Senator Raphael Warnock has used his pulpit at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta for nearly two decades to get his message across.
The red brick church on the corner of Jackson and Auburn Street is where civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. was baptized, ordained and served as pastor from 1960 until his assassination in 1968. The church has always been at the forefront of religious, political and social change. Ebenezer devotees have run the gamut, from the unlucky 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 been instrumental in shaping his views on religion and politics, but giving him a powerful platform to share those ideas.
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“When you think of Reverend Warnock, you think of Ebenezer,” Augusta resident Leslie Griggs told the Washington Examiner. “The two will always be linked.”
Warnock’s sermons over the years have been carefully crafted to make congregants feel uncomfortable at times. He called on black churches to be more gay-inclusive and claimed they were woefully behind on gender equality. He also attacked white churches, accusing some of being complicit 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 in 2015, he asked his then-girlfriend, Ouleye Ndoye, 16 years his junior, to come forward. There were shouts and screams in the crowd, and a woman was heard shouting, “It works, pastor! according to the dispatches of the time. When the clock struck midnight and 2016 was ushered in, Warnock pulled out a red box, got down on one knee and popped the question.
“So will you do me a favor and be my good thing?” He asked. “Would you marry me?”
The couple got 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 invited congregational representative John Lewis to lunch and told him he was considering running for office. Warnock wanted Lewis, an iconic civil rights leader and longtime congressman who died in 2020, to advise him. The two had met when Warnock was studying at Morehouse College, and Lewis had held heroic status in Warnock’s mind and heart.
However, a political life was not something many saw for Warnock, who grew up in the Savannah projects and was the 11th of 12 children in a blended family. His father collected cars and preached Sundays at a Pentecostal Holiness Church.
“My parents were very, very conservative evangelicals,” her sister Joyce Hall told the New York Times. “Raphael was shaped in an environment where our parents taught us biblical values. And they let us choose.”
The family celebrated when Warnock was accepted into Morehouse – but they were short on money. He used a Pell grant, low-interest loans, and scholarships to pay for his tuition. During a summer internship at Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Alabama, Warnock shifted from a primarily prayer-based view to one that advocated activism. It would be the lessons he learned there that would stay with him and fuel his career as a pastor and politician.
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A few months after being hired at the famed church in Atlanta, Warnock brought a caravan of Hurricane Katrina-displaced residents back to New Orleans so they could vote. He also took up the case of a young black student who was sentenced to a decade behind bars for having sex with a 15-year-old when he was 17.
After Trayvon Martin, a black teenager who wore a hoodie when he was shot and killed in Florida, Warnock showed up to his Sunday sermon wearing a brown Morehouse hoodie as a show of solidarity.
In 2020, Warnock entered the race to unseat Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler, who was nominated to the post by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp after Senator Johnny Isakson resigned.
The crowded field started with 20 candidates and was reduced. No candidate received 50% of the vote on Election Day, so the top two, Warnock and Loeffler, were in a run-off race.
Warnock won 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 gained endorsements from Obama, Carter, and Stacey Abrams, as well as several players from the Atlanta Dream, a WNBA team that Loeffler had co-owned at the time. Loeffler had made controversial statements about the Black Lives Matter movement and received backlash from his employees.
Loeffler and her allies attempted to cast Warnock as a “dangerous” and “radical” candidate determined to push for progressive policies toward Georgians.
Two weeks before the second round, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson released video of Warnock’s wife that was captured by a police body camera.
“I tried to keep the way he acted a secret for a long time, and today he crossed that line,” she told 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 weaponized and used in advertisements against Warnock, alleging he abused his wife. Warnock has denied his ex-wife’s accusations.
Despite the allegations, Walker beat Loeffler, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump, to become Georgia’s first black senator. His victory was prompted by an increase in the number of African American voters across the state – in cities like Atlanta and Augusta as well as in rustic small 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 next day.
“Who would have thought that in Georgia, we would see the people rising up and sending an African-American man who grew up in a low-rent housing…to the United States Senate?” he said.
“Then, as we bask in the glory of all that represents, it seemed like we could only have a few hours to celebrate,” he added. “The ugly side of our history, our great, great American history, began to emerge when the rude, the angry, the disrespectful and the violent stormed into the House of the People, some carrying Confederate flags, signs and symbols of an old world order is leaving.”
Among his first acts after being sworn into the Senate, he voted to convict Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. He would later go on to co-sponsor legislation that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. On March 17, 2021, the preacher-turned-politician gave his first speech in the Senate 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 face Warnock. Despite being knee-deep in scandals, Walker and Warnock ran neck and neck in the general election.
Neither candidate had enough votes for an outright victory on November 8, and both were forced into a runoff on December 6, in accordance with Georgian law.
Millions of dollars have already poured into the race as candidates re-enter voters.
Savannah Mayor Van Johnson (D), a longtime friend of Warnock, told the Washington Examiner that the race has less to do with Walker and more with overthrowing Warnock.
“Of the Republican candidates vying for the seat, Herschel Walker met the demographics and was the most controllable,” he said, adding that Republicans told him they knew Walker was “an extremely flawed candidate. ” but that “it’s not about Herschel Walker. It’s about the siege.
Johnson cheekily added that he would vote for Walker if there was a “flag football contest,” but said the Heisman Trophy winner lacked the political chops to effectively represent and defend the Georgians.
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Johnson said Warnock had been training for the role all his life.
“Personally, I always thought he was someone God had put his hands on,” he said. “We see someone who has been able to translate his philosophical beliefs into legislative and political action. We have seen him be consistent not only throughout his career, but also in the Senate.”