Election Day in the US for a Poll Chaplain

December 11, 2020

Picture:  Pastor Nancy Christensen outside the Lucky Shoals Park Community Center Polling Site, Norcross, GA, on Election Day, 2020. (photo taken by Nancy Christensen).

“I’m so glad to see you,” said Elena, the elderly Latina woman, tears in her eyes, who was confused about where she was supposed to go.

On November 3, 2020, I joined a coalition of people called Lawyers and Collars in cities across the United States to be present at an identified polling place on election day. Lawyers and Collars “brings together faith leaders, working in partnership with attorneys, and civic engagement organizations to involve communities of faith in voting rights education and protection.” (http://lawyersandcollars.org/)

I was a “collar,” called a Poll Chaplain, and I was sent to a site in Greater Atlanta where there had been some unrest in the past. It’s an economically diverse area, where drastically different ideologies regularly converge! I went through a zoom training before election day, and my role was to be a non-anxious presence, to assist as needed, to calm the storms, and to call the “lawyers” if I noticed improprieties.

I donned my mask and my collar, and showed up at my site at 6:30 a.m. on November 3, feeling a little apprehensive. It was a chilly day, and there was already a line of voters outside, waiting for the 7 a.m. opening. Heather, the Poll Manager, was grateful for the presence of all official “observers.” She informed us that the county had done some last-minute shifting of poll assignments, and told us how we could help people check before they even entered the building.
So, the rest of my day was spent helping people like Elena, directing people to the right door, checking poll site information, buying bags of cheeseburgers for the volunteers, listening to frustrations, and dancing to a Michael Jackson playlist along with two neighbors dressed up as “Thing One” and Thing Two!” At my site, there was no sign of intimidation at all.

The only issue that created angst was the confusion about polling sites, and it was curious to me that the vast majority of those who had received the wrong information about where to vote were not the upper-class white citizens of that area. I can’t say for sure that this was deliberate, but it felt suspicious to me. Even those who had to go elsewhere, however, were mostly good-natured, ready to do whatever they needed to do to vote.
Many people told me how good it was to see a clergy person standing outside when they arrived. They were surprised, but not put-off at all and said my presence felt calming to them. I plan to go back on January 5, when we have a run-off election for two hotly-contested U.S. Senate seats.

The tone of national discourse has certainly changed since election day, and I fear that there will be less excitement and more suspicion in the next round. But, I am committed to being present no matter what happens, and to do my part to encourage those in my community to be our best selves. May it be so.

Pr. Nancy Christensen is the pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church, ELCA, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Link:  Lawyers and Collars:  http://lawyersandcollars.org/

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Pr. Nancy Christensen