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Juneteenth celebrations teach history, praise God for freedom

Texas African American History Memorial, Texas State Capitol, Austin Photo by Nick Amoscato, via Flickr

WINTER GARDEN, Fla. (BP) – Campus pastor Chris Ogden grew up in a “very white evangelical tradition,” but he shepherded multiethnic Horizon West Church to celebrate Juneteenth, the national holiday marking when Blacks enslaved in Galveston, Texas, were freed two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

His life experiences led him to appreciate the day. Through a youth ministry internship in Southern California, he was introduced to the writings of Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass and Ralph Abernathy.

“The last piece of that for me, my dad remarried in 2008 and the woman that he remarried had adopted several children and four of those children were African American.”

Suddenly, the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Philando Castile, Eric Gardener and Trayvon Martin were personal.

“I started thinking if my brother Micah, who has intellectual disabilities and is a 6-foot-2, now a Black man,” Ogden said, “if he were walking the streets late at night like he sometimes does, that could be him. And the stereotypes that often go into policing and different things, and so all of that just kind of made those things seem a little bit personal.”

In Houston, Texas, about an hour from Juneteenth’s foundational event of June 19, 1865, senior pastor Steve Hall Sr. believes all churches have an opportunity to educate youth about racial injustices.

“One of the things that we try to do is to be an outlet for our congregation, our members, as well as the young folk especially, because they really don’t have the background that many of our older saints have, and that’s really my impetus for it,” said Hall, longtime pastor of Bethany Baptist Church SBC, a congregation of African Americans. “The 40 acres and a mule story, all of the history that goes along with some of our older saints, some of our babies they just don’t understand.

“They don’t understand the background with regards to reparations or even why that even came about. But for the most part, our efforts are to celebrate while we educate, and that’s probably my greatest theme to go along with it.”

Both churches held Juneteenth musical celebrations and on a limited scale, incorporated the message of Juneteenth into their Father’s Day sermons and celebrations. Bethany Baptist held a Gospel concert June 18. Horizon included a set of music by African American Gospel artists in its Sunday worship time and posted a Juneteenth message on the church’s Facebook page.

Horizon West, a campus of First Baptist Church of Orlando, is the result of the Easter 2021 merger of Horizon West and Oasis Community Church. The blended congregation is about 60 percent white, 20-25 percent Brazilian and Spanish-speaking groups, 5-10 percent Islanders from Trinidad and Jamaica and about 5 percent African American. The church leadership is ethnically mixed, with an African American campus director.

Ogden believes fellow Southern Baptists should also mark Juneteenth, especially in today’s cultural climate.

“There’s a very unfortunate, kind of reactionary sense in a large chunk of the white evangelical community as if the culture is forcing us to do racial equity work,” Ogden said. “And my argument is that unfortunately the white evangelical church has so failed to do that, that the Lord is almost rebuking us through culture. We shouldn’t be lagging behind.

“So what I said on Sunday, is anywhere you find a freedom movement throughout history, there were followers of Jesus right at the center of that. So this is not something where we’re trying to chase the tail of culture and be relevant. This should be part of the DNA of the church. We reconcile people. We speak to justice and freedom, and it’s right to do that.”

Ogden participated in an educational Zoom call with historians sponsored by Wycliff Bible Translators to learn more about Juneteenth in advance of the holiday. The call was designed to equip pastors and leaders in honoring the holiday.

“It was important to me not to tokenize the holiday, or to, in just kind of my ignorance, say something that might be insensitive,” he said. “That learning would be what I would encourage, especially white pastors. Once you learn it, you can speak to it and it also gives you a sense of the reasons why it’s important.”

Hall believes special observances are a good way for churches to educate people, especially children.

“A lot of the churches that I’m familiar with also have day school facilities attached to them, and/or they have adopted some of the local surrounding schools, individual schools within a district (where) they are located,” Hall said. “We get opportunities for those day schools that we have – we have one here – to highlight just like we would any other holiday, a national holiday, that we use that for our babies, starting in infancy.

“They can see some things and hear some things as a part of their curriculum. So we include that. The churches, I believe, need to step it up in this area,” Hall said. “So regardless to whether it’s Juneteenth or Black History Month or anything in those areas, what we try to do is we try to incorporate them as a normal process within our gathering, and that’s really the effort behind our Juneteenth” celebration.

On June 19, 1865, Blacks enslaved in Galveston were freed under General Order 3, which according to npr.org, stated “all slaves are free.” However, npr.org writes, the order also encouraged slaves to stay put and keep working.

“The freed are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere,” npr.org quotes the document, describing it as “patronizing language intended to appease planters who didn’t want to lose their workforce.”

Juneteenth was declared a national holiday in 2021.