We live in an age of miracles but we spend very little time noticing that. After four years of Donald Trump, two years of Covid and four months of vicious war in Ukraine, it’s hardly surprising many feel overwhelmed by seemingly relentless bad news.
Raphael Warnock’s inspiring memoir arrives just in time to remind us that even in our darkest days, America offers at least as much hope as despair.
Warnock was at the center of the most recent set of miracles, which came about in large part because of the registration and activism of Black voters in key states in 2020. In Georgia it began when a former state house minority leader, Stacey Abrams, identified 800,000 eligible but unregistered voters and formed the New Georgia Project to get as many on the rolls as possible.
Warnock joined Abrams’ campaign. Despite the outrageous efforts of then secretary of state (now governor) Brian Kemp, who falsely accused them of voter fraud, by 2019 they had registered 500,000 voters. That made three miracles possible: Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Georgia in 28 years and Warnock and Jon Ossoff became the first Black and Jewish senators elected from the state, miraculously giving Democrats (tenuous) control of the Senate.
Nothing is more filled with hope than the trajectory of Warnock’s life. He was the 11th of 12 children. His father made his living collecting scrap metal and preaching while his mother was a homemaker until she became the preacher in the family.
Warnock’s life is proof that the federal government has done important things to level the playing field in crucial ways. Warnock got his first leg-up through Head Start, one of the greatest legacies of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Then he got enrolled in Upward Bound, a federally financed summer college preparatory program that strengthened his confidence “and provided the path for the pursuit of my dreams”. For a kid growing up in a neighborhood where no one had a bachelor’s degree, this “demystified the idea of college and gave me a clear vision of what was possible”.
But the advantages he started with were even more important, especially a mom who is “a preacher with a God-given sense of spiritual discernment”, who “could read people and situations better than anyone I’ve ever known”. Warnock grew up in a housing project devastated by crack and Aids, “but in a place where there were too many missing fathers, I had two devoted parents at home, and they kept church at the center of our lives”.
His parents never let him forget that while we live in a nation “in need of moral surgery”, with “hope, hard work, and the people by our side anything is possible”.
The college he chose was Morehouse, a vital Black institution with alumni justly famous for “world-changing accomplishments” including the former Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson, civil rights leader Julian Bond, Spike Lee, theologian Howard Thurman and of course Martin Luther King Jr.
Although Warnock was born a year after King’s assassination, “more than anybody or anything else” it was King who “recruited” him to Morehouse.
Warnock is particularly proud that he can trace his own development directly to the greatest American civil rights leader of the 20th century. During college he interned at Sixth Avenue Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, where he was mentored by the Rev John Thomas Porter, who had been a pulpit assistant to Martin Luther King Jr and his father.
The civil rights pioneer Jesse Jackson was another role model, one of many “courageous souls” who laid “the groundwork for candidates of color and women to run and win high political offices presumed out of reach”. These pioneers showed Warnock “that to be effective, you have to be willing to put your body in the game – show up, give what you have (your time, your money, your skills), and do what you’re asking of others”.
Morehouse was the beginning of Warnock’s introduction to the elite Black establishment nourished by historically Black colleges and universities and Black churches. While greedy, racist born-again Christians get most of our attention, this book reminds us there is another religious network which has been hugely important to America’s progress, strengthening and nurturing the Black community.
A brilliant natural preacher who gave his first sermon at 11, a sincere servant of God, Warlock had a meteoritic rise, going from Morehouse to Union theological seminary in New York and then to Manhattan’s most famous Black house of worship, the Abyssinian Baptist church, where he quickly became an intern minister. There he had another crucial mentor, the Rev Dr Calvin O Butts III, an alumnus of both schools Warnock attended.
At 31, Warnock became senior pastor at Douglas Memorial Community church in Baltimore, where he demonstrated remarkable courage by starting with an attack on church homophobia. He built his installation ceremony around activities designed to heighten HIV/Aids awareness, “to signal to my church … the kind of ministry we would build together”.
Just a couple of years later, in 2005, he got the greatest honor of all when King’s Ebenezer Baptist church elected him senior pastor, by the vote of 90% of the congregation. Sixteen years later, he was a United States senator.
May Warnock’s unlikely success and irrepressible optimism be enough to remind all of us that the only thing needed to rescue our beleaguered democracy is a genuine willingness by the enlightened citizens who are still a majority to put our bodies back in the game. If the rest of us can be half as courageous as Warnock is, he reminds us, we can still “build a future that honors the sacrifices of those who came before us and is worthy of the promise that lives in all our children”.
A Way Out of No Way: A Memoir of Truth, Transformation and the New American Story is published in the US by Penguin