Juneteenth 2020: Choosing Community
By Dr. Zan Wesley Holmes, Jr.
Juneteenth is the best-known and one of the oldest American holidays that celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. It commemorates the date, June 19,1865, when the last African American slaves held in Confederate states were freed and would be remembered and celebrated annually afterward as "Juneteenth." On that day, a Union soldier rode into Galveston, Texas, declared all Confederate legislative acts of the previous four years void, and announced to slaves that their freedom day, centuries overdue, had arrived at last.
Nearly three years had passed after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1,1863. In other words, the "knee of slavery was on their necks" for nearly three additional years before they were informed of their official freedom from slavery. But they were sustained by the Breath of God.
Let it breathe on us.
Although news of emancipation came at different times in Texas, local blacks gradually settled on June 19 (Juneteenth) as their day of celebration. By 1900, Juneteenth had unofficially become Texas Emancipation Day and was sponsored by the inseparable connection between the black church and the black community. Indeed, someone has expressed that connection by paraphrasing the prologue to the Gospel of John in the following words: “In the beginning was the black church, and the black church was with the black community; and nothing was made in the black community without the black church.” The black church has been our sanctuary and our school; our economic forum and our political arena. Indeed, I am reminded of the former black slave woman who said: "Mr. Lincoln may have signed the Emancipation Proclamation Papers but it was God who set us free!” To God be the glory.
In his last book titled Where Do We Go From Here, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tells the story of a famous novelist who died and left a list of suggested plots for future stories. He said that especially underscored is this one: "A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together.” Commenting on this plot, Dr. King says this is the plight of humankind: we have inherited a great world in which we have to live together:
“We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”
Dr. King adds, “The choice is chaos or community.”
In this year of Juneteenth, I pray that we choose community and come home to one another. Nothing stays won. The struggle for liberation, justice, and community continues in times like these.
For Additional Reading
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “What Is Juneteenth,” The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, PBS, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/what-is-juneteenth/
“History of Juneteenth,” Juneteenth.com, https://www.juneteenth.com/history.htm
Martin Luther King, Jr. Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Beacon Press, 2010)
Zan Wesley Holmes, Jr. is pastor emeritus of the 6,000 member St. Luke Community United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas, where he served for twenty-eight years. He was adjunct professor of preaching at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University for twenty-four years. Known as much for his community activism as his preaching and teaching, Dr. Holmes was elected to the Texas House of Representatives from 1968-1972, while he also served as a United Methodist district superintendent. He is the author of Reaching for Renewal (1991), Encountering Jesus (1992), and When Trouble Comes (1996). Dr. Holmes has also written chapters in Our Time Under God Is Now (1993) and Power in the Pulpit: How America’s Most Effective Black Preachers Prepare Their Sermons (2002).