Grappling with the Sacred in the Juneteenth Freedom Celebration


(RNS) – “To be completely honest, as a black man in America, I had never heard of Juneteenth until 2011,” Eric Patrick, associate pastor at Rockpointe Church, wrote to Flower Mound. , Texas, two years ago. church blog post explaining the holiday.

“Even though this represents the day my ancestors were liberated, I had never heard of it in school or in my upbringing and if I was, it was illustrated after the fact,” Patrick wrote to his congregation. predominantly white, adding, “That’s what a lot of black people feel today, like an afterthought.”

A year later, on June 17, 2021, while the country was still reeling from nationwide protests following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, June 19 National Independence Day became a federal holiday. But with the bill signed just two days before the holiday, many Americans were unprepared to celebrate and unsure how.


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Juneteenth, a shortening of “June 19”, commemorates the day in 1865 when a Union Army general, Gordon Granger, informed the enslaved population of Galveston, Texas, one of the last places to be pacified after the civil war, that they were free. “It implies absolute equality of personal rights and property rights, between former masters and slaves,” he told them, reading General Order Number 3.

A holiday in Texas since 1980, Juneteenth only appeared on the official holiday calendars of eight states before federal designation, and nine more have added it since last year. Historically, June 19 celebrations have often been informal affairs – picnics in public parks or family gatherings, sometimes a special church service.

Faith leaders have long marked the holiday with interfaith marches and special church services, particularly in Texas. JAccording to church pastor Donnell A. Johnson, the historic L Avenue Missionary Baptist Church, one of the oldest black churches in the state, will again uphold a 150-year legacy in June. black freedom honor with guest speakers and choirs.

“The truth rocked the city of Galveston with this declaration of freedom that African American men and women were free,” Johnson said. “It’s important for our generation to know our history.”

But elsewhere in Texas and across the country, many religious leaders contacted by Religion News Service this week said they plan to celebrate the holiday with their civic communities.

Calvary Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas, partnered with the city’s Juneteenth Coalition for a parade. Organizers asked attendees to bring photographs, yearbooks, or church programs for safekeeping in the San Antonio African American Community Archives, housed at Texas A&M-San Antonio.

“There will be a spiritual connection to open it, but the event will be more upbeat and celebratory,” said the church’s pastoral minister, the Reverend Willie J. Harper.

As June 19 falls on a Sunday this year, Christians in particular take the opportunity to qualify this day as sacred. Denominational leaders have sent out resource guides with prayers and appropriate readings, and preachers are adopting Juneteenth as a sermon theme.

The Jacksonville Gospel Chorale performs the Mass of St. Cyprian at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, Saturday, June 18, 2022, in Jacksonville, Fla., to commemorate the June 19 holiday. Video screenshot

But even where churches hold holy celebrations this weekend, many invite the public. On Saturday in Jacksonville, Florida, at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, the Jacksonville Gospel Chorale sang Mass for St. Cyprian, as a continuation of the work at the cathedral. on racial reconciliation with the Union of Black Episcopalians and St. Philip’s, a local historically black church.

“Instead of having a picnic or a parade, we thought this Mass would show the joy and sanctity of June 19,” said Alma Flowers, president of the Sidney B. Parker chapter of the Union of black Episcopalians.

But Flowers said they designed the service for people of all faiths or not. “We wanted a service with nothing but music,” she said, “without fellowship, because we don’t want anyone to feel left out.”

“It’s about freedom, about loving your neighbor,” Flowers said.


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Eric Patrick, who blogged about his own evolution with Juneteenth after moving to Texas ten years ago, will lead a Juneteenth prayer block at one of Rockpointe’s campuses on Sunday. In an interview with RNS, Patrick said he’s wondered, now that Juneteenth has been elevated to a federal holiday, “How do we start this off on the right foot?”

Patrick said he plans to speak in his reflection about the parallel between Jesus and General Granger, who was sent to speak to an oppressed people about their freedom.

But he is also aware of how a predominantly white church and the country as a whole could extend the aspiration for equality in General Order Number 3 beyond June 19.

Noting that pastors don’t just talk about the sanctity of marriage on Valentine’s Day, he said it’s important to make racial equity a daily concern of the church. “How,” he asked, “do we make it part of our DNA? »

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