WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - When congregants go to worship at Brookland Baptist, they never know who will be in the pew next to them.
During election season, Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia is part of the pilgrimage candidates make as they court the African-American vote in South Carolina.
The list of presidential hopefuls who have attended services or events at Brookland is a “who's who” of political superstars and leaders.
President Barack Obama, Secretary Hillary Clinton, Rep. Jim Clyburn, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio, and many more have all worshiped or attended events at Brookland.
As these candidates are well-aware, African-American voters make up more than 20% of South Carolinians and more than 60% of all Democratic voters.
According to Brookland Baptist Senior Pastor Charles Jackson, Sr., one of the largest gatherings of politically-active African-American voters happens on Sunday mornings, and Brookland is one of the largest.
“The black church has always been the strength of the black community,” Jackson said. “Any and every movement that has been in the interest of concerns that the black community has had took place because of the church. It was the black pastor in the black pulpit.”
The desire to build community is what brought Jackson to preaching in the first place.
Jackson was raised in Lexington during the Jim Crow era. He said, at the time, few even realized African-American people lived where he did in West Columbia.
“When I was a little boy, my three brothers and I, we used to peep through the windows and watch the KKK burn crosses in the fields across from our house,” he remembered.
But despite the divisions and hate that he saw in his neighborhood and his school, he wanted to be a uniting force. So at a young age, he turned to preaching.
This mix of the church’s history of activism and Pastor Jackson’s desire to build bonds makes Brookland the perfect place to accept politicians of all stripes.
However, just because Brookland opens its doors and arms for a candidate, they aren’t allowed to address the church. Jackson said the pulpit is for preaching -- not for stump speeches.
“I have never, nor will I ever, have a candidate, regardless of what level you may be running, say anything in church on Sunday morning. That bothers me,” he said. “You can come and worship with us, and speak with us, and you can speak with congregants following the worship service.”
But Jackson said community is a two-way street. Brookland’s doors are open for all, but just coming through once or twice can feel like pandering.
“What bothers me is when you come to speak during election time and don’t show up until four years later, two years later, six years later,” he said. “I make it known from the pulpit that that is our expectation for you to return should you happen to be elected.”
Jackson said he has never, and will never, encourage his members to vote for a specific candidate. However, voting is part of the price of admission.
“If you join the Brookland Baptist Church, you’re joining with your church membership card -- given to you because you already have a voter registration card,” Jackson said. “And, if you don’t have a church membership card, the encouragement is to get a voter registration card because that’s who we are.”
He said what’s driving Brookland’s members to the polls is the future of their children, education and safety. But, he said no one should ever think everyone in his congregation thinks the same way.
“We have members who are in all of the camps, regardless of the political party it may be. So I have to respect them to have some intelligence on it,” Jackson said.