(RNS) — Sen. Raphael Warnock, who continues to pastor his historic Atlanta church while serving as Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator, has received the Roosevelt Institute’s Freedom of Worship Award in a ceremony focused on racial justice.
“I really felt that the strength of his pastoral voice was unique,” Anne Roosevelt, granddaughter of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and board chair of the institute, told Religion News Service hours before Warnock was honored in a Wednesday (Oct. 13) ceremony.
“And now, he’s in this new role in addition to his role as pastor at the church, but his voice is consistently counseling, teaching, making himself vulnerable in order to help the rest of us make sense of the world,” she said.
Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was once co-pastor, was honored on the same evening with New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. She was awarded the institute’s Freedom of Speech and Expression Award after spearheading the newspaper’s 1619 Project that explored the history and legacy of slavery in the U.S.
The senator, interviewed during the virtual ceremony by Community Change President Dorian Warren, said he views himself as a “pastor in the Senate,” reminding the powerful not to ignore people with no wealth.
“For me, faith gets engaged in the messiness of worldly struggle; it’s not hidden behind stained-glass windows,” Warnock said. “You probably could step over (the poor) but you shouldn’t. God warns us not to do that. My work is putting them always at the center. Because in their faces we see the face of God.”
The respective names of the Four Freedoms Awards are taken from fundamental liberties laid out in a 1941 speech to Congress by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was elected to four terms in the Oval Office. He spoke of the “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.”
His granddaughter, 73, said the institute, which has published reports and fact sheets on racial inequities, chose to take an “extra step” toward racial justice through this year’s awards.
“This is one event where we could say, ‘So what does it mean to be an anti-racist giver of awards?’” she said. “And to challenge ourselves and bring it to our own consciousness.”
Anne Roosevelt acknowledged that African Americans and other people of color were often left out of her grandfather’s New Deal reforms.
“We are still falling short of making sure that we deliver the same benefits of our democracy to every person in our country,” she said.
While Anne Roosevelt’s grandfather and grandmother, Eleanor Roosevelt, were lifelong Episcopalians, she said she was raised Catholic and is not currently affiliated with a denomination. But as a member of the committee that nominated Warnock for his award, she said she appreciates him as a leader and as a person of faith.
“I don’t often reflect on Jesus, but when I do, I picture him being surrounded by the people who followed him,” she said. “He taught them how to live, how to live as the fullest and best expression of humanity. And I feel like Senator Warnock is in that mode.”