By Melissa Lauber
On Emancipation Sunday, June 20, preachers in pulpits throughout the Baltimore-Washington Conference celebrated the establishment this week of Juneteenth as a federal holiday. They called on United Methodists to re-commit themselves to reflection and action in the cause of liberation and justice for all people.
At Mt. Zion UMC in Georgetown, the oldest African-American congregation in Washington, D.C., Bishop LaTrelle Easterling preached, calling upon United Methodists to learn the lessons lived out in the brutal enslavement of more than 12 million people who made the Middle Passage – “the passage between freedom and bondage, the passage between hope and despair, the passage between personhood and property.”
Harking back to the faith-defining story of the Hebrews exodus from slavery, the bishop lifted up the Juneteenth holiday, commemorating the end of chattel slavery in the United States and remembering when, on June 19, 1865, slaves in Texas learned two-and-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, about their freedom.
“We must never forget the past. We must learn her lessons that together we might forge a new, better, more prosperous, more unified, move loving path,” Easterling said. “We who are clothed in Christ must find ourselves not embittered by the past, nor beaten down by the present, but we must be leaders and light-bearers, bringing justice everywhere.”
The Rev. Selena Johnson echoed the bishop’s words. “Emancipation, liberation, and memory are important to people of faith because human beings cannot be ahistorical,” she said. “All of us are affected by our collective past. As people of faith, we are Christ’s earthly extension ministry. As such, we have that same Luke 4:18 anointing to emancipate captives, free the oppressed, and open blind eyes to the truth of this nation’s past and its impact on the present.”
Juneteenth, many United Methodist believe, provides an opportunity to celebrate the nation’s movement toward racial equality while devoting our ministries to work still needs to be done.
“This Juneteenth, may we move beyond performative advocacy and symbolic expressions of solidarity to actions that challenge unjust systems and the sin of racism,” said the Rev. Susan Henry Crowe, general secretary of the Board of Church and Society in Washington, D.C. in a message to the denomination. “May we not simply be hearers of the word but doers of the word. May we work together for racial justice and equity not only on Juneteenth but every day. The Gospel calls us forward in this work.”
As United Methodists, we accept the revelation that all people are created equal, Bishop Easterling said. We have the opportunity to witness to racism and other legacies of slavery by following the approach of the late civil rights leader John Lewis, who wrote that “any movement for justice and righteousness must be a movement of love -- rooted in love and nurtured by a river of faith.”
During the Emancipation Sunday service at Mt. Zion, the congregation also heard from Vincent Orange, who led efforts several years ago to create D.C. Emancipation Day, which is celebrated on April 16, to commemorate Abraham Lincoln freeing the District’s slaves in 1862.
“It’s important we treasure our history,” said Orange, who honored the historic congregation, its storied past, and its many contributions to equity and justice.
“We must continue to forge a more inclusive, embracing, healing, equitable, loving, and lifting society,” Bishop Easterling concluded. “We, as the people of God, are the ones that stand as a witness, as the conscience of the nation. … It is our responsibility to teach the world a more excellent way.”