This holiday commemorates the day in 1865 when the 250,000 enslaved people in Texas were informed that they were free. Actually, they had been free legally for over two years, since January of 1863, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
So, Juneteenth is a holiday about contradictions. It’s full of joy at the end of slavery, but it’s also a reminder about what still needs to be done.
The writer Jelani Cobb said:
Juneteenth exists as a counterpoint to the Fourth of July; the latter heralds the arrival of American ideals, the former stresses just how hard it has been to live up to them.
Nevertheless, Juneteenth was a pivotal moment in American history. In 2021, Congress and President Biden made it a Federal holiday. Here in Seattle, you can visit the Museum of History and Industry to see an exhibit called Unspoken Truths, which is an Afrocentric view of American history. You can also Google “Juneteenth in Seattle” to find other ways to celebrate this day.
We know that Juneteenth was not the beginning of freedom for African Americans. Black people had been both actively and passively resisting their enslavement as long as it had existed. Many people managed to liberate themselves and others—Harriet Tubman is only the most famous of these. There were also at least 250 well organized, armed uprisings.
We know too that Juneteenth was not the end of the struggle for freedom and equality. That struggle goes on up to this minute. There’s a loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution that permits involuntary servitude as punishment for being convicted of a crime—that is, slavery in America exists right now, in the form of what Angela Davis calls the prison industrial complex.
Also in this election season, we’re looking at laws specifically designed to suppress the votes of Black and brown people, at blatantly racist gerrymandering, at openly white supremacist members of Congress, at a former president who used violent white supremacist gangs to try to overturn an election.
And the Second Amendment to the Constitution was crafted specifically to permit White people to form locally-organized militias, to put down slave rebellions and to control the movements of Black people. Since then, it has morphed into the right to own weapons of mass death, with the result that since the massacres of elderly people shopping for groceries and small children and teachers in their classrooms; there have been over 700 shootings in our United States.
Our hearts are overwhelmed.
We are grieving. We feel frozen in place by our sense of helplessness in the face of a culture that demands daily human sacrifice.
And we are in fear—for the safety of our children and grandchildren, and our elders, and our neighbors and friends, and ourselves. Grief and fear weigh us down, slow our movements, scramble our thinking. They leave us shuffling in place, unable to move forward with our lives or to take real action.
Our hearts are overwhelmed.
In Psalm 61, David says
My heart is overwhelmed.
Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
But what is our rock? Where do we go for refuge and shelter? What is our strong tower?
Many of you remember our friend Achil Obenza, who used to sing with our choir. Achil wrote this on Facebook two weeks ago, and I’m sharing it with her permission:
At the end of the day, when all the foundations crack and the walls crumble away, when there are only stars to light this darkened world, maybe then we will understand that all there is is love. All is love. Love is not just something we need. It is the essence of existence, the fabric of the universe, and the threads that intertwine. Love is the melody, the harmony, and the glorious cacophony that emanates from the hurdy gurdy grind of daily life.
You are love, and you are loved.
Thank you, Achil.
So, Love. And not just love, but a Love that is bigger than any of us—a rock that is steadier and higher than we are. Love endures. To paraphrase the psalm:
a tower of strength against the foe.
take refuge in the shelter of love’s wings.
Love—as a tower, as a tall stone—can give us a wider view of where we are and what’s going on. Love gives us perspective. It lifts us up out of what is overwhelming us, lets us see more clearly.
We know from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that love is patient and kind, not jealous or boastful. It is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
But I have to add: Love isn’t always nice. Jesus is the model for us of what incarnated Love looks like, but he cursed a fig tree that wasn’t bearing fruit, and he overturned tables and whipped animals out of the Temple in his anger.
Sometimes love is fierce.
Love is angry that food deserts exist, even in Seattle and King County, and that there was only one decent supermarket in the “Black” area of Buffalo, New York, and now there is none. Love is angry about the school-to-prison pipeline that starts children on a road to mass incarceration. Love was angry when George Floyd was murdered and when so many more people of color continue to be killed by police. Love was horrified when a white supremacist murdered 10 shoppers at that supermarket in Buffalo, and injured many more. And when nineteen children and two teachers were destroyed in their classrooms while police did worse than nothing. Love is outraged that white supremacy helped install a malignant narcissist as President, whose delusional lies are threatening lives even now.
Angry love. It’s as much of an oxymoron as “jumbo shrimp”—or “good trouble.” But righteous anger is the catalyst that can transform grief and fear into constructive action. Remember what John Lewis said:
"Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble."
And yet—as much as we want to make necessary trouble, we feel overwhelmed, again, by our own daily struggles and worries. How can we find the energy and time to make good trouble?
We can start by asking ourselves two questions. The first is this:
What is mine to do today?
No one can do it all. No one can maintain focused action on all these problems. What do you feel called to do? What moves you to action no matter how busy you are? Where is your passion focused? What one thing can you do today?
The second question is this:
What is in my hand?
Moses was a peaceful retiree, tending sheep in the desert, when God called him to liberate the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. Moses objected, of course. God clearly had the wrong man. So God asked “What’s that in your hand?” Moses answered, “It’s a staff. I’m a shepherd.” God told him how to use the staff when he got to Egypt, and the staff became a tool to amaze the king, produce water from a rock, maintain Hebrew morale in battle, and part the Red Sea to make a path to freedom.
What is yours to do today, and what is in your hand?
A few Sundays ago, about a dozen of us went downstairs after the service, and we spent a half hour together writing postcards to voters in Colorado about climate change. We wrote a message, which had been scripted for us, on 95 postcards, and addressed them, and Meighan put stamps on them and sent them off a few days later.
There are quite a few organizations managing similar postcard campaigns. And there are so many issues—school safety, gun control, alternatives to armed police, economic justice, environmental policies—that Prospect can advocate for. We could have a postcard writing party every Sunday as a part of coffee hour. Or you can be a postcard buddy with someone. I recently bought 100 blank postcards to voters, and I’d be delighted to share them!
Other organizations are helping people register to vote. This is particularly important this year, with so many gerrymandered districts and new laws designed to make it harder for people to vote.
There are organizations that can help you boycott corporations that advertise on programs that promote lies and stir up false fears.
You can support institutions such as the Northwest African American Museum or the Africatown Trust, both in Seattle.
And there are Websites to help you seek out and patronize Black-owned businesses right here in Seattle or elsewhere.
You can walk—or ride—in marches for justice. You can go to the Juneteenth Parade today, at 1PM.
You can educate yourself carefully about the agendas and intentions of candidates in local as well as national elections.
As a church, we can collaborate with Black churches on projects already in progress that benefit the Black community.
Any one of the actions I’ve described can help us move toward the good and the just. And there are so many more actions that many of you are already taking or have taken in the past, and can share with the rest of us.
The Juneteenth Website includes contributions from readers. A man named John Albuquerque wrote this optimistic comment:
Let's make Juneteenth a commemorative, not of the horrific institution our country embraced, but rather as a showcase of the strength in the American spirit to recognize wrong and set about making it right. In this same spirit America moves ahead today in leveling playing fields and achieving ever greater equality. Let us celebrate all that Juneteenth teaches us about our country's greatness in our use of the heart to hear and to learn and to work together for all that is good and just.
Finally, as we each do what is ours to do, today, with the tools we have in our hands, remember that Love—activist love, moving, transforming love, sometimes angry love—says this to us, in the words of Isaiah:
Don’t you be afraid, for I am with you.
Don’t be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you.
Yes, I will help you.
Yes, I will uphold you with the right hand of my righteousness.