(RNS) — Juneteenth, the newest U.S. federal holiday, will be commemorated nationally for just the third time on Monday (June 19). Juneteenth honors the day in 1865 when previously enslaved persons in Texas were informed by Major Gen. Gordon Granger that slavery had been effectively ended by presidential proclamation after the surrender of the Confederate Army.
Not surprisingly the proclamation gave way to community celebrations among those who learned they were now free. In the years that followed, the celebration spread, and, long before it became a national holiday, June 19 was marked by Black communities in cities and communities all over the country.
In our country, for many years, the celebration of freedom has been linked to the 4th of July. However, it is worth noting that not every American was free at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Many Americans, including enslaved Africans, were anything but free in 1776.
That’s why incredible Americans such as Opal Lee advocated for the adoption of Juneteenth as a federal holiday. In 2016, at the age of 89, Lee walked from Texas to Washington to make her case for a Juneteenth holiday. Her vision was for this holiday to not only be for Black Americans, but for ALL Americans. She said, “Juneteenth will be the bridge that we can all go over. We should celebrate from June 19th to the 4th of July!”
There is a powerful spiritual parallel embedded in the story of Juneteenth. The freedom at the heart of the Christian faith from sin, death and the consequences of this fallen world is exactly what followers of Jesus proclaim as the “good news.” As the Apostle Paul wrote in his Letter to the Galatians, “It is for freedom that Christ (Jesus) has set us free.”
Seeing Juneteenth in this light means that the day should be an opportunity to celebrate the freedom that is coming to all Americans, regardless of the racial and ethnic makeup of your church. Sharing Juneteenth with people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds and united by a common faith is one of the most powerful ways to celebrate.
For those whose congregations are mostly white and don’t have relationships with Black congregations, Juneteenth offers a call to build relationships across race for the longhaul. This begins by reaching out with a posture of humility and a commitment to act.
Start by listening. Since the holiday itself is rooted in Black liberation, curiously engage with Black churches in your community with questions like “What does liberation for you look like today?” or “As brothers and sisters in Christ, how can we support your vision and share your joy?”
If you aren’t there yet, that’s okay. Juneteenth for any congregation can be a meaningful marker, a day to commit to start walking “the bridge that we can all go over.” Take a first step by setting a commitment today for celebrating future Juneteenth holidays. Elevate the leadership and authority of Black individuals to guide you toward a shared vision. After all, they are the experts who already have over 150 years of cultural experience throwing a Juneteenth party.
No matter where you are, here are some tangible ways you can observe the day:
Join a community celebration: Many communities across the country have a Juneteenth celebration every year. Perhaps your church can join in a celebration that’s already occurring with others in your local community, often with musical performances, prayer, family gatherings and loads of fun. Juneteenth has many wonderful traditions such as eating red velvet cakes and drinking red drinks, honoring the blood of enslaved Americans. Other amazing foods can accompany the celebration and satisfy every kind of palate.
Watch a movie: Another Juneteenth tradition is to gather and watch movies by Black artists. In this spirit, consider going to the movie theater or hosting a screening of the new movie “Between Mercy and Me,” created by African American producer Craig Brown. It features an incredible story of a cross-culture relationship and a faith-driven storyline.
Learn as a church: Finally, consider supporting and learning more about organizations that are working within faith communities to promote racial healing and solidarity, such as the LivingUNDIVIDED program by UNDIVIDED, Inc. This multi-session program offers a cross-racial experiential journey in pursuit of racial healing, solidarity and justice. The experience fosters belonging, hope and deep community engagement, inspiring participants to be active change-agents within their communities. Learn more at undivided.us.
Whatever you decide to do, do something! Juneteenth is a holiday rich with traditions and opportunities for spiritual connections for any church. So may the spirit of freedom flow in your heart and in your church this Juneteenth.
Chuck Mingo is the founder of UNDIVIDED Inc, a racial justice organization, and is a teaching pastor at Crossroads Church in Ohio.