When the Rev. Matthew Watley graces the stage at Kingdom Fellowship AME Church in Calverton, like most pastors, he prepares to preach the words God has given him. But on one Sunday in late April, he shared a different message: Early voting was fast approaching.

The rows of the 125,000-square-foot church were filled from front to back as he told his roughly 5,000 congregants that it would begin outreach the next week to get folks to register to vote through “Souls to the Polls,” a collective effort widely embraced at Black churches to encourage registration and voting on Sunday during the early voting period.

“I want to share with you that if you are not registered now, you can get registered and vote on the same day. So, there literally is no excuse. If you have been convicted — I’m sorry, you’re too saved for that — if your cousin has been convicted of a crime, he or she can still vote,” Watley said, as congregants laughed and clapped in agreement. “The barrier of entry could not be any lower, but the stakes could not be any higher. Amen”

Watley then grew sober, and so did the mood of the congregation. He impressed upon his churchmembers the importance of voting amid a “heated” U.S. Senate race, saying it remains the only government body that could take action on issues that align with their political views.

“The reason that’s important is because if projections are correct, and the Congress goes this way, and the White House goes this way, and the Supreme Court is already that way, all you have left is the U.S. Senate to keep absolute anarchy from breaking out in this country,” Watley said.

Black churches remain influential in Maryland elections, even if their sway has waned in the years since the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Several churches in the state have organized Souls to the Polls events for today. In addition to a U.S Senate seat, voters this year will choose all eight of the state’s U.S. Representatives — three of which are open seats. There are also various local races Marylanders will decide during the May 14 primary election, including a competitive mayoral race in Baltimore.

Voter Guide: Everything you need to know to cast your ballot

Clergy leaders like Watley, who reach thousands on a weekly basis, are using the pulpit to emphasize the need to vote as “our democracy hangs in the balance,” he said. Meanwhile, candidates are showing up to hear the message and make their pitch to congregations. Senate candidates, including Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, Rep. David Trone and former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, have all made visits to Black churches throughout the state.

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Prince George's County Executive and Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate Angela Alsobrooks attended a sermon at the Empowerment Temple AME Church on Sunday, April 28, 2024. (Wesley Lapointe/for the Baltimore Banner)

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Alsobrooks recently attended Empowerment Temple in Northeast Baltimore, while Trone is expected to visit on May 12. The Rev. Dr. Robert Turner, the senior pastor at Empowerment Temple, said having access to any public servant in a place of worship can be eye-opening for the people who put these candidates in office, adding that this upcoming election is really a “temp check” for where we are, as a people, in Baltimore and in Maryland.

“We can choose to go forward or to go backwards. We can choose to have the future we want or the future we settle for. And right now, we are blessed to have a Black governor and mayor — who are not just Black in skin, but who are both actually sensitive to issues that affect all people, but particularly Black people in this state,” Turner said.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Turner preaches to the congregation at Empowerment Temple AME Church on April 28. (Wesley Lapointe/for the Baltimore Banner)

The mobilization of Black churches in elections in Maryland became evident with Baltimore’s first Black judge, Joseph Howard, in 1968, and the following year, with the election of the first African American to Congress, Parren J. Mitchell, according to the Rev. Dr. Kevin Slayton.

Slayton, the senior pastor at Northwood Appold United Methodist Church in Baltimore, recently published the book “Politically Preaching,” which dives into the historical relationships between preachers and politicians. His congregation is participating in Souls to the Polls, with plans to gather at the entrance of Morgan State University, a historically Black university in Baltimore. Students, Greek organizations and local NAACP members will join them to march to the local polling location to vote together on May 5.

“Once we started to develop early voting in the country, every community sort of decided, you know, that Sunday in the gap of the early election, would be the Sunday that we would try and get out members in the faith community to the polls, and slowly developed a name, Souls to the Polls,” Slayton said.

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The organizing efforts of Black women have been central in the equal rights struggle in the ’60s and creating movements like Souls to the Polls, Slayton said. But it has not been without its limits.

Slayton drew parallels between the work of Jo Ann Robinson, a heroine of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and more recently, the work of former Georgia state Rep. Stacey Abrams. Slayton said the two are past and present examples of women who used their ability to organize voters through the Black church to benefit others more than themselves. While Robinson helped uplift Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Abrams helped elect Georgia Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, he said.

“I think there’s a major contrast in the role that women have played in the pews and the role that clergy played in getting out the vote,” Slayton said. “We have not empowered Black women to be front-facing leaders behind that organizing.”

The Rev. Dr. Tamara E. Wilson, who serves as senior pastor at Pleasant Hope Baptist church in Baltimore, collaborated with the nonprofit National Coalition of 100 Black Women to teach constituents how to register other voters.

“I asked them to come in to do our voter registration training so that we can help to engage even more people in the voting process within our community and outside of it,” Wilson said.

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Early voting numbers have been declining in Maryland — from 6.2% of the primary vote in 2018 to 4.6% of the primary vote in 2022 — but for Wilson and other church leaders, it’s about more than just turnout. Black churches serve as a vital channel for people to disseminate and access information, she said.

“Even though there are other civic and fraternal organizations that are active in the same kinds of work, people typically still lean to the church to get that trusted information,” Wilson said. “I think that we’ll see the ripple effect play out in this year’s election.”

Penelope Blackwell is a Breaking News reporter with The Banner. Previously, she covered local government in Durham, NC, for The News & Observer. She received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Morgan State University and her master’s in journalism from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

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