The Bishop’s E-pistle: Juneteenth

“For freedom Christ has set us free.” — Galatians 5:1

I’m not sure when I learned about Juneteenth, except that I’m sure it was far later than it ought to be. Possibly there was some little highlighted box in a high school U.S. History textbook, describing June 19, 1865 when the news finally came to slaves in Texas that two and a half years before they had technically been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. But if so, it was not taught as an event that was central to a common understanding of United States History, and it didn’t stick.

As a holiday dedicated to the belated (and possibly deliberate) delay of freedom and good news, it’s fitting to consider what other stories and histories we are hearing belatedly. The movie Hidden Figures opened a window into the contributions of African American women to the space race that many of us had never known. My first trip to the Heard Museum opened my eyes to the prevalence of Indian Boarding Schools on a scale I had never realized. Stories of women, stories of LGBTQ+ leaders, stories of immigrants…each story learned is, its own way, a step towards the freedom of Christ, because it is a step towards wholeness, a step towards valuing all stories, and not just those of the dominant culture. No one can be free until we are all free.

I remember fairly clearly my first encounter in 1998 of Lift Every Voice and Sing, the “Black National Anthem” by James Weldon Johnson and his brother J. Rosamond Johnson. I was an aspiring seminarian doing a Ministry Study Year at St. Philip’s in South Central Los Angeles, the historic African American church in the Diocese of Los Angeles.

There’s a whole additional national anthem that I don’t know? But isn’t The Star Spangled Banner a national anthem for all Americans? I was confused. Bless that congregation for their patience with me, as they answered my questions, and as I listened to their stories of serving as Tuskegee Airmen, and living through migrations around the U.S. and Los Angeles.

I didn’t know Lift Every Voice then. But I do now. Every word.

Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
‘Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ’til victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
‘Til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land