Juneteenth, A Time to Reflect & Rejoice

By Charlie Roberts

On June 19th, our country will celebrate the 156th anniversary of one of our most significant and earliest liberation movements: Juneteenth. Or at least portions of our country will, and we hope congregations in Lower Susquehanna Synod will help their communities and neighborhoods lead the way in marking this significant anniversary in the lives of all Americans.

Juneteenth is a portmanteau of ‘June’ and ‘nineteenth’ and it marks the day in 1865 when a group of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, finally learned that they were free from the institution of slavery. Nearly two and a half years following the Emancipation Proclamation, Union Major General Gordon Granger would ride into Texas with an order stating that all enslaved people were “free.” So while Juneteenth represents freedom in many respects, it also acknowledges the tragic delay for enslaved people in the deepest reaches of the Confederacy.

Nonetheless, newly freed people celebrated the first Juneteenth in 1866 to commemorate liberation with food, singing, and story, reuniting with freed family members whenever they could. Over a century and a half later, Juneteenth is still not taught in all our schools, nor is the event a federal holiday despite decades of advocacy. Texas was the first state to declare Juneteenth an official holiday. Juneteenth celebrations do however, span the globe, and more corporate entities are recognizing it as a company holiday.

We are inviting and encouraging our synod congregations to consider marking the holiday with community or neighborhood gatherings, or even block parties. We are developing a Juneteenth Unity video that features a keynote address from local author, activist and professor, the Rev. Dr. Drew Hart, and other local pastors, authors, speakers and guests like the Rev. Erich Kussman, and the Rev. Carla Christopher-Wilson. It also includes storytelling, worship and music, and personal reflections by our hosts, the Rev. Elizabeth Peter Eckman and the Rev. Jay Eckman. The video could be used to kick-off a neighborhood celebration, or as a way of inviting members and guests into a conversation and dialogue about racial justice. Congregations are welcome to use the video in the most helpful ways possible.

We have developed a landing site on our synod webpage that will also feature a curriculum for use with youth groups or cross-generational groups, and resources for authentic games, food and music to use in creating traditional Juneteenth celebrations, in cooperation with our black neighbors and guests. Visit: https://www.lss-elca.org/journey-towards-justice/, for more details.  If a celebration on Saturday, June 19th is not an option, all of these resources will remain available for educating and expanding dialogue about racial justice throughout the year.

One author wrote, “as the United States continues to come to terms with how slavery continues to affect the lives of all Americans today, (Juneteenth) is something for everyone, of every race, to engage in…not just a part of black culture, but all ‘American’ culture.” While we always want to be cautious not to engage in cultural appropriation, when we acknowledge and celebrate with all cultures, we move closer to healing that which divides us. Advocates agree that while a national holiday obviously wouldn’t put an end to racism, it could help foster dialogue about some of the trauma that has resulted from slavery. Can we as local Lutherans take small but intentional steps in helping to nurture and increase that dialogue?

Charlie Roberts serves as this synod’s Director for Faith Formation and Youth Ministry, and Director for Youth and Family Ministry at St Matthew Lutheran in York, PA.