There is not a single ancestor throughout my family history who was owned by another person. However, more than 15 years ago, I learned the sad reality that I was generations removed from a man who did own other humans. He earned his name, Devil Bill, as a brutal slave owner owning one of the largest plantations in the Midwest. I am certainly not this distant relative, but this bit of family history gave me greater capacity to learn to grieve with my friends who look different than me. As followers of Jesus, Romans 12:15 calls us to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.
As our nation reflects on Juneteenth—short for June Nineteenth, the day in 1865 that Union Army soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce the end of slavery, some 2 1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed—below are some ways the church can embrace this important day.
Listen and learn. If I can be honest, it was not until about 2017 that I learned of Juneteenth. I was never taught this in school or in my own family. I learned from my friend, who taught me the meaning and significance of Juneteenth from his own Black experience and how he learned the significance of Juneteenth from family members generations before him. He provided perspective for me, but, more importantly, how deeply personal this was for his parents and grandparents. I would especially encourage you to talk to someone of color who may have grown up in the 1960s during Jim Crow laws, segregation, and the Civil Rights movement. Have a conversation. Mark your calendars. Circle this date. It matters.
Pray together in the in-between. Where is Jesus in all this? Jesus stood with the marginalized and the oppressed. He empathized as one who came into a world born into a family under foreign rule. He came to literally and spiritually set the captives free, which includes you and me. He would patiently endure the cross, hanging on that tree dying for all people. He came, indeed, to set the captives free as we hear in His words of Luke 4:18. Yet, we still wait for our ultimate freedom from sin and the injustice of this present world.
J. Kameron Carter, in The African American Lectionary, writes: “Juneteenth invites us to reflect upon the fact that during the two-and-a-half-year period between Emancipation Day and Juneteenth, there were still some people of color, people of African descent in the United States, who were still in bondage. They were still functioning as slaves, though legally they were free. Juneteenth, then, was for them a delayed celebration, a delayed enforcement of freedom. It represented a lagging liberation.”
This delayed freedom is a metaphor for the “now and not yet” freedom we experience as followers of Jesus. We need Juneteenth to celebrate our freedom in Christ now, but we also need to pray together for the not yet ultimate freedom when Christ returns to set the world right once and for all. So, may I invite you to pray Psalm 146 with someone who looks different than you this Juneteenth?