Yesterday was Juneteeth, a federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. We need only look to the racially-motivated mass shooting in Buffalo, New York last month as one example showing why it is important to observe Juneteenth.
by Kristin Berkey-Abbott
For many congregations, summer is a time of reduced activity. Many congregations with midweek spiritual development opportunities suspend them for the summer. Some congregation councils go on a summer hiatus if it’s impossible to find a time when everyone is in town. But summer also offers some unique opportunities, especially during the holy month of June. From Pentecost to feast days, the church calendar is rife with possibilities for worship and celebration.
Alongside many African American Lutheran and ecumenical partner congregations, your congregation might use adult education time to explore the holiday of Juneteenth.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day people enslaved in Texas first heard that the January 1, 1863, Emancipation Proclamation had freed them. Some celebrations use the day to present facts about African American culture and achievements. Clergy and lay leaders might also draw connections with the forces that today hold us all enslaved and the liberating power God longs to be for us.
Juneteenth may also be the oldest celebration of the end of extreme religious oppression in the U.S. Before the proclamation, people of African descent were forced to worship in secret in some places, including South Carolina, where all-Black congregations were against the law. In the U.S., there is a long history of violence against Black churches, including the 1963 murders of four little girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama; firebombings in the 1990s; and the 2015 murders of nine Black people at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. For the ELCA, it was an intensely personal tragedy: Dylann Roof, was raised in an ELCA congregation, and two of the murdered churchgoers, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the Rev. Daniel Simmons, were graduates of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, which is part of Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina. After the tragedy, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton urged the church to talk, listen and act. “No stereotype or racial slur is justified,” she said. “Speak out against inequity… Above all pray—for insight, for forgiveness, for courage.” June is a good time to start or continue steps toward understanding and justice.
The month of June offers such a wealth of holy opportunities that we can’t possibly pursue them all. But we can resolve that this year will not be the year that we neglect them all—just because some members of the flock have wandered away on vacation.
Dr. Kristin Berkey-Abbott serves as director of education at the Hollywood (Florida) campus of City College.
This article is adapted from the June 2019 issue of Gather magazine.