Monday, Nov. 3, 2008 | 2 a.m.
When the Rev. Ralph Williamson asked his flock Sunday if they’d voted early, nearly every hand shot up.
Williamson, senior pastor at First African Methodist Episcopal Church in North Las Vegas, looked at the few people who hadn’t voted yet and quipped, “Need a ride?”
Many of West Las Vegas’ traditionally black churches offer high-energy services of sweat-soaked sermons and powerful music, but two of them seemed to have a little extra kick Sunday, as the community ponders what many thought they would never see in their lifetimes: a black president.
“What you talking about, it’s way past exciting,” said Mike Judkins, organist at The Greater Mt. Sinai, which also boasted near universal early voting.
The congregants at Mt. Sinai and First A.M.E. said their friends and family had also voted early, which could help explain the fact that at least 75,000 more Democrats than Republicans voted early in Clark County, far surpassing the margin in 2004.
The vast majority of black voters are Democrats, and they’re expected to support Obama by even more than the 90 percent of their votes they typically give Democratic candidates. The more important question is how many turn out to vote. Early indicators point to a huge black turnout. In North Carolina for instance, a CBS News poll found blacks making up 31 percent of early voters, even though they’re 21 percent of the population there.
That these valley churches would have so many early voters is not surprising — the church has traditionally served as the bedrock of black political activism and civil rights work, framing political issues in a moral and religious context.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. began his career as a preacher at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama, who was raised by his white mother and grandparents, did not grow up in this tradition, but he did join it at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. There, he met and was baptized by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, though the two are now estranged.
Obama denounced Wright after he suggested the government had a hand in creating the AIDS epidemic, among other statements that could be described as anti-American.
Obama’s critics have questioned how he could listen to Wright’s inflammatory rhetoric for so long on Sundays without raising objections. (Obama has said he never heard hateful or anti-American sermons.)
At First A.M.E., Williamson was careful not to endorse Obama from the pulpit, which would threaten his church’s tax-exempt status, according to IRS rules. In an interview before the service, though, he said of Obama: “I believe it is a divine appointment. God hears the fervent prayers of the righteous,” echoing what many white evangelicals said about President Bush in 2004.
If Obama loses, “Whatever the outcome, God is still in charge,” Williamson said.
The Barack choir — yes, actual name — belted out, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” a hymn of musical and religious joy.
Still, the moment — what Williamson called “the threshold of history” — is bittersweet, he said. Obama is being propelled by voters looking for relief from what looks more and more like a severe recession, especially in Nevada.
Black communities have traditionally suffered from the last-in, first-out syndrome — the last people to enjoy the fruits of economic recovery, the first to feel the ills of recession.
Williamson, who is a small but pugnacious and solidly built man with high, hard cheekbones, told the congregants the church began giving groceries and other assistance to about 40 families some months ago, but the number is up to 96 now.
He spoke of the long struggle of black liberation, first from slavery, and then from segregation.
He quoted 1 Corinthians, Chapter 9, which refers to winning a race. He said it was a metaphor for spiritual deliverance. Winning a race requires self-discipline, a sense of purpose and persistence. No one has ever won a race without running through the tape, he said, the political connotations clear enough.
His refrain through his sermon about self-discipline and winning the race for the “eternal prize” was, “It’s not over yet.”
Dr. S.S. Rogers, the pastor of Mt. Sinai, moved to Las Vegas in 1960 from Louisiana to find a job. He worked as a dishwasher at the old Mint Hotel, and slowly but surely worked his way up the ladder, becoming a casino porter, housekeeping porter, linen supervisor.
When he arrived, the only blacks in the casinos were the employees. He was the first black security guard at the Sahara, hired in 1968. He would later become the first black blackjack dealer there.
All the while, he was going to school. He worked with at-risk kids for the school district, and started his church in 1986.
Before Rogers entered the sanctuary Sunday, the celebrants sang with a driving momentum, “God is a good God! Yes he is!”
Although politics were in the air Sunday, Rogers stuck to his core mission: “I’m not relying on a new president! I’m relying on Jesus!”
After the service, Angelia Williams, a nurse for patients with Alzheimer’s, said she was an Obama supporter because she believes he will support poor people and the uninsured.
She said the excitement in the black community is palpable.
Did she ever expect to see a black American elected president in her lifetime?