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Presence and Promise of New Life

The story goes that the sea was rough and stormy when the boats had to stop in Galveston, Texas, for supplies. On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to read Order Number Three, announcing the news of emancipation of enslaved people. He wasn’t alone—with him were thousands of Black soldiers, enforcing the authority of the United States government. This day that came to be known as Juneteenth, a celebration of the end of chattel slavery in the United States, a day that was just made a federal holiday.

Of course this wasn’t the absolute end of slavery in this country—there were still enslaved peoples in other areas within the country, and slavery wasn’t abolished until the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed in December of that year. The newly freed slaves weren’t provided resources or legal protections or reparations. Life wasn’t suddenly glorious, but new life was suddenly possible. Power had showed up with the authority to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation.

As Jayne Marie Smith, a multimedia producer for Sojourners magazine, writes this story, she says, “Both spiritually and in my Black American existence, I recognize that no one in rebellion adheres to authority without the presence of that authority.”[1]

And for the enslaved people who heard the news of their new freedom, Jayne Marie Smith writes, “It was the beautiful presence of authoritative Black bodies that made these words real. These Black soldiers, like Christ, gave flesh to the emancipating spoken words. …Before them marched the cost of their freedom, the death of the sin that bound them, and the new life being offered to them. Their freedom didn’t just come from an order of a white man; freedom came enforced by faces that looked like them, a living picture of freedom that spoke 10,000 words.”[2]

Freedom isn’t just a word but an action, an authority, a resistance to oppression. This is why Juneteenth has long been an important celebration time for Black communities: a time to come together, to tell the stories, to remember the history, to re-center oneself, to claim one’s own voice and authority as a human being. For those of us who are not Black, it’s important to honor this struggle and to speak against oppression.

It wasn’t always a simple thing to celebrate Juneteenth. In Houston, Texas, formerly enslaved peoples had to pool their money to buy some land where they could celebrate Juneteenth—they did this in 1872. Emancipation Park is still there as a testimony to the creativity and collective power of formerly enslaved people.

I ate lunch there, almost exactly three years ago when I was with tens of thousands of young Lutherans for the ELCA Youth Gathering. A woman was invited to speak to our gathering in the park, a descendant of people who had worked together to purchase that land for Emancipation Park. It was important for her to tell her sacred story, as much as it was important for the rest of us to hear it.

What does Juneteenth have to do with our faith? Why are we lifting up this history to teach our young people during an ELCA Youth Gathering? Why are we talking about history anyway? What does God have to do with all this? I’m so glad you asked!

God is the authority over nature and quiets the storms, as Jesus did while on a stormy sea, and God is also the authority over human interactions and will quiet the storms between us as well. When Jesus shows up with the authority to tell the storm to be still, things change.

Words need action behind them. Jesus is the authority that stills the storm. He is the action. The Holy Spirit gives breath to the Body of Christ—that’s you and me. The Holy Spirit gives us the inspiration, the vision, the dream to build up the reign of God.

There were other boats traveling together with the boat Jesus was in—did they know why or how the storm was stopped? Who told them the story?

The ELCA created a resource for a Juneteenth celebration appropriate for worshipping assemblies—my family and I joined in such a celebration last year while we were all locked down because of the pandemic, and this was when we learned that Zoom doesn’t allow the sound of drums to be played for others (or at least we never learned how to do it). The Juneteenth celebration has space for Sankofa, a West African spiritual proverb and teaching that reminds us to “go back and fetch it.” This means to tell the story of the past so that it helps us learn and guides us into the future.

These words of wisdom are shared by Harriet Tubman:

“Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world. Now I've been free, I know what a dreadful condition slavery is. I have seen hundreds of escaped slaves, but I never saw one who was willing to go back and be a slave.”

You have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to change the world.

These words, spoken by someone who had many many reasons to give up hope, but she didn’t. Black people and people of color still today have plenty of reasons to give up hope, and some do, but some cling to hope, resisting oppression. Showing up for a celebration and keeping joy at the center—this is resistance.

As people of faith, we have a long history of resisting oppression, renouncing evil and the power of death. This is the story of people who follow a crucified and risen Jesus Christ—it’s the same story we tell every week. Two thousand years after his death, we’re still gathering here every week to share our testimony of where we’ve seen God at work in the world, we’re still gathering here for community and comfort—thanks be to God that we’re able to gather in person at all—and we’re still encouraging each other to do the will of God, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

As people of faith, and for those of us with white skin and the social privilege that comes with it, we want to use what power we have for the good of the whole community. It’s easy to become isolated, and to wonder “what difference can I make, anyway?” I’m guilty of this, too, diminishing my own power and my own responsibility to use whatever tools I have to dismantle oppression in the world. Have you done this too?

Yesterday I attended a canvassing event sponsored by Metropolitan Congregations United, an interfaith organizing group here in St. Louis. Some of you have worked with them in the past on various projects to benefit communities and neighborhoods here in our area. And if you’re just hearing about this now and asking yourself, “What?! MCU had a party and I wasn’t invited?!” then I want to know who you are so I can extend the next invitation to you!

Yesterday we met in Jennings, a town not far north of here, to knock on doors and greet neighbors and ask a few questions—how long have you lived here? Do you know your council representative? (If they said no, we shared the councilwoman’s information.) What are some things that would benefit your neighborhood? What do you love about your neighborhood? And are you familiar with the campaign to break the school-to-prison pipeline? (And if they said no to that, we’d explain that the school-to-prison pipeline refers to the policies of school districts to criminalize students’ behavior, which disproportionately affects children of color, rather than providing resources to help students and families in crisis.)

The first thing I have to confess to you is that I am actually pretty shy in these situations, and I’m terrified of knocking on the doors of strangers. I could easily have skipped this training—no one was forcing me to go—but I knew here was a safe place to practice talking to neighbors. And sure enough, I was paired up with a young woman who also shared with me her shyness about knocking on doors, but she had more experience and more practice, so that when she took the lead knocking on the first door and introducing herself, you’d never know she had ever been nervous about it. And the more doors we knocked on, I tried it too, and it did get easier.

When we re-gathered with the whole group of us who had spread out to knock on doors throughout the neighborhood, my partner and me had knocked on 23 doors, and of those 23 we’d gotten four responses and had two conversations with neighbors. Sharing this information with others, we learned that was a pretty average response rate. But totaling each pair that had gone out, the whole group of us knocked on over 220 doors in the neighborhood, in the space of an hour and a half, and we had over 75 conversations.

What I learned is that it matters to gather with others, and it matters to speak against oppression, even when the forces of evil seem too huge. But even the forces of evil and huge storms submit to the authority of Jesus Christ, who shows up in the flesh to right the wrongs and to speak creation into being.

When we show up in Christ’s name, Christ is still speaking, still resisting evil, still asserting authority. Wherever there is liberation, emancipation, freedom: Jesus is present. The presence makes real the promise of new life.


Pastor Cheryl


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