When the enslaved community in Galveston, Texas, learned on June 19, 1865, that they’d been freed, they went to their church and prayed. They understood that President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had ordered their freedom, but they believed God had made it possible, said Lisa Fields, founder of the Jude 3 Project.
“They gave the glory to God. They saw God as their deliverer,” she said during a June 15 webinar on religion’s role in Juneteenth.
Fields and her co-panelists returned to that moment repeatedly as they tried to explain why contemporary churches should engage with Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates that long ago day.
Just as faith leaders pray for fathers on Father’s Day and the country on Independence Day, they must pray for liberation on Juneteenth, said Carey Latimore, an associate professor of history at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.
“We need to bring (the Juneteenth story) into the church and talk about the ways that God wants us to be liberated — not just physically, but mentally, emotionally and spiritually,” he said.
What is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth, which became a federal holiday last year, began as a unique-to-Texas event. Each year on the anniversary of learning about the end of slavery from Union soldiers, the Black community in Galveston gathered to celebrate their freedom.
But over time, the festivities caught on elsewhere as the sons and daughters of Galveston started new lives somewhere else. Today, Juneteenth is celebrated in cities across the country and around the world, according to The Associated Press.
As the holiday spread, its ties to religious communities weakened. Today, it’s generally thought of as a secular event.
“It’s really more huge parties and huge parades and big concerts, but always bringing in freedom. It’s all about freedom,” said Para LaNell Agboga, museum site coordinator at the George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center in Austin, Texas, to the AP in 2019.
Many religious leaders — and particularly religious leaders who are white — are probably fine with that shift, the panelists said.
If you’re not used to grappling with issues of racial injustice from the pulpit, it’s hard to know what to say about a day like Juneteenth, said the Rev. Rasool Berry, teaching pastor at The Bridge Church in Brooklyn, New York, and director of partnerships and content development with Our Daily Bread ministries.
“Sometimes, you can feel pressure when you don’t know how something is ... going to be responded to by (your) congregation,” he said.
Celebrating Juneteenth at church
One of the themes of the June 15 panel, which was co-sponsored by Christianity Today and Our Daily Bread and moderated by Russell Moore, was that faith leaders who push through their initial anxiety will find it’s well worth it.
Juneteenth is a chance to wrestle with important questions and find a path forward that makes everyone more free, the Rev. Berry said.
“Sometimes we want to avoid tension and avoid complexity ... but leaning into those things creates an opportunity for expansion and growth,” he said.
However, he and others noted that it’s OK for faith groups and even individual families to start small. Maybe this year, your church can host a discussion group on Juneteenth or say a prayer about it and then build up to something bigger next year.
“For pastors who have never engaged before, see this as mile marker number one,” said Michelle Reyes, vice president and co-founder of the Asian American Christian Collaborative. “Pray about it this Sunday (and) ask God to show you how to keep fighting for freedom. Then, next week, reach out to a pastor at the local Black church and ask, ‘Can we meet up and learn and grow together?’”
Reyes said her experiences celebrating Juneteenth in Austin, Texas, have shown her that celebrating alongside the Black community in bright moments and fighting alongside them in difficult ones is part of living a life of faith.
“Engaging with Juneteenth is one part of my commitment as an Indian American follower of Jesus to both declare that all people should be free and to continue to fight for Black and brown communities until we are all free,” she said.