ATLANTA — Rev. Raphael Warnock delivered his first sermon as a senator-elect on Sunday at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, a backdrop underscoring the pastor’s deep dies within Georgia’s Black faith community that helped secure his victory.
“I want to talk to you about God’s victory over violence,” Warnock began his sermon, a clear reference to Wednesday's riots in Washington, D.C.
Warnock will be the first Black senator from Georgia— and only the 11th Black senator in U.S. history— while fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff will be the state's first Jewish senator. He described “basking in the glory” of what their historic wins represented, only to be reminded of the work left to be done in America hours later.
“Just as we were trying to put on our celebration shoes, the ugly side of our story — our great and grand American story — began to emerge as we saw the crude and the angry and the disrespectful and the violent break their way into the people's house, some carrying Confederate flags, signs and symbols, of an Old World Order passing away,” Warnock said of the rioters, who stormed the Capitol in support of President Donald Trump, wreaking havoc and causing widespread terror.
“They were not protesters, they were rioters, tearing up the people's house and they were handled with the kind of kid gloves with humanity,” he added of the group, whose actions lead to the deaths of at least five people, including a police officer. “One could not help but juxtapose that to the response to those who were responding this summer to the deaths of George Floyd and the death of Breonna Taylor, those who rose up in peaceful, nonviolent struggle, and were met with brute force.”
For his first Gospel reading as a soon-to-be senator, Warnock chose Matthew 11: 7-15 which establishes God’s measure of greatness versus man’s — and addresses the tension that occurs when the violent try to take away God’s kingdom.
“Telling the truth will get you in trouble, and yet there can be no transformation without truth,” he preached from the former pulpit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “We cannot and we will not change until we confront or are confronted by the sickness of our own situation. That applies to individuals, that applies to institutions, that applies to nations. You can never get better until you have an actual diagnosis.”
Jelani Favors, 45, a professor and parishioner of Warnock’s for the past seven years, said Sunday’s sermon was “a perfect word for a perfect moment” from his pastor.
“This is what Reverend Warnock has always done,” he told NBC News. “He's been able to use the pulpit to heal, to bring people together and to address honestly, and boldly, the struggles that we confront in this country and certainly racial violence and racial terrorism is one of these historic issues.”
Warnock’s opponent in the Jan. 5 runoff, Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, often used his sermons against him during the campaign, attacking the pastor for citing scripture that man cannot worship both God and the military and saying that America must repent for its whiteness — a tactic that did not land well with voters.
“It was one of the worst steps you could make politically,” Favors said of vilifying Warnock’s faith, calling the approach a “foolhardy” mistake. “What that did was it galvanized black Christians throughout the state who understand the historic mission of the Black church.”
“I think it was a true testament to his character that even when you're throwing stones, I'm gonna use those stones to build a house, and that's what he did and he got them in the Senate,” said Caity Alexandra, 32, who has been a member of Warnock’s church since she moved to Atlanta in 2011.
“He encouraged this in his campaign to get out and vote,” Alexandra added. “He told us what he believed in. He did the same thing as a pastor in church, it was almost no difference, except one was more leaning towards God and the other one was leaning towards his faith, and putting it into the people.”
“I think that it is that demographics are the fire and organizing is the accelerant,” said Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, which Warnock chaired until his Senate bid.
“It’s not a question now — Georgia is a swing state,” Warnock campaign aide Terrence Clark told NBC News. “And the conventional thinking that you have to choose between appealing to white moderates or Black voters or progressives is out the window. You can do it all.”