Juneteenth – A Dose of Healing for Our Times

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free…” (excerpt from the Emancipation Proclamation).

A proclamation issued by a president in 1863
Declaring that the enslaved in said states
Should henceforth and forever be free
But is freedom really a thing that can be issued by decree?
And if not for all, then can a sum less than truly be free?
Must not be, since even now, we still can’t agree.
Is the power alone in the words, or in the WORD alone, to release the bound from captivity —
The Word, who alone holds such authority?
Must not hearts and minds first come into conformity 
With the Divine Who in the beginning commanded, “Let there be,”
And that which had not been before came to be?
Is not the same true for humanity
That only in obeisance to the WORD as spoken from eternity –
Love divine…Love excelling, compelling, and in us fully dwelling —
Can we truly come to be free?
And be truly free.
Till such time of Jubilee, 
Dear Lord, in Your mercy
Hear our cry
Hear our plea.
Even yet striving/longing/praying to be free
Deliver your people from captivity
From the shackles, whatever they may be, that stymie us, whether from within or externally
Every thing that binds us, blinds us and misaligns us with our Maker,
Only to be bound by that which holds our hearts and minds close to thine.

“When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” ‘Sir,’ the invalid replied, ‘I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Get up! Pick up your mat and walk. At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.” John 5:6-9

Healing requires more of us than simply acknowledging our aches and pains and discomforts or expressing our dislike for the prescribed medication for what ails us, because we do not like its taste or its effect on us or because it costs too much. Neither does healing come by laying blame on the thing that’s making us sick. Rarely, if ever, does our healing come about from complaining or wallowing in the dread of our circumstances. Such responses and reactions alone are certain to leave us in our infirmity. 

Healing requires something of us. We must take the medicine in order for it to do us any good. Even when the Great Healer healed, the healing did not come by idleness. “Take up your mat and walk,” Jesus said. “Wipe the spittle from your eyes.” “Lazarus, come forth.” If all we do is sit by the pool and watch as others emerge from the healing waters, then we will languish in our misery, a misery to which we have grown too accustomed or too comfortable, and we will ultimately remain cripples by the pool. We are inevitably confronted with the question, “Do you want to be healed?” 

To answer in the affirmative is our starting place. We must then move. If it is injustice that makes you sick, take a stand; right every wrong you can. If it is hatred that you hate, love all you can. If it is poverty that nauseates you, then give whatever it is you can muster to give and inspire others to do the same. If it is the condition of the world that grieves you, make things better in the part of it that you inhabit. Do something. Even if you must belly crawl until you can once again walk upright.

The same is true of us if we ever truly want to overcome injustice, to heal the ills of the past, and to be reconciled to one another. We must look back at out past, not for the sake of languishing there, but that we might accurately assess the roads travailed and stumbling blocks encountered along the way, and other hindrances so they will not further impede our progress in moving into our promised lands and growing into our better selves.

Juneteenth was celebrated as a national holiday this past weekend. Also known as Independence Day or Freedom Day, Juneteenth has been celebrated by Texans since 1866, but only in 2021 when President Joe Biden signed a bill and the Congress passed it, did Juneteenth become a federal holiday.  At a time when the nation was suffering from sickness of all sorts – a pandemic affecting the world’s health, a plague of gun violence, the swelling tensions of racial unrest, growing mental health concerns, and just general weariness and soul fatigue, the president signed legislation that was the culmination of the relentless efforts of the then 94 year old Mrs. Opal Lee, affectionately called the “Grandmother of Juneteenth” and of other foot soldiers for the cause of bringing the holiday to national recognition.

Upon signing the bill, the President Biden added, “I hope this is the beginning of a change in the way we deal with one another.” Many of us share in that hope, but only is this possible if we are willing to pick up our mats of indifference, injustice, defiance or whatever it is we have found comfort or resignation in,  or better yet, leave them behind, and walk unencumbered or less encumbered into the brightness of a new day.

Juneteenth could very well be a good dose of medicine for us at this time, bitter for some, while sweet for others. Though, we know that healing does not come from the taste but from the diligence in taking the required medicine. As is the case with much of the medication we are prescribed, to realize its full affect, we must continue taking it not just until we start to feel better, but until it has taken its full effect or accomplished the thing for which it was prescribed. Still, Juneteenth offers us an opportunity to do just that as it gives us an occasion to recognize our common past, as difficult or as unpleasant as it might be to recall, then to celebrate together where we have come to, realizing there is still much work to be done. It is an opportunity for us, however, only if we embrace it as such. All of us. Or at the least, many of us. 

Nor can the healing we are in need of be accomplished if all we do is simply take the day off, have a cookout, or even march in the streets and wave flags, and then go home. That alone can no more cure us than taking a swig of medicine, putting the cap on the bottle and going on about our business without making other necessary changes in our diet or lifestyles that the fine print on the label or the physician said would be necessary to experience optimal health. 

There must be a shift from thinking that if a matter pertains to certain segments of the population, those we have relegated to being “the other,” then it does not pertain to all of us. It is not their history; it is our history. It is not their holiday; it is our holiday. It is not their struggle, their story, or their anything alone. No matter the who, if it took place on this American soil, to inhabitants of this our homeland, it is ours together to own. Everybody at the family reunion brings a different story, but still belongs to the same family. Right?

While knowledge of Juneteenth and its commemoration now extend far beyond Texas, Juneteenth has long been celebrated by Blacks in Texas with church potlucks, speeches, and family gatherings, and has, over the years, included concerts, parades and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation. Our own St. Augustine of Hippo, the first African American mission in this diocese, formally celebrated the holiday this past Sunday with a special service, the display of artifacts and memorabilia related to the African American experience, and, of course, with food. This was the first time such a celebration was held there, recalled Rose Daniels, a local historian and 60+ year member of St. Augustine.  The official recognition of Juneteenth as a national holiday invites us to seek a deeper understanding of, broaden our appreciation for, and open our arms wider to embrace, not the stories of “other” Americans, but of our collective American story.

Our baptismal covenant obliges us to do so, and we commit to doing just that when we affirm that we will  “strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.” 

In his 2020 statement on Juneteenth, our own Bp. Doyle said, “On this Juneteenth, as we think and remember this glorious celebration for our Black brothers and sisters [regarding an inglorious past – I might add], especially those living here in Texas, our neighbors, our community members, [it is my hope] that we might join with them with loud praises and proclamation, not only for Juneteenth but as a sign that we are with them.” 

This would indeed be a long-awaited and most welcomed sign. In his 1926 poem, “I, Too,” poet Langston Hughes says, “Tomorrow, they will see how beautiful, I am.” “I, too, am America.” We are still realizing the beauty in one another. Still striving for freedom. Still living into the ideal of one nation under God, the ultimate state of wellness to which we aspire. And we—all—will be well…with God’s help.

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