There’s been a lot of discussion around Juneteenth, the upcoming US federal holiday on June 19. Some in church circles might even ask, “What does Juneteenth have to do with Church?” So, first, a brief history lesson, followed by why I believe Juneteenth should be important to the American Church.
While most of us in the US learned in grade school that enslaved people were freed when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, there’s quite a bit more to the story. Not all states fell under the jurisdiction of the 1863 proclamation, and news of freedom traveled slowly to the states that were impacted. The Civil War continued for two more years until General Robert E. Lee surrendered in April 1865. Two months later, on June 19, 1865, a Union regiment arrived in Galveston, Texas, announced the decrees of the Emancipation Proclamation, and informed the still-enslaved people in that state that the institution of slavery had been abolished. No one told the enslaved peoples of their freedom until that first Juneteenth, two years after the decree was issued.
Juneteenth commemorates this “official” ending of slavery in the United States. Its observance not only recognizes the end of slavery but also acknowledges and celebrates a peoples’ unbreakable faith, resilience, and optimism.
So why do I believe Juneteenth is so important to the American Church? Frankly, because it’s biblical. Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (ESV). Juneteenth recognizes this rejoicing. All believers can participate in rejoicing to celebrate the freedom of people who had been owned as property, confident that God is faithful and accepting his call on our lives.
Juneteenth is a day for celebration and remembrance. With reverence to those who came before us, this day is a rallying cry for those of us of African descent to celebrate freedom granted and achievements made despite a multitude of obstacles and to encourage each other to press on, particularly in the area of social justice. That being said, it should also be embraced as a day for all Americans, honoring a day in American history where there was at least an effort made to right some of the wrongs and to move toward living up to the ideals outlined in the Constitution. Particularly for the American Church, Juneteenth should be a day to celebrate because it uniquely recognizes the imago Dei; it is a day to commit to working towards dignity, unity, and equality for all people.
By acknowledging Juneteenth, all Americans, but particularly American Christians, should wrestle and weep – lament – over a shameful chapter in American history and also recognize that racial divides still plague our nation. Acknowledging Juneteenth can deepen our understanding of this segment of American history that is often glossed over. We can enter into another person’s story and examine slavery from a different vantage point. From this humble position and with a desire to learn, we can and should lament. The spiritual discipline of lament allows us to enter the sacred spaces of another’s pain, regardless of whether it bears any similarity to our own current or past life experiences, and in so doing work toward healing.
Acknowledging Juneteenth is a wonderful opportunity to develop or strengthen our compassion and empathy muscles and to expand our cultural knowledge base. We can also gain a better understanding and admiration of the historical significance of the Black church and bring dignity to African-American Christians whose heritage is clouded in the sin of racism.
By acknowledging June 19 as a reminder of hope, the American Church can lead in the process of America’s healing. This is the work of the Church – to bring people together, following the example of Jesus and his teachings. If we truly want healing – healing in our hearts, healing in our communities, healing in our nation, and yes, even, or perhaps especially, healing in our churches and denominations – we must acknowledge, lament, and confess the sins of our past so we can lock arms across all divisions and differences and do the work that Jesus died for and that God calls us to: to love one another.
Sharon Richards is an Elder at Oak Hills Baptist Church in Folsom, California.
To find out more about Juneteenth, watch the documentary produced by Our Daily Bread Ministries, in which host Rasool Berry goes back to Galveston, Texas, to visit historical sites and talk to scholars, advocates, and direct descendants of formerly enslaved people. This documentary not only expresses the history surrounding Juneteenth, it also describes how very clearly the Lord was involved and celebrated in the lives of the formerly enslaved.