Bethel mobilizes early voters

They marched yesterday from the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church to the courthouse voting precinct, for one purpose-to encourage the community to vote early.

Political figures, along with local church and community members, marched to the Leon County Courthouse Rotunda as Nov. 4, nears.

Bethel’s pastor the Rev. R.B. Holmes, Jr., said he envisioned a push to get the residents of Leon county to vote.

“We wanted to motivate and mobilize the community early,” he said. “We achieved our goal.”

The non-partisan march and rally developed over six weeks and was spearheaded by Bethel’s Social Justice Ministry.

Linda Fortenberry, special assistant to pastor Holmes and a member of the ministry, said the church had to get permission from the County Facilities Manager to host the event. Bethel worked with the county’s school district to pay and provide buses for the Florida A&M University’s Marching 100. Water and sandwiches were provided for attendees.

After marchers reached south Monroe st., songs of worship lingered in the air as FAMU’s band played. Candidates on the ballot, like Republican and Democratic candidates for House District 9, Peter Boulware and Michelle Vasilinda, respectively, spoke before nearly 1,000 people.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-MD made a special appearance while on his own campaign trail. With a forceful voice and a specific message, Cummings urged voters to look at the issues people may change by voting early.

“We must change our healthcare system…we must improve our education,” he said. “We cannot continue another four years of what we had for the last eight years.”

Other political figures that attended the rally included Commissioners Bill Proctor and Andrew Gillum.

Gillum said the rally was monumental for blacks. For those who grew up “segregated in America,” he said the political action among community members was especially important for those who could not vote.

Willie Donaldson, 82, a member of Bethel, said she voted early for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, and she wanted others to do the same.

“We need a change, we don’t need to go back over the same thing every year,” Donaldson said.

Donaldson was fortunate enough to vote but others like Otis Thompson, 39, an ex-convict currently on probation, could not. As a member of Bethel, he marched with congregation to the courthouse but could not stand in line for the polls and choose a candidate.

“Once you’ve served your time, you should vote,” he said.

Incarcerated for 17 ½ years since he was 19, Thompson has never voted. He will be eligible in 2010. “As soon as it’s my time, I will cast my vote,” he said.

Thompson said staying active with the Men’s Ministry at Bethel and witnessing “a black man” running for the White House, encouraged him to persuade others to vote early.

Local churches, like Jerusalem Baptist and Bethel American Methodist Episcopal Church, supported the event by pushing members to attend.

Cynthia Williams, a member of Bethel AME, decided to vote after the rally.

“Since they announced it after church, I said I might as well come and vote,” Williams said.

Her church provided shuttles to and from the polls after service.

“I’m really excited about the partnership with the churches,” she said.