By the Rev. Pamela “Pan” Conrad
Many years ago, I lived in Galveston, TX for two years. It was there that I learned about the practice of commemorating Juneteenth (June 19 ) as a holiday. Growing up in Maryland, I had never heard of Juneteenth, and I was surprised, that it was not commonly taught, at the very least, in Christian formation.
In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation liberated all enslaved persons in both the Union and the Confederate states. However there was no way of enforcing the liberation in the Confederate states. Slave-holders from these states migrated to Texas as the Union gained control over the southern Confederate states, and they brought a large population of enslaved persons with them. By 1865, Texas had a very large population of enslaved people.
On June 18, a 2000 troop detachment of Union soldiers under the command of General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, and the next day proclaimed a “General Order #3” that all enslaved persons are to be free. It stated “This involves absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that of employer and free laborer.”
Granger and the Union soldiers stayed there to enforce the General Order, and the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution was finally ratified on December 6, of that year (not that it was without loop-holes!)
On the one-year anniversary of Granger’s proclamation of the General Order, the formerly enslaved people celebrated the occasion of their liberation for the first time, Juneteenth ultimately becoming an annual occasion.
You might wonder why I said that this should be commonly taught in Christian formation. This is a powerful contemporary example of what happens when good news is not preached far and wide. Until the good news of freedom reached Texas at the Port of Galveston, and people stood firm to make that particular good news manifest, it did not change the lives of people who were supposed to be emancipated, but in practice were not.
The same is true for the Good News of Jesus Christ. If we don’t tell the Good News of the liberating love of God and then stand up for justice, mercy and humility, then who will do so? Who remains enslaved by injustice when Christians shirk the responsibility of telling the truth and standing up for justice as Jesus’ hands and feet in this world? The love of God looks like justice, and that is truly transformative.
Part of the work of becoming a beloved community is ensuring that we all can enjoy the inheritance of God’s unfailing love by bringing it to every place that lives under the storm cloud of injustice. In the United States, a country that rose to economic prosperity on the backs of kidnapped and enslaved people, the Best News would be that we all take our baptismal covenant seriously enough that we examine the past, repent of that past, and renew our commitment to transform that past into a liberated future where all can enjoy the promise of freedom. Juneteenth teaches us the importance of bringing good news to all and then standing beside those who hear the Gospel to make sure that Good News becomes Good Life for all who hear it. We can learn a lot by listening to the ancestors and celebrating justice wherever we find it.
The Rev. Pan Conrad is interim rector of St. Bartholomew’s, Baltimore and chair of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
JUNETEENTH IS MONDAY, JUNE 19
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland has assembled resources and events to commemorate Juneteenth.