Charlotte, United States – Nestled in between glimmering, high-rise buildings belonging to America’s banking industry sits First United Presbyterian Church, a historically African-American church adorned with jewel-toned stained glass.
For the last month, in the run-up to the US elections, it has joined forces with another local church to offer an adult Sunday school class on racial reconciliation. And not just with any other church.
The visitors come from First Presbyterian Church, a predominantly white congregation whose original members sent their slaves to worship in the church basement – slaves who, after emancipation, went on to found the 150-year-old church now hosting the Sunday school.
“We are not here to be comfortable,” said African-American Sunday school teacher Donna Fair. “Jesus was never comfortable.”
Police shootings, riots, battles over discriminatory voting measures and poverty were all part of the Sunday discussions, and more so this weekend as early voting began in the state, North Carolina.
“Hearing all of you has really helped me to enunciate and clarify my own beliefs, you know, stuff you just kind of take for granted being a person of white privilege,” Barbara Williamson, a white woman, told the group.
Fair urged her students to think about everything on their ballots and vote not according to party affiliation but to the moral framework they built together during the six-week Sunday school class.
It began in September after Charlotte became one of the cities at the centre of a national outcry over police shootings of African-American men. The killing of 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott led to days of violent protests.
Fair then asked her students to think beyond the polls to their daily lives: who do they know in city council, in the school system, in their families?
“What are we doing with the influence that we have?” she asked. “Look how many people you come into contact with. You may not be sitting in the room where the decisions are being made, but you have the ability to influence those decisions.”
The class coincides with a larger electoral tradition known as Souls to the Polls. It aims to get African-American churchgoers out to vote, usually during early voting on Sundays when they march together or share rides.
“In the African-American community we consider the vote a sacred right,” said Reverend Fredrick Robinson, a civil rights activist and executive board member of the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice. “Because in our history there was a time when we were not able to vote.”
This weekend, voting rights advocates celebrated their success in overturning a North Carolina state law that an appeals court ruled targeted African-American voters with almost “surgical precision”.
The controversial law would have limited the state’s early voting hours and the number of polling stations in areas that are predominantly African-American and tend to vote Democrat.
North Carolina is one of the crucial battleground states in this year’s election, Both presidential candidates – Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton – have campaigned here in the last week.
As non-profit organisations, churches cannot endorse candidates, but they can help people register to vote, educate them about their voting rights and ballot issues, and even open their doors to candidates who want to visit, provided they welcome candidates of all political affiliations.
Jonette Harper, an elder at First United Presbyterian and a Souls to the Polls consultant with Democracy North Carolina, is helping religious leaders throughout Charlotte to do just that.
“It is our duty to remind people that this is how and where the civil rights movement started,” she said, remembering that religious groups historically played a role in organising for social justice, focusing on giving voice to their people.
“Religious organisations give you a foundation for your beliefs. Out of your beliefs, policies are made. The way policies are made are through voting, bills, through people we send to Congress,” she added.
Around the city, Christian as well as Muslim, Jewish, Unitarian, Buddhist, civic and youth groups have joined Souls to the Polls, educating voters about their rights and responsibilities, the latest ballot initiatives, registering people to vote and busing them to voting centres.
Back at First United Presbyterian Church, a high-ranking pastor from the Presbyterian Church USA’s General Assembly gave a sermon so emotive and reminiscent of the 1960s civil rights leader Martin Luther King that congregants raised their hands and even stood up in the pews.
“Be careful not to be a church that closes its doors to the violence, the rioters, the downtown that is changing, the struggling communities that you find yourself in from time to time,” J Herbert Nelson II preached in a booming voice from the pulpit, referencing the recent riots.
Nelson reminded the congregation that the unrest was a culmination of community frustration not just about the disproportionate number of killings of black people at the hands of police, but about unemployment, low wages, educational disparities, and gentrification of urban areas.
Recent studies by the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill suggests African-Americans and Hispanics in Charlotte are nearly three times as likely to live in poverty than whites.
“Set up a church that truly is able to contend with the contextual realities of this present age,” Nelson bellowed as attendants raised their hands and declared “Yes, yes, yes”.
The service was supposed to be followed by a relaxed Sunday brunch, complete with tuna salad, couscous, and cupcakes.
But just as attendants began to sip their pink lemonade, they were called to action again, this time by about a hundred members of other predominantly black churches marching in the street outside towards a voting centre two blocks away.
Harper and several others dropped their meals and ran out to join.
Marchers arrived in the parking lot of the polling station just as another church was helping elderly and disabled people off its bus. Then the crowd broke into a call-and-repeat chant.
“Fired up!” shouted the march’s leaders. “Ready to vote!” the rest responded, a play on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan Fired Up! Ready to go!
“It feels good. It’s the first time I’ve ever done something like this,” said Marcus Jones, an 18-year-old African-American who helped carry a Souls to the Polls banner. “I’ll do it every election year from now on.”