Lest we Forget, the Truth Sets You Free
Today marks the one-year anniversary of our country’s holiday observance of Juneteenth (short for “June Nineteenth”).
On June 17, 2021, Juneteenth officially became a federal holiday. It marks the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1865 to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people be freed. The troops’ arrival came a full two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Juneteenth has a profound and personal meaning for me. In 1988, I was invited to a Juneteenth celebration in Austin, Texas by African American friends. Not knowing anything about Juneteenth, they were gracious answering all my questions about the celebration, but didn’t understand how I, an African American, knew nothing about Juneteenth. They eventually attributed my ignorance to growing up in Massachusetts.
When I arrived at the Juneteenth celebration, (expecting a small church fellowship barbecue in a parking lot), I was in awe as I strolled toward a vast outdoor park with tens of thousands of black folk streaming through a two-story high “Juneteenth Celebration” banner the width of an American football field. There were thousands of barbecue pits and tables surrounded with black people of all beautiful skin hues and enjoying an overwhelming abundance of sports, food, music, laughter and joy.
A mammoth stage was set for local Austin talent throughout the day featuring singers, Gospel choirs, poets, elected officials and historians – all entertaining and informing crowds why they were there and what they were celebrating.
I will never forget the rows and rows of informational booths highlighting African American history, artifacts and photographs that documented the contributions of enslaved Texans. Booth curators offered accounts of personal ancestor experiences with slavery, eyewitness acts of harsh Jim Crow segregation and frightening bouts with “government sanctioned terrorism” as the late Congressman John Lewis said.
There were oral biographies of enslaved family members, testimonies of unprovoked segregation beatings and cruelty, witnesses to lynchings of blacks and heroic escapes, stories of skirmishes with the Klu Klux Klan and narrow exits from Texas sundown towns (where blacks were mandated to leave town by sundown or risk attacks from white mobs or law enforcement).
My first Juneteenth celebration back in 1988 opened my eyes to the truth that little progress from America’s dark racist past had been made. Sadly, recent events continue to prove systemic racism and white supremacy are still incredibly embedded in American society and institutions in 2022. As columnist Jess McIntosh writes, “We are still in the process of ending slavery, and nowhere near ending its effects.”
While we observe and celebrate today’s Juneteenth holiday, I’d like to offer a prayer from Peter Engelhart of Xavier University to help us meditate on the truth, seek guidance from God to act and channel hope for a better future for racial reconciliation.
Juneteenth Prayer - Peter Engelhart
Today, we commemorate the end of slavery in America.
We celebrate the freedom of black lives in our nation. We grieve that we have not correctly reconciled racism in our nation.
Lord, You created each person in Your image. The two greatest commandments call us to love You* with all our heart, souls, and minds; Then, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Your love for us motivates us to love each other. If we do not love each other, then ultimately, we have not experienced Your love.
As much as we commemorate and celebrate Juneteenth, we grieve this day. We mourn that our black brothers and sisters have not been loved as our neighbors. We mourn that our black brothers and sisters have been treated less than created in Your Image throughout history.
So, Lord we confess our sins and repent. The healing and reconciliation we desire comes from the gospel. On Juneteenth this year, we ask You to guide our nation.
May the good news of the gospel motivate us to love each other. May the ideals of our words match the practices of our lives. May a fresh empowerment of Your Spirit unite us together.
Give us eyes to see and ears to hear Your will and leading.
AMEN and AMEN.
*Jeffrey Corey is the new Director of Communications for the General Board of Church and Society