(RNS) — Raphael Warnock, the Atlanta pastor long known as “the Rev.,” received a new moniker — “Senator” — as he was sworn in at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday (Jan. 20).
Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, became Georgia’s first Black senator in history in a U.S. Capitol ceremony steeped in historical significance.
The minister who for the last 15 years has preached from the pulpit of the church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was once co-pastor took the oath of office as Vice President Kamala Harris, who had gained her new role just hours before, presided.
Harris, herself the first Black woman and the first person of South Asian descent to become vice president, is, like Warnock, a Black Baptist, though she was raised with the strong influence of her mother’s Hinduism as well.
In a statement, Warnock noted the swearing-in also occurred on an important day in his personal history: “Today, my father, a veteran and son of south Georgia, would have been 104 years old,” Warnock said. “Today, our country’s first Black, woman Vice President swore in his son, Georgia’s first Black United States Senator. That this is even possible is a testament to the promise of our democracy and the covenant we share with one another as Americans.”
The holy book he held as Harris presided at his ceremony directly tied Warnock to the congregation he has led for a decade and a half.
“The Bible he will use was presented to him by the people of Ebenezer on the occasion of his installation as the church’s fifth senior pastor,” the church announced on its Facebook page.
Warnock was sworn in at the same time as Georgia’s second new senator, Jon Ossoff, who is the state’s first Jewish senator. Ossoff was sworn in holding a book of Hebrew Scripture that once belonged to Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, who led Atlanta’s synagogue The Temple and was a King ally, JTA reported.
Joining the two Georgia senators in the ceremony was Alex Padilla, who will fill Harris’ seat, from which she resigned on Monday. Formerly California’s secretary of state, Padilla is the first Latino to represent California in the Senate.
In her new role as president of the Senate, Harris announced that Padilla was “to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of former Senator Kamala D. Harris of California.” She laughed and added, “Yeah, that was very weird” before facing the three men and swearing them in.
The trio said “I do” at the same time.
Earlier, Senate Chaplain Barry Black opened the Senate session with a prayer that seemed to allude to the storming of the U.S. Capitol that endangered the lives of members of Congress, their staff and family members two weeks ago.
“Thank you for the opportunity to witness a renewal of democracy and an orderly transition of power; Lord, we know this orderly transition was not inevitable for your grace saved us,” he prayed. “Mighty God, let the healing begin. Bless our incoming senators. Give wisdom and courage to President Joseph R. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris for the living of these days.”
Warnock has said he expects to continue in his role as senior pastor while serving in the Senate.
“I say I’m stepping up to my next calling to serve, not stepping down from the pulpit,” he told Religion News Service in a statement in November.
Other African American ministers may serve as role models for Warnock because they too served in Congress. They range from Richard Harvey Cain, a Republican congressman from South Carolina in the 1870s, to Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat from Kansas City, Missouri, who turned over the pulpit to his son in 2009 and continues in his congressional role.