Nov 11, 2008

The faith Vote - from eastbaywestonline.org

East Bay West Online: The faith vote

04 November 2008 - http://eastbaywestonline.org/2008/11/04/the-faith-vote/
by Huda Ahmed & Japhet Weeks / photos by Yulia Weeks

This past weekend, just a few days before the presidential elections came to a long-awaited conclusion, religious leaders in Berkeley and Oakland opened their different sacred texts to the same page.

A rabbi, a pastor and an imam urged their faithful to vote on Tuesday. And though none of them endorsed a particular candidate, all three men are backing Barack Obama.

According to a recently published national survey conducted by the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, religious groups are oriented politically the same way they were four years ago, with only slight differences. The black Protestant vote, for example, which tends to be democratic, is even more heavily so this year as compared to four years ago. The Jewish vote, on the other hand, is less decidedly democratic than it was in 2004. The survey did not include Muslim voters.

What goes on behind the walls of mosques, churches and synagogues shapes the choices people make at the ballot box, which is why East Bay West spent the weekend with people of various creeds in Berkeley and Oakland to see what religious leaders were telling them on the eve of the longest presidential campaign in history.

A Lighthouse in the Dark

The Lighthouse Mosque on Martin Luther King Way and 46th Street in Oakland is easy to miss. There is no minaret to let you know that Muslims are worshiping inside. It is housed in an unassuming building with a drawing of a traditional mosque on the outside.

The interior is equally humble: a wooden rack for shoes, a gray carpet, bookshelves lined with religious texts and passages of the Koran hanging on the walls. The mosque's single room smells of incense and perfume.

On Friday evening Sheikh Zaid Shakir and a handful of others, men and women, gathered to pray. They sat together on the floor and said Ishaa, the dinner prayer. It's traditional on Friday night for Muslims to ask their imam any spiritual questions they have. But on this Friday, Sheikh Shakir took the opportunity to talk to the faithful about the upcoming presidential election, which he describes as a "very historical event."

Sheikh Shakir is a tall, lanky African American man with a scrubby beard and glasses. On Friday, he wore a simple scull cap and a dark suit and sat cross legged on the floor. Some Muslims, he said, argue their way out of voting by claiming that because the U.S. political system is non-Islamic, participating in it effectively legitimizes it. He even admitted to feeling this way himself at one point in time, but this year, especially, he disagrees.

"I highly encourage you folks to contribute and let your voice be heard," he said about the upcoming election. "I urge you to contribute."

Before or After the Flood?

The rain was coming down in sheets on Saturday morning and sideways as Aaron Levy-Wolins read from the story of Noah and the flood for his Bar Mitzvah at Netivot Shalom, a conservative synagogue in Berkeley. But the connection between the story, which is read by Jews everywhere at this time of year, extended far beyond the weather.

The synagogue's rabbi, Menachem Creditor, a short man with a bushy beard and a mop of curly black hair, explained to the congregation that the story of Noah makes us question even the character of God. "Noah didn't say we need a bigger boat to save more people," he explained.

He used that as a segue to a subject undoubtedly on the minds of many people in this politically active synagogue located in the center of an even more politically active city: the presidential elections.

"Next week is very important," he said, "especially Tuesday. We have to make decisions not out of self interest but considering ourselves as part of a world community."

The message, like many passages from the Bible, was open to interpretation. And Rabbi Creditor probably wanted it that way. After all, the synagogue doesn't endorse political candidates.

Still, everyone knows that the rabbi is part of a group called Rabbis for Obama.

On Sunday evening, after a fundraiser event for Darfur with Joan Blades, cofounder of MoveOn.org, Creditor talked about his and his congregation's politics. "The world is incredibly threatened at the moment," he said. "Engagement with a civic sphere is a spiritual mandate." As for the congregation, he explained, "This community registers very strongly with Obama's ethos."

But Creditor leaves his religious fervor at the altar when it comes to politics. "I know Obama isn't the messiah," he said, "but promoting hope is a lot better than the alternative."

The Way to the Polls

On Sunday morning at The Way Christian Center, a black pentecostal church on University Avenue in Berkeley, the lively service mixed religious and political rhetoric with singing, clapping and foot stomping.

"A lot of people are talking about change," Pastor Ben McBride said, beads of sweat forming on his brow, "but let's ask God to change us."

The room broke into song. Hands shot into the air, heads tilted back, eyes shut. Two young men at the front of the church accompanied the chorus of voices on drums and an electric organ. Two female back-up singers swayed behind Pastor Ben, their voices smooth as honey.

The mostly African American congregation, which has swelled to 150 from just a handful in 2005, is lead by Pastor Ben's older brother Pastor Michael McBride, known by his congregation simply as Pastor Mike.

The short, baby-faced pastor, with a slight sprouting of facial hair on his chin, was dressed in a long black frock on Sunday. From the pulpit he urged his congregation to vote, then he launched into the day's sermon on the power of words and speech. Some of his examples were political. Change you can believe in, he said. Joe the plumber. These are just some of the recognizable words that have peppered the longest presidential campaign in history. Words have power, he said.

Pastor Mike coaxed fervent amens from the audience, as well as laughter. The Duke Divinity School graduate and Bay Area native is equal parts man of god and stand-up comic.

After the congregants took communion, Pastor Ben stepped onto the stage again. He said people had a choice on this particular Sunday between doing one of two things: They could either "Vote or … vote."

The church organized transportation for its members to go to the Alameda County Registrars office on Sunday to vote early, and church members will be watching the election results on TV as they come in live on Tuesday at the center. Church volunteers have also registered over 400 voters in South and West Berkeley in the lead-up to the elections.

In his office after the service, Pastor Mike said that he is not necessarily praying for particular results in the upcoming elections — though he's a firm Barack Obama supporter. But he is praying for the senator's safety.

"I'm very concerned that you'll have some folks that are going to mean him and his family a lot of harm," he said. "I pray for that more than I pray for change to come to the country. I don't want anything to happen to him because I think that if something were to happen to him, it would be very difficult for a lot of folks to deal with, and I think that would really tear the country apart."

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