From Public Housing to the People’s Pastor: Savannah native uses pulpit as platform for change

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He’s senior pastor of one of the most prominent churches in America.

From the pulpit, Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock not only preaches the gospel but uses it as a platform for change.

“I’m an activist,” Warnock says from his church office, “for me, my preaching and my activism go hand in hand.”

So, it’s no surprise he would eventually end up in the pulpit of what is often called ‘America’s Freedom Church.’ It’s where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. co-pastored with his father, Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr.- a civil rights giant in his own right.

It’s been ten years since Warnock took the helm. At 35, he became the youngest of only five pastors to lead the church. He admits, he has big shoes to fill. In fact, he’s reminded of his enormous responsibility every time he walks these halls.

“What is always foremost in my mind is that it’s my job- not to walk in the shoes of my predecessors- but to stand on their shoulders.”

His future, he says, is largely based on his past. He grew up in Savannah’s Kayton Homes public housing. One of twelve children to Pentecostal preachers.

“We didn’t grow up with much in my family,” Warnock recalls, “but we had what really counts. We had a lot of love and deep faith. And I internalized that as self-confidence… and I think that has propelled me into doing the things that I’m doing.”

The Johnson High graduate is also a product of Savannah State’s Upward Bound program. He credits his success with a strong support system. But beyond the influence of family, teachers, and community, Warnock says it’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who has always loomed large as his moral compass.

“His voice captivated me as a very young child. I studied his voice. I listened to his sermons. I took note of his activism. I was moved by his ability to inspire people. To lay it all on the line for the sake of what’s high and good and noble for the sake of what he called the beloved community.”

That ‘beloved community’ has now become his parish. His impact- evident in the awards that adorn nearly every inch of his office. He’s counseled the powerful and kept company with the elite. At the request of President Obama, he even delivered the closing prayer at the 2013 Inaugural Prayer Service. His book, The Divided Mind of the Black Church; Theology, Piety & Public Witness is being taught in seminaries across the country including Yale University.

Just last month, his footprints were added to the “International Civil Rights Walk of Fame” for his commitment to making equality a reality for all.

He has become a fierce public advocate- defending voting rights in Georgia and across the country-  and taking the criminal justice system to task. “There are a number of issues confronting our world, but one that demands a lot of my attention these days is the prison industrial complex. I think that is one of the most glaring and obvious examples of the continuing legacy of Jim Crow segregation in the south and indeed across America.”

His unconventional approach to ministry has attracted more than 3,000 new members to Ebenezer. And just as the congregation has grown, so has church’s income- making possible more than $5 million in capital improvements to its education building and sanctuary.

An $8.5 million Community Resources Complex- named in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr.- is the product of a successful fundraising campaign.

“In addition to your everyday church programs and choir rehearsal room, we have several non-profits located in this building- creating a one stop shop of wrap around services that move people towards self-sufficiency.”

It includes a Cyber Cafe’- where visitors can access the internet for free… and Operation Hope- which is focused on financial literacy.

“So, because they’re here, you can literally come to our church today and apply for a mortgage… and if you’re not ready, they’ll help you get ready.”

Warnock believes to whom much is given, much is required. So, despite all he has accomplished so far, he says there’s still more work to be done.

“In as much as I’ve inherited, this amazing National Treasure… and I stand now at the helm of this institution… my job everyday is to embody the love ethic of the gospel in a way that embraces the whole community. Even those who do not share my faith or have no faith at all.”

Constant labor he hopes will ultimately lead to eternal reward.

In addition to being an author, activist, and humanitarian, Rev. Warnock has gained a new title- husband. A picture of him proposing to his longtime girlfriend earlier this year, went viral.

They married during a private ceremony a few weeks ago, but had a public ceremony  Valentine’s Day.

Click here to watch Rev. Warnock’s wedding ceremony.

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