Bethlehem Bible Church is the oldest Baptist church in the historically black neighborhood of Newtown in North Sarasota. But this Sunday, it's Soul Central — the hub for helping to get its members and six other congregations to the polls.
Preaching from the pulpit, Reverend Patrick Miller said this Sunday was a special celebration of the hard-earned right of African-Americans to vote, and the importance of exercising that right.
"This is 'Souls to the Polls' Sunday," Miller said to the packed pews. "People died so that we can have this right, and I do not intend for their deaths to be in vain."
With the primary only a week away, African-American churches in Sarasota are trying to ensure their community will have a voice this election. So after the church service, people were asked to file out into the parking lot, load into buses and cars, and ride to the North Sarasota Public Library to vote early.
The event was modeled after a grassroots program started in Charlotte, North Carolina. When the number of early voting days were cut back, including the Sunday before the election, members of churches there felt it was to suppressing the black vote.
In Newtown, Souls to the Polls organizer Ellen Heath says her community faced a similar struggle after the only early voting site in the neighborhood was closed six years ago.
"When you don't have anything but one poll open during early voting and you close that poll, to us, that is an act of voter suppression," she said.
When it was announced that the polling site would remain closed this year, community leaders flooded the elections office with phone calls, pressuring officials to reopen the North Sarasota Library site. That was a driving force behind bringing Souls to the Polls to Sarasota.
"It is a motivator for others to vote, that is they are provided with a polling place that is in their community," Heath said.
Responding to claims of voter suppression, Sarasota Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner said he was focused on making sure “our sites are accessible for all voters throughout the county."
On the bus ride to early voting, Helen Walker put on her "Andrew Gillum For Governor" pin. When asked her age, Walker wouldn't say, but she said she wanted to vote for candidate who will protect healthcare programs supporting seniors.
"I have a nice insurance and everything - I'm on all the things that have to do with the seniors and the elderly, and it's good," Walker said. "The government doesn't need to take it away from us."
Kanani Kekahuna, who brought her teenage daughters with her to vote, said education was the issue in the forefront of her mind when she was learning about the candidates in the primary race. She said she is concerned about the funding for Sarasota's public schools and teacher wages.
"I'm afraid that eventually it's going to get harder to find the educators for our children, because you can't meet their needs," she said.
After voting, members of all the participating churches met back at Bethlehem Bible Church to share a meal. There, Sarasota resident Edward James III urged them to get even more community members out to vote.
"African-Americans don't vote, that's what I keep hearing, and young people don't vote," he said. "That's what they think of you...It's time to prove them wrong."
Souls to the Polls organizers say Sunday's event was just a test run for what they plan to do for the general election in November. In all, 96 people voted at the North Sarasota Library on Sunday, many of them arriving on the Soul Train.