The following story was posted on www.umcom.org on June 18, 2015.
On June 19, 1865, federal troops under the command of Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas with a very important message: “all slaves are free.”
It was not until two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in 1863 that the estimated quarter of million slaves in Texas received word that they were free and entitled to payment for their labor. This memorable day in history is celebrated as African American Freedom Day, or Juneteenth.
Now 150 years later, Juneteenth is commemorated across the country with parades, festivals, family activities, and worship services, reminding all of us that freedom was long sought and should not be taken for granted.
“Juneteenth is celebrated in a grand and glorious way, it marked a change that had to happen: slaves freed from bondage. Black Texans had a chance to chart their own course and their own futures,” said Arlene Youngblood, member of Wesley United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas. Youngblood participates in as many celebrations and activities as she can during the month of June, noting that slaves who migrated after receiving freedom started many of the events that are held across the nation.
Edna Reeves, member of Warren United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas, recalls attending Juneteenth festivities as a child. In the early 1950s, her father’s workplace would close in observation of the holiday and sponsor a day of celebration at a local park. Juneteenth has special meaning for her family: her great-great-grandfather was freed in Texas. “He was 15 years old when freedom came,” she said.
United Methodist churches across the country hold a variety of Juneteenth events and worship services.
Goodsell United Methodist Church in Lanett, Alabama, collaborates with various civic organizations and churches to plan the city’s Juneteenth celebration. The festivities are highly anticipated in the community, supported by a wide variety of sponsors and vendors. Seven events are held in Alabama and Georgia, but the main celebration festival is held on the church grounds. On June 13, Goodsell UMC welcomed approximately 10,000 people from across both states.
The church sees the festival as an opportunity for community outreach and unification, welcoming participants from all backgrounds. “Our theme [during Juneteenth] is not just about celebrating, we educate people about why we celebrate…we hold a family-friendly, ecumenical, and multi-cultural event,” said the Rev. Dr. Randy Kelley, Pastor of Goodsell UMC.
“Juneteenth is a sacred celebration culturally and religiously. It is the same as Passover for the Jewish people,” continued Dr. Kelley. He led an Emancipation Proclamation worship service on June 14, focusing on the efforts that were taken to ensure freedom for slaves while also speaking to God’s faithfulness during the struggles that African Americans have faced – both in the past and today.
“We look at the past to leap forward,” he said. He also reminds that John Wesley was an ardent abolitionist, leading many slaves to follow Methodist tradition. Goodsell United Methodist Church was founded in 1866 by freed slaves who “hit the ground running. They were interested in God and education…a way to spiritual and social uplifting,” said Dr. Kelley.
“[Juneteenth] has developed a sense of unity, pride, and community among African Americans,” said Cliff Dobbins, a member of McMillan United Methodist Church in Ft. Worth, Texas. Dobbins took his children, and now takes his grandchildren, to Ft. Worth’s festivities to teach them about the holiday’s history. “It’s a time to celebrate the day our ancestors were completely released and freed from slavery.”
A variety of worship resources are available to bring Juneteenth celebrations into your congregation.