Churches open doors to voters during election season

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Churches open doors to voters during election season

Oct. 27, 2008   News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0930}

NOTE: See related story, “Orlando church helps educate voters on issues,” at:

An e-Review Feature
By Jenna De Marco**

Candidates running for office and the legions of volunteers helping them aren’t the only ones working hard this election season. United Methodist churches in the Florida Conference are also jumping into the election fray.

Voters wait more than two hours at the Winter Park Public Library to vote early during the 2004 general election. Photo by Tita Parham. File photo #04-0105. Originally accompanied e-Review Florida UMNS #0187/Oct. 29, 2004.

In an informal e-mail poll of the conference’s 700-plus churches, 35 said they were participating in this year’s election process in some way.

Several offered Bible studies and sermons on social justice issues. Others distributed voter registration forms at church and encouraged members to volunteer to register voters. Most respondents said their churches were serving as a polling location and cited both civic responsibility and the opportunity to introduce the church to its neighbors as the reason for their participation.

Open doors: welcoming voters

Myakka City United Methodist Church in the South West District will open its doors to poll workers and voters on Election Day.

The Rev. Larry White said the church’s location and 87 years of ministry there make it a landmark for people in Manatee County. The church is also one of a limited number of larger buildings in the area with space available for what’s required.

“I like hosting the event because it is a reminder to United Methodists that our denomination was founded in the events that formed this nation and that The United Methodist Church is a very democratic organization when it comes to polity,” White said.

Marilyn Coker, a member of the church for 41 years, will serve at the location as a trained poll worker.

“(I was) postmaster here for 37 years, so I know so many of the people, and now that I’m retired I get to see some of the folks,” Coker said. “It is another way of serving the people of my community.”

White said the church’s overall responsibilities include making the space available, clean and ready to use. Aside from that, poll workers have the process well organized, he said.

The Rev. Lamar Albritton, pastor at Lake Gibson United Methodist Church in Lakeland, said the main challenge in being a polling place is scheduling other church groups and events around Election Day.

“The advantage is I feel like the folks coming to our church have an opportunity to see what church is and … seeing that the church does open its doors to the community,” Albritton said. “If it is inviting, it may (be) a silent witness to them.”

Albritton said being a polling place also gives the church a way to thank the community for supporting its fund-raisers, such as the United Methodist Women-sponsored rummage sale.
And in that spirit, the church’s board of trustees voted to waive the fee that would normally be paid by the supervisor of elections office for the use of the church’s facilities.

“A sense of community is what we gain from all this — we all live here together and participate in the community,” Albritton said.

(Left to right) The Rev. Michael Moore, Howard Zane and Terry Vaughan gather on the steps of First United Methodist Church of Starke, one of more than 30 United Methodist churches in the Florida Conference serving as a polling place. Vaughan said the 90-year-old Zane, who works as poll deputy at the county’s 5A and 5B precincts, greets every voter “with a smile and a handshake, along with thanks for taking the time to participate in this great experiment we call democracy.” Photo courtesy of Terry Vaughan. Photo #08-1036. For longer description see photo gallery.

Bruce Antle, executive pastor of North Naples United Methodist Church, agrees and says community service is a major reason why his church serves as a polling place. It also helps the church’s neighbors become familiar with “church” and more comfortable visiting one in the future.
“We try to do things (in) our church that give exposure to the outside public, because for somebody who is not a churchgoing person, it is difficult for them (to walk into a church),” Antle said.

Serving as polling location also fits with the church’s year-round availability, Antle said. “We love to host things from the outside (where) the church is being used,” he said.

And as someone on the receiving end of a church’s participation, Terry Vaughan said churches provide a valuable service when they offer their facilities on voting days. Vaughan is supervisor of elections for Bradford County and a member of First United Methodist Church in Starke, which is also serving as a polling place.

“It is very difficult to find appropriate venues for polling locations, and churches typically have everything you need … plenty of parking, kitchen space … just about everything you look for. It just makes sense logistically to uses churches,” Vaughan said. “It’s (also) a part of fulfilling our civic responsibility, and it’s plain in the Scriptures that we are to fulfill our civic responsibilities.”

Focusing on fundamentals

St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando is serving as a polling location, but it has also given its members and neighbors a chance to seriously consider how their responsibility as voters relates to the issues affecting people in Florida and around the world.

In late August the church held a community forum at the west campus of Valencia Community College that featured a panel of leaders representing government, education, philanthropy and the faith community. The Rev. Bill Barnes, senior past at St. Luke’s, was among them.

Panel members shared their views on a variety of community issues and answered questions from participants. Candidates running in local races were also on hand to talk with voters. About 80 people — both church members and nonmembers — attended.

The church also offered a five-week sermon series titled “Finding Focus on the Real Issues” that began Sept. 5 and focused on a different issue each Sunday: voting, justice and mercy, education, homelessness, and global hunger.

The Rev. Bill Barnes welcomes participants to the community forum sponsored by St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando Sept. 29 on the west campus of Valencia Community College. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #08-1037. For longer description see photo gallery.

Each Sunday’s bulletin included a section providing tips on what members could do to address the issue. Members and visitors could also participate in a variety of related activities: a day on the church campus with a local supervisor of elections, raising the interior and exterior walls of a Habitat for Humanity house in one day, experiencing how hunger impacts people around the world through a “hunger banquet” in the church’s fellowship hall.

After the series, members were able to explore the issues further through small group studies on ending hunger, the impact of globalization on people’s lives, serving others in ways that preserve people’s dignity, and relating the teachings of John Welsey, the founder of Methodism, to 21st century issues.

Of all the statistics Barnes shared during his sermon Oct. 5, which was the last Sunday of the series and focused on global hunger, Becki Gugisberge said the one related to the cost of ending global hunger was most eye opening.

Barnes contrasted that figure — $3 billion — with the cost of the economic recovery package just passed by the U.S. Congress and the $33 billion in Christmas bonuses given to Wall Street executives last year.

He said Americans spend more than $500 billion a year eating out, yet globally, nearly 1 billion people are hungry and one child will die of hunger every five to six seconds.

“There are some places in the world where the only bread they had today was the bread they shared at communion,” Barnes said. The hunger emphasis also fell on World Communion Sunday.

In sharing his experience growing up on a Pennsylvania farm, where he and his family had everything they would ever need and more — orchards and gardens that produced wild blackberries, tomatoes and squash; a “freezer always full of meat” through the cattle the family raised; groceries delivered right to their door — Barnes said he had nothing to do with where he was born, just as “people in Angola, Swaziland” and other parts of the world do not.

Citing the United Nations World Food Programme’s cost to provide one cup of food for a child through its "Red Cup" program — just 25 cents a day or $50 a year — Barnes said his role was to let people know they have the power to do something about hunger.

As worshippers prepared to take communion, Barnes asked them what they could give. “Think about that as you come to the table,” he said.

Gugisberge did. As “citizens of the world,” she said, everyone needs to “really think about what matters most” and what their values are as citizens.

Asiri Fernando agreed. He said the church should encourage people to consider the issues and every week of the series something has “jumped out” at him. He said he was struck that Sunday by how 25 cents for a cup of food “to us is nothing, but it’s a lot for people who have nothing.”

Describing himself as a “third-generation Methodist” — both his father and grandfather in his native Sri Lanka are Methodists — Fernando said he doesn’t typically do much research during an election season, but he has this year because he feels this presidential election is “just so important.”

He said there are serious issues to consider — the state of the economy, the state of the war, “the state of the future for our kids.” He and his wife are particularly concerned about the state of education, not only for their two children, who are 9 and 11, but all children.

He said both the church and candidates running for office should be focusing on these “fundamental issues.”

Being Christian and American

At Lakewood United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, a small group of people participated in a Bible study examining democracy in the United States.

Lakewood United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg is serving as a polling location this election season. Photo #08-1038. Web photo only. For longer description see photo gallery.

Titled “Christians and Democracy,” the study was designed to spark discussion about the political process, which can be a difficult topic for people to broach in their faith community, said the Rev. Tracy Hunter, pastor of the church.

“It’s just trying to provide a place for the conversations to happen that are hard to have, even with family and friends,” Hunter said. “If we can’t have those conversations in and around the edges of a faith community then I don’t know how we can model that and engage in that in the rest of the country.”

Hunter describes her church’s members and guests as multicultural, with 20 to 30 percent of the congregation from one minority group, typically of “islander” heritage.

“There (is) a great mix of voters in that congregation,” Hunter said.

“Realizing that within a local congregation — much less a whole denomination — there are many faithful people who will vote differently” is important, she said. “And how one votes is not necessarily a sign of ones’ faithfulness.”

Hunter’s church has also served as a polling place for the last several years. “(We’re) just trying to meet our neighbors … open the campus up and kind of practice hospitality,” she said.

What to expect at the polls

Vaughan said some are calling this year’s presidential election “the mother of all elections.”

“It’s the highest rate of interest that we’ve ever seen,” he said. “We’ve had record voter registration, and we expect record turnout. That in and of itself will cause a little bit of inconvenience (for the poll sites).”

Vaughan said voters should expect long lines and a learning curve on voting for first-time voters.

Audience members discuss the issues during a break at the community forum sponsored by St. Luke’s United Methodist Church. Photo by Tita Parham. Photo #08-1039. For longer description see photo gallery.

Vaughan said he told his poll workers the same, but not to fret “because I feel that long lines on Election Day are a sign of a healthy democracy.”

Another sign, Vaughan said, is the number of new first-time voters. “(We’ll have) a lot of first-time voters … (some) people middle age and beyond who have never cast a ballot before,” he said.

One thing people shouldn’t worry about, Vaughan said, is voter fraud. He said Florida’s voting system uses enough checks and balances that fraud is not as great an issue as it might be in other states.

Despite the challenges and worries, Vaughan encourages United Methodists to participate in the process. “Christ expects us to fulfill our civic responsibility,” he said. 

Tita Parham contributed to this report.


*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

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