HOUSTON, TX — “Make sure you go out and vote!” thundered Pastor Simeon Queen to the hundreds of congregants lining the pews Sunday morning at St. John’s United Methodist Church. As a full rock band backed up an enormous gospel choir and colored lights danced across the walls, the parishioners sang, prayed, and vowed to not only vote on Tuesday, but to help others do the same.
A pillar in Texas’ faith community, this church is best known as the spot where pop superstar Beyoncé Knowles first started singing and where she remains involved today.
Speaking to ThinkProgress between the three services the church offers each Sunday, Pastor Queen described how the church has been helping at-risk community members cast a ballot in this year’s midterm elections: providing vans to help people get to the polls last weekend and on Election Day, helping register about 500 homeless voters and 3,000 others this year alone, and setting up a system for homeless neighbors to use the church as their mailing address in order to get a voter ID or vote absentee if necessary.
Many of these initiatives have been funded by multimillion-dollar donations from Beyoncé and her family.
“They’ve been lifesavers, a very gracious family,” Queen told ThinkProgress. “It’s supported the core of our mission to serve others, especially those who have been disenfranchised and have had struggles in life.”
Another one of those groups — -a massive one in Texas — -consists of the hundreds of thousands of people incarcerated, on parole, or on probation.
Dr. Jonathan Chism, an associate pastor at the church, spearheads a support group for dozens of formerly incarcerated community members. A few weeks ago, he led a workshop called Reinvesting in Our Communities, which included information on the importance and logistics of reclaiming the right to vote. Under Texas law, felons who have served their sentences have their voting rights restored. But Chism said returning citizens often aren’t aware they can vote, or don’t believe their vote will make a difference.
“There was one brother [at the workshop] who hadn’t been participating, because he didn’t realize his vote counted,” he told ThinkProgress. “But he recently registered and is participating in this upcoming election. People with criminal records really need to have their views represented too, to get elected officials to see that their vote matters and it’s a community they need to respect. We want the ex-offenders to know that through working together they can have a type of influence on power, and create a system that is more equitable for everybody.”
An additional hurdle for hundreds of thousands of Texans this year — including the population aided by St. John’s — will be a new requirement to show a voter ID in order to cast a ballot.
Thaddeus Haler, who has worked at St. John’s homeless services wing for about eight years, told ThinkProgress he’ll be driving vans full of registered homeless voters to the polls this Tuesday, but fears many of them will be turned away.
“A lot of the homeless community don’t have the right ID. It’s a big problem,” he said. “They don’t have a drivers license. We’ve been taking them to DPS [the state office that gives out free voter IDs] but sometimes they don’t have a birth certificate to get one! And even when it works, it takes like four to six weeks to get the ID, and they sometimes wait until the last minute to do everything.”
Even those with all the proper documents may have difficulties, because of recent court rulings first blocking the ID requirement, then reinstating it. “Rumors and misinformation have spread, and it could discourage some people from participating,” said Chism. The leaders of St. John’s have been doing all they can to combat this confusion and cynicism by organizing events to educate the church’s thousands of members, their families and the surrounding community. Recent speakers have included gubernatorial hopeful Wendy Davis, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) and Houston Mayor Annise Parker.
“I have found that voting is the breathing force of America,” said Queens. “As a church that believes in social justice and civic engagement, we take the time to have voter empowerment moments in which elected officials and future elected officials have come to tell us a little about themselves. We don’t say to vote for anybody in particular, but we do say, ‘We need you to vote.’”