What is ours to do?

June 18, 2023

Juneteenth, freedom day, jubilee day. It is a different independence day than the one I grew up with. Instead of July 4, 1776, this Independence Day took place on June 19,1865.

June 19,1865 is commemorated because it is the day that the news of freedom from slavery finally reached those still enslaved in Galveston, Texas. What I somehow did not realize until this week is that when Abraham Lincoln granted freedom to enslaved people on January 1,1863, it only pertained to the confederate states. It was too controversial to free those in Union States where Lincoln actually had the power to free enslaved people.

So the people who were enslaved in Maryland (many, many right here in Prince George’s County) where slavery was the rule and law in Maryland for 230 years, were not freed until Nov. 1,1864. A state referendum passed (only by counting the absentee ballots of the soldiers fighting in the war) and slavery was outlawed in Maryland 22 months after Lincoln freed the enslaved people in the confederate states. And on Juneteenth 1865 word of freedom arrived in Galveston.

How marvelous that this day, that has meant so much to the African American community, is now celebrated by the whole country. Juneteenth as a federal holiday is an opportunity for the country to formally recognize that freedom isn’t the same for everyone. Juneteenth admits, officially, that justice does not “arrive” for all people at the same time. Juneteenth makes it clear that there are gaping injustices and inequities in the history of this country. Juneteenth is an opportunity (and if we need it, an excuse) to begin healing and repairing some of those injustices which remain.

But what does it mean for a country that is still bound up by racism to celebrate Juneteenth? Dare white people, or Latine people, or other non-African Americans, celebrate Juneteenth? Or is it a day that should be set aside for African American people only?

The Racial Justice group here at Hyattsville Mennonite decided we want to celebrate Juneteenth this year. The group encouraged me to ask, as a predominantly white congregation, “What is ours to do?” How do we mark and celebrate Juneteenth? Phyllis Hill from Faith in Action said this week, Juneteenth is the day on “which we celebrate the act of liberation as well as honor our Black ancestors.” Not all of us have black ancestors. Not all of us even know what liberation means, having always lived – what we imagine is – a free life.

So, what is ours to do? How might we observe and celebrate Juneteenth, not just this day but as part of our ongoing anti-racism work?

For African Americans, today is a day to celebrate Black Joy. Black Resilience. For people that are not African American, it might mean something different. Surely we do not need to take one more thing from African Americans, appropriating the particular Joy black people embody – as if that was even possible. But we surely do try. The music that comes out of the African American community has too often been tweaked just a bit and then credited to white people for inventing it. We might observe the same about fashion or comedy or other forms of entertainment in this country. The gifts that African American people contribute to the world, to the culture, to science, to education, too often are slighted or “stolen.” So what is ours to do when it comes to observing Juneteenth?

It seems important to remember that freedom is not singular. The freedom of African American people in this country is tied up with the freedom of indigenous people and Japanese Americans, and Chinese Americans, and Latine Americans and many others in this country. And let’s be honest, it is tied up with the possibilities and freedom of white Americans too. As Fannie Lou Hamer said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” So how do white people get free – of racism? How do we get free of guilt? of shame? How do we get free of patronizing behaviors? And how do we do this without stealing one more thing from African American’s – the Juneteenth holiday?

As a preacher, it is tempting to grab onto this story of the word of freedom taking years to travel to Galveston, of people waiting for freedom. It is tempting to hold this story and turn it into a story of the waiting that we all do. “We all hope and wait for freedom from the hardships of this world…”

It is tempting to take this powerful story and somehow make it a metaphor for each of us or use it as a template for the whole country. But as a white person, I need to resist that temptation. It is one more way to take the experiences of African American people in this country and water them down, making them thin gruel for everyone. No, this story of Juneteenth is a particular story for a particular people. We need to honor this story and what it means for the African American community.

If we want to tell a story of people waiting for freedom, perhaps we do better to go back to the bible and remember the Jews in slavery in Egypt for 430 years – according to Exodus 12. This story is significant for Jews but also for people around the world who experience what it means to be enslaved by an unjust ruler, trapped in a system that seems like it will never change. The Exodus story, the story of Moses leading the people out of Egypt, reminds us that there is always a way. The way may be plagued by delays over and over; the way may be risky and lead into new unknown territory. But we hold onto hope that there is a way.

And the Psalm we heard, Psalm 116, reminds us that there is a song to be sung, a prayer to be said, a cup to be raised, when we find liberation. The story of seeking liberation is one that is, unfortunately, not unique. As humans, in every culture and tradition, we seem to find ways to oppress “the other.” The biblical story of liberation is one that continues to ring true because the lessons never grow old.

So if we want to pay attention to the universal lesson of freedom and not appropriate the particular story of Juneteenth, what might we do to remind ourselves that liberation is an ongoing struggle? What is ours to do?

As followers of the Jesus way, we can follow Jesus by finding ways to be about the joyful work of healing and repair. For more than a year, we have discussed how to use the funds from the sale of the International Guest House. One idea that has some traction and commitment is “reparations,” an ongoing commitment to repairing harm done. Defining reparations and finding meaningful ways to participate in repair, these are not easy tasks. Even using the term reparations can be tricky.

Still, I see our involvement with Life After Release as one very concrete way that we as a congregation are involved in the ongoing struggle for liberation – liberation from the injustice of the criminal legal system and the prison industrial complex in this country. Our ongoing financial contributions help Life After Release keep the work going. Our Lent offerings this year go to help newly reunited families take a healing weekend beach trip. (Qiana told me that some of the children have never seen the ocean.)

Some of you are doing very concrete policy work with Court Watch, observing court cases and reporting back to the justice system the injustices that are observed. Others of you are meeting women as they come out of jail, giving them small gift bags to help in their transition to life on the outside. This is very local work – and I think of it as a piece of the work of repairing the deep wounds created by enslavement and ongoing racism in this country.

Another form of repair is one I have been exploring through webinars with The Center for Congregational Song. I invite you to open your hymnal. At the bottom of each hymn is information about the composer and text writer. (Today, all of the songs we are singing are by African American composers.)

When there is a name attached to a song, that is the composer or text writer who receives royalties each time the song is published in a book or purchased as sheet music. For VT 33, Israel Houghton will receive a check (or multiple checks)  from Menno Media for having his song included in Voices Together. It is a way to pay people for the labor of creating music for the church to sing – however small the royalties are. When there is no known composer or text writer, the line at the bottom of the hymn says something general like on VT 193 – “African American Spiritual” or VT 191 “American traditional.”

There is a small, and I hope growing, movement to pay attention to the music we sing that has no attribution, no copyright. The brilliant African American Spirituals that have become an essential part of the hymnody of the Christian church are in a sense stolen music. Because we don’t have a name to attach to these songs, they are in the public domain. Anyone can sing them, anyone can publish them, anyone can print and reprint them for free. It is one more way that American culture (and religion) continues to profit off the labor of enslaved African Americans, years after slavery was outlawed.

The royalties movement suggests that when we sing unattributed African American spirituals (and perhaps indigenous music from around the world) we find a way to pay royalties as one small part of repairing the inequity. This is where each congregation or group needs to get creative because there is not a person or an estate that can receive these royalties.

I have been thinking about what we might do in our context if we adopted this royalties idea. Given our location near Northwestern High School where there is a Creative and Performing Arts program, we might decide that each time we sing an African American spiritual we will pay $25 to the Northwestern arts program. Or we might choose to pay royalties to a local choir that is teaching young people about Black music. Or the royalties could go to Roots of Justice, a group that is working to teach churches and other organizations how to be anti-racist. “Royalties” might become a new line item in our budget or some money from the International Guest House funds might jump-start a project like this.

Paying royalties for the use of African American Spirituals we sing does not resolve racism in this congregation or in Mennonite Church USA. It is not the end of our work together. It could be a small part of the healing and repair that this congregation commits to because we seek healing for our community and for ourselves.

The question before us on this Juneteenth 2023 is “What is ours to do?” This is a question each of us must ask ourselves – if we want to stay focused on being anti-racist. We will each need to commit ourselves to figuring out what this looks like for ourselves and our households in terms of our relationships, our finances, how we spend our time and energy.

I realize this is pretty big to drop on you as I walk out the door for three months. So let me tell you what I hope to do. Last week I received this book in the mail. White Women: Everything you already know about your own racism and how to do better. I am reading it now and it has some hard truth. I want to read it again with some other white women, to discuss the questions in the back of the book. I need some partners that can help me understand how racism is woven into the ways I relate, talk, and function in the world.

One of the other things on my sabbatical list is to continue working with the diversity and inclusion group at the pool where I belong. The Prince Georges Community Pool started more than 60 years ago as a “whites only” pool. We are still living with the legacy of our racist origins. About two years ago the DISCO group – diversity, inclusion, sharing, community organizing – began meeting and asking what equity might look like at the pool. Not everyone wants to be disturbed while they are relaxing by the pool. They go to the pool to unwind, not to be reminded of the injustices in the world – or the neighborhood right outside the 8 foot fence. Still we persist in the joyful work of healing and repair, starting and ending each meeting under the disco ball with dancing – and there are always snacks. Sometimes the S in disco stands for snacks.

As deliberate as we may be about being anti-racist, we need to remember that the work of undoing racism will not be over in our lifetime. It took over 400 years for us to get to this place as a country; it will take generations and creativity and sacrifice for us to pursue equity and justice, liberation and joy. PPart of what is ours to do is to invite others to join this work of repair.

I am grateful for this community, where we can do this work together. And together look forward to the day when we can with all races and traditions, say with the psalmist –

You have freed us from our chains…

We will offer the sacrifice of praise…

We will raise the cup of liberation…

and call on the Name of the Holy One

We will fulfill our vows to you…

in the presence of your people

in the courts of the house of God

 in the midst of the Holy City…