Minister ‘peacekeepers’ work to mitigate tensions at Ohio polls this election season

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CLEVELAND (WJW) — With a country at odds during an election season, voting rights groups are looking to clergy to help keep things calm at the polls.

“Our goal is to just make sure everyone feels safe and comfortable while we’re doing this really important election,” said Rev. Joe Cherry, a “peacekeeper,” and minister at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cleveland. “This is what we do. We’re trained to de-escalate things.”

Rev. Dr. Susan Smith and Rev. Joan Van Becelaere, both of Columbus, co-developed the non-partisan Ohio PeaceKeeper for the Polls project and say anything from the pandemic to long lines to bad weather could be a trigger.

“When people get anxious, they don’t always act out of their own best interest or that of others,” said Van Becelaere who is also the Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist Justice Ohio and chair of the Voter Registration Team for the Nonpartisan Ohio Voter Outreach Committee.

They’ve trained 185 clergy and social workers and say about half have committed to volunteering for early voting and election day.

“Our goal and in our teaching is to teach them to win these people over. To talk to them, to listen to them,” said Smith who is also the founder of Crazy Faith Ministries and co-chair of the Minority Vote Subcommittee of the Nonpartisan Ohio Voter Outreach Committee.

Working in pairs, peacekeepers have trained in potential scenarios. They also have access to emergency numbers for backup.

Cherry says one de-escalating tactic is distracting the energy. 

“One of the tools someone said was if things get really crazy just pick somebody out of the crowd and just sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to them because people will join in,” Cherry said.

More seriously, we’re told there have been a couple of tense situations recently that involved someone with a holstered gun.

“Folks took some comfort from hearing the clergy person say this is an open-carry state, they’re not doing anything with it, and I’ll just be here,” Van Becelaere said.

But Cherry, who will be peacekeeping on election day, says in Cuyahoga County he’s seen nothing but good attitudes. “I don’t really expect there to be any problems.”

Pastors hope they will be trusted by both sides. 

“They see the collar and they remember what their mommas and their grandmommas taught them about God and they will calm down or possibly they can calm down,” said Smith.

Still, the ministers acknowledged the divides in America are deep and there is still work beyond the election. 

“There’s gonna be a lot of need for us to learn how to see each other again as a human being,” Van Becelaere said.

But until voting comes to a close, they plan to maintain a pastoral presence at the polls where needed. 

“We believe that justice, the universe bends towards justice and we are here to both witness and help that,” Cherry said.

The ministers say they are working with poll monitors to see where the lines are longest or where antagonistic groups are gathered to determine where they will be on election day.

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