It is New Year’s Eve. My daughter, Pickle (her nickname), is canvassing for Rev. Raphael Warnock every day in Atlanta, going door to door to get out the vote and help voters in his historic U.S. Senate run, to poster the streets and, at this moment, to hand him a hat and noisemaker to celebrate the New Year.
My wife, the Rev. Cathlin Baker, and Raphael have been friends since they met as Union Seminary students in the 1990s — studying together, fighting for social justice together, marching together and growing together. Their relationship deepened, along with the whole family, as Raphael came to preach at the West Tisbury Congregational Church every summer on the Vineyard, and Cathlin preached twice at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
Raphael once introduced Cathlin as “my sister with the righteous rap sheet,” referencing her activism arrest record. I first met my wife in high school. She has always walked the heartfelt path, the way of humility and justice and selfless courage. But for so long I felt as if I walked with her from a bit of a distance, not wanting or knowing how to put myself on the line.
When the Georgia runoff election for the U.S. Senate was announced we decided to drive to Atlanta to help out in any way we could. We left the day after Christmas. Election day is five days away and we feel honored that Raphael has chosen to spend a quiet New Year’s Eve with us, and his sister Wandetta. The windows are open, we are masked and social-distanced, but we are together.
Raphael once introduced Cathlin as “my sister with the righteous rap sheet,” referencing her activism arrest record.
Raphael tells us stories about the campaign trail, about all the people he has met around the state, about hiring staff and learning the ways of campaigning (his first), and the origins of his puppy commercials, which went viral.
In turn, we tell him about being deployed around the city during the day, getting out the vote and helping to counter voter suppression. Most of the neighborhoods we visit are poor, disenfranchised places where people struggle in ways I cannot imagine. In a former life, I would have avoided these neighborhoods.
Now I take my children there and burst with pride as I watch my 16-year-old son Hardy walk up to a stranger’s door to encourage him to vote. I am impressed with Hardy and to be honest, I am a bit impressed with myself as a parent, offering up this experience to him. But my bubble quickly pops as a hard-looking young man comes to the door and tells Hardy to get off the porch in expletive-laced words.
We beat a hasty retreat.
In a former life, I would have avoided these neighborhoods.
That is what the ground game looks like. Moments of anger or knocking for nothing — no one home yet again — offset with moments of beauty when a woman comes to the door and you explain that her absentee ballot has been rejected for any number of reasons but here is how to fix it and she puts her hands together in prayer and thanks you.
At one house Pickle, who is 12, and I knock on a door and then step back to create social distance while we wait for a response. But as I walk, I nudge something metallic. I look down and see that I have kicked a bullet shell casing. In fact, the front yard is full of bullet shell casings. Pickle and I back away quickly and move on to the next house.
As Pickle relates this story to Raphael, he suggests that we come to Savannah for the weekend. He will hold a rally there, in his hometown, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, among others.
Every potential voter is determined and I let myself begin to believe -- just a little bit.
On Election Day, we all wake up at 5:30 a.m. to start the day as poll monitors. At our location, more than half the voters find out they are at the wrong place. We give them directions to their correct polling location, urging them to stay the course and get their vote counted. Every potential voter is determined and I let myself begin to believe — just a little bit.
In the evening we head to a place called the Georgia Beer Garden, across from campaign headquarters. A few friends and family are gathering there to watch the returns with Raphael. People keep texting me. Their energy is frenetic. But in the bar, it is mellow. Raphael chats quietly with everyone, does not even look at the TV, and acknowledges it will be a long night or more likely, several days, before anything is known.
But as the evening continues, the mood shifts — up, down, up, down and then up, up, up. Raphael and his team move across the street to prepare. Then we are told to come across the street too, to be part of this historic moment. We walk through a metal detector and head upstairs to the war room.
When the verdict is clear, the campaign manager whispering the numbers coming in from DeKalb County long before Steve Kornacki will deliver them on the news, a ripple moves through those of us gathered. It starts quietly, almost tentatively, but then explodes with cheers and clapping and tears.
Before making a speech to the room, before giving thanks, Raphael calls his 82-year-old mother in Savannah.
“Mom, can you hear me?” he asks. “This is Rev. Senator Warnock calling.”
The crowd erupts in cheers and then quiets down as Raphael listens to his mother on the phone. He turns to everyone.
“She says she is still Mama.”
But as the evening continues the mood shifts -- up, down, up, down and then up, up, up.
The day after the election I wake before dawn. We were up very late but I can’t sleep. I drive to the coffee shop where I have gone each morning while in Atlanta to start my day. After I get my coffee, I decide I don’t want to drive right now.
Atlanta is a city of murals. I walk down Edgewood Avenue and pass a mural of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis. A few more steps and I pass a mural of Stacey Abrams. Then George Floyd appears three stories high. I turn off Edgewood and head down Jackson Street, which leads to Ebenezer Baptist Church and The King Center. And all along the way are images of Raphael Warnock. My heart is so full that I decide to keep walking.
The sun is rising in Atlanta. I have my shoes on. And I am ready.