Juneteenth: A Reflection
June 14, 2021 by Rose Niles
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? Psalm 27:1 NRSV
Here I am, sojourning in Houston, Texas, serving Austin Seminary these seven years. For a native New Yorker, Texas has been a sacred adventure. My most powerful lessons have come from deepening my knowledge and passion for Juneteenth (also known as Emancipation or Freedom) commemorations.
As a life-long Presbyterian, I remember learning from my ecumenical colleagues when I served as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Mount Vernon, N.Y., from 1995 to 2007. In a spirit of mutuality, we attended each other’s worship celebrations in our clergy alliance, the United Black Clergy of Westchester. A celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation hosted every January 1 at 12 p.m. by our sister AME Zion congregation was deeply meaningful to me; I never missed the opportunity to begin the year in this way. Freedom’s meaning rang in my soul, both as a divine gift, and a human ideal not yet realized.
The Presbytery of the New Covenant includes Galveston Island, where Juneteenth originated when a Union Army General finally, on June 19, 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, publicly proclaimed freedom and “absolute equality of personal rights …” for formerly enslaved persons in the state of Texas. Here in the birthplace of Juneteenth. I learned of fellow Presbyterians such as Rev. Ed Wolf, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Galveston. Through his local Ministerial Alliance, Rev. Wolf and members of his congregation have a close connection to Juneteenth and have deepened my understanding and commemoration in my own spiritual journey. Pastor Ed even went and provided us a picture of a recently dedicated mural titled “Absolute Equality” on the site of the Osterman building (Strand and 22nd St.) where the general order was signed. You can read this article for more.
In my studies of Juneteenth, I have learned that in the years following June 19, 1865, bitter violence was unleashed against formerly enslaved people. Legislation was passed to deny them the opportunity to commemorate their freedom in the public parks. In the spirit of resistance, these spiritual ancestors banded together and purchased their own land to hold their commemorations. They also carried their commemorations with them into the diaspora of the Great Migration northwards. They kept the sacred story alive so that we now, in the spirit of Sankofa, the spirit of going back to reclaim what is necessary from our past, can reflect, restore, reclaim, and resist wherever we are called to do so today.
Here are some questions I reflect on this Juneteenth.
How are we transforming the bitter betrayals of our own lives into new possibilities?
How are we free and don’t even know it?
How are we working to resist and defy forces of oppression in our own contexts?
As we experience truth-telling in our approach to the past and apply the principle of Sankofa, as we go back and get what is needed to move ahead, I desperately do not want to glorify the bitter dehumanization and commodification of those created in “imago Dei” (creation in the image and likeness of God). I honor the resistance and ingenuity of spiritual ancestors overcoming laws denying them the freedom of public land who banded together to buy land to hold freedom celebrations. I honor their descendants who keep the traditions alive on Galveston Island and throughout Texas, including in ministerial alliances and churches. As a child of diaspora, I honor the sojourners of the great migration northward who carried the resistance celebration with them to their northern destinations and kept the sacred flame burning. “Imago Dei” is a sacred flame. Its existence does not depend upon, and is not limited by, unjust laws and practices. Reflection on this idea is at the heart of my commemoration of Juneteenth, and I hope may it inform us all.
On the morning of June 19 this year, I plan to stand on the corner of Strand and 22nd one last time for now. As I leave my time serving in the birthplace of Juneteenth to join the staff of the Presbyterian Foundation back home in the Northeast, I carry it with me in so many dimensions of my journey. I look back to go forward (Sankofa!). I am so grateful for the Presbyterian Foundation offering us all sacred space for this reflection.
God our help
out of bondage
grant us freedom-joy
even as we mourn
strengthen the sinews of our resistance
(do we know it?)
we stand free
help us to
for each other
to grace the
image of creation
in each and all
Juneteenth Road this
Emancipation Road this
not only on
but for generations
Rev. Dr. Rose Niles is joining the Presbyterian Foundation as a Ministry Relations Officer on July 6, 2021. She will serve in the Northeast. She most recently served at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary as Development Officer. Her degrees include a Bachelor’s from Harvard Radcliffe University in Comparative World Religion, a Masters of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School and a Doctor of Ministry from New York Theological Seminary working in the area of Immigration Justice Ministries.