Today is Juneteenth, the day that commemorates the ending of slavery in the United States. Though the Emancipation Proclamation had been official since January 1, 1863, the Executive Order was not enforced in Texas until 2 1/2 years later. It was on June 19th, 1865 that Union Soldiers landed at port in Galveston, TX with both the news that the enslaved people were free and the forces strong enough to overcome the lingering resistance in Texas.
As we sit at the end of a monumental week of Supreme Court decisions in the midst of a continued reckoning over the history of racial violence in the United States, it’s evident that legislation does not equate freedom. Laws that protect someone’s right to live and work without fear of being fired for who they are or fear of being deported to a country someone has never known as home are important, but without diligent efforts to live into that legislation, systemic change cannot happen. Real change requires the energy and time of the people – not just those who are most directly impacted by the legislation, but by all those who long for a world where people are free to live free from fear.
More Light Board Co-Moderator Rev. Ashley DeTar Birt offered some words on what Juneteenth means to her:
As a New Yorker, I have spent the past three months (and counting) quarantined away in my apartment. Though I am allowed outside with my mask, I honestly prefer to stay inside. Under normal circumstances, I love being out: dancing with friends, trying out new restaurants, and traveling with my wife. As a bisexual Black woman living in America, these are some of the things that usually make me feel free when society reminds me that I never really have been. On this Juneteenth, the anniversary of Texas slaves finding out they were free – two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, I’m struck by what freedom means in this moment.
Between watching how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black communities and seeing that, even during a pandemic, racism and white supremacy take no breaks, I honestly feel freer stuck in my home. I’m lucky enough to still have a job, and working from home gives the freedom of not having to endure the microaggressions of the majority White neighborhood I work in. When I hear about yet another Black death (and there are new ones everyday), I have the freedom to scream or cry or swear or do whatever I need to without trying to keep up appearances. Though I know that, as a Black person, I’m not even safe in my own home, I at least have the freedom of not being stopped, followed, or harassed by a cop or some self-identified “well meaning” White person. What does this say about America? And what does it say that I’m LUCKY to have these freedoms?
And yet, perhaps there is a small reason to hope. One of the few times I’ve been outside was to join a protest for the deaths of Tony McDade, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the countless others who have been murdered by police brutality and white supremacy. It’s been invigorating to see so many people finally deciding that things need to change and using their voices and bodies to cry out for justice and freedom. Many White people who seemed content to turn away from centuries of racial oppression that has always been in front of them finally want to free their minds of the white supremacist culture that has held us all down. Could we finally be approaching a new moment of liberation? Can this era bring the freedom promised in the Emancipation Proclamation, promised on that June 19th one hundred and fifty-five years ago?
I don’t have answers to these questions. The upcoming weeks and months and years will show whether White allies will stick with us and truly challenge the systems that have kept Black people oppressed for so long or whether things will quietly retreat back to the status quo. That choice has not and will not ever belong to me. In the meantime, I use today to sit at home by my window, eat my red velvet cake, and dream of what true freedom might look like.
Ten years ago this month the PC(USA) General Assembly voted to remove G-6.0106b from the Book of Order and replace it with a statement that better envisions what we look for in an ordained minister. In doing so, ordination for openly LGBTQIA+ people became a possibility. Many were fearful that this vote would split the denomination beyond recognition, and many LGBTQIA+ people were fearful that polity change would not amount to changes in practice. There is still much work to be done to ensure LGBTQIA+ people are affirmed in the fullness of their identities, but the PC(USA) looks dramatically different for LGBTQIA+ people now than it did before 2010. The difference between then and now is due to the work of collective imagination for what Church and leadership can be.
On this Juneteenth we acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is insistently nudging our congregations and faith communities to take deeper action to further racial justice in our sanctuaries and our communities, and to envision and actively work for a world where state violence is no longer the norm. The challenge before us is whether we will follow the Spirit’s lead even when she leads us to places we are afraid to go.
Do we have the collective imagination to envision what true freedom may look like? As MLP Board member Jessica Vazquez Torres asks: “Can we de-center the whiteness that has us enslaved long enough to imagine what it means to be free?” If we can imagine what it means to be free, “the mechanics of de-centering whiteness: of the letting go of what imprisons us, actually isn’t terrorizing, but it is something that is about liberation and a decolonization of ourselves.” Can we trust and embody Fannie Lou Hamer’s assertion that “Until I am free, you are not free either”?
At More Light we know our words, beliefs, and actions must work in harmony for true transformation of unjust systems and the unearthing of white supremacy’s foundation. We commit to practicing all three as we work towards a world where Black lives thrive.