there’s no easy solution, but I think that kind of commitment begins to move us toward what Dr. King called the beloved community.