A Service in Celebration of Juneteenth
The following service was prepared for use at First Presbyterian Church, Rochester, Minnesota, on the Sunday closest to June 19th, or “Juneteenth.” The holiday of Juneteenth has been on the Presbyterian Planning Calendar for a number of years, but many church members don’t know much about it. Many of the resources used in this service were written for use with an African American church, but Juneteenth is something that should be celebrated by predominantly white churches as well. The end of slavery and the historic legislation noted in the service are something Americans of every race and ethnicity should celebrate because racism affects and diminishes us all. Racism is certainly not “solved” yet, and may never be—at least not totally. But each small step should be celebrated. This service is meant to be a way for predominantly white congregations to acknowledge the reality of slavery and racism and affirm that although as white people we can’t give up our privilege, we can add our voices to those seeking justice and equity for all. Many thanks are due to Lee Afdahl, director of music for First Presbyterian Church, and Dr. Dwight Jennings. Both are excellent musicians and performed the service’s musical interludes which were taken from Songs of Zion, Abingdon Press, 1981, referenced as SZ in the service.
Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the ending of slavery. From its origin in Galveston, Texas, in 1865, the observance of June 19th as the African American Emancipation Day has spread across the United States and beyond. Today, Juneteenth commemorates African American freedom and emphasizes education and achievement. It is a day, a week, and in some places a month marked with celebrations, guest speakers, and family gatherings. It is a time for reflection and rejoicing. It is a time for assessment, self-improvement, and planning for the future. In cities across the country, people of all races, nationalities, and religions are joining hands to truthfully acknowledge a period in our history that shaped and continues to influence our society today.
—Adapted from JUNETEENTH.com. Used by permission.
Almighty God, we come to worship you today with open hearts and open minds. We want to hear and receive what you have to say to us in this service. Speak to us today as you spoke to those who went before us. Tell us the stories of your wonder and greatness. We are ready to hear them. Remind us once again of your grace and love. Help us teach your goodness to our children and the next generation. Amen.
— Eugene Blair, 21st Century Africana Liturgy Resources: “Worship Resources for Juneteenth Day Celebrations,” © 2007, 2008, bit.ly/2SjRsUT. Used by permission.
Call to Worship
The Lord our God is great.
The Lord is worthy of our praise.
Come, let us remember the great things God has done for us.
Let us not neglect to teach our children the greatness of God.
Let us not forget our past and those who have gone before us.
We remember our ancestors and our history; and we name our future.
Let us lift our voices in song, lift our arms in praise, and open our hearts in gratitude.
Let us greet God with our hymn of praise.
—Eugene Blair. 21st Century Africana Liturgy Resources: “Worship Resources for Juneteenth Day Celebrations,” © 2007, 2008, bit.ly/2SjRsUT. Adapted and used by permission.
Hymn: “Lift Every Voice and Sing” Johnson, LUYH 44, GtG 339
Scripture to Guide Us
The Origin of Juneteenth
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, “In a real sense, America is essentially a dream, a dream as yet unfulfilled. It is a dream of a land where people of all races, of all nationalities and of all creeds can live together as equals. The substance of the dream is expressed in these sublime words, words lifted to cosmic proportions: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ This is the dream” (from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech “The Negro and the American Dream” on September 25, 1960).
—The Negro and the American Dream: © 1960 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. © renewed 1988 Coretta Scott King. Reprinted by arrangement with the Heirs to the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr., c/o Writers House as agent for the proprietor New York, NY.
As a country, we took an important step toward the fulfillment of that dream when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, which began with these words:
“Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:
‘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; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.’”
Juneteenth originated in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. On this date, the people of Texas learned that the Civil War had ended and slaves had gained their freedom. Major General Gordon Granger, the leader of the Union troops, issued General Order Number 3, emancipating the last 250,000 slaves who remained captive despite President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.
—Juneteenth Resources 2017, Disciples Home Missions, bit.ly/2JiTXmC. Used by permission.
General Order Number 3 stated: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, ‘all slaves are free.’ This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly 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.”
Thus, Juneteenth came into existence.
Musical Interlude: When Israel Was in Egypt’s Land / Go Down, Moses African American spiritual, LUYH 42, SZ 112, GtG 52
The Church and Juneteenth
“From the establishment of the first black church in America, throughout slavery and beyond, the church has been the foundation of the black community. During the horrific days of slavery it provided relief and nourishment for the soul with its promise of a better life after death. The church gave the slave dignity and assured him he was equal in the eyes of God. Despite his earthly condition he was loved and valued as a person of God no matter how difficult his burden became or unbearable his suffering was. Jesus, who too suffered, prepared a place of rest for him when his time was up on earth. It was this religious faith that sustained the slave and enabled him to endure his bondage.
“The slave owner was able to observe a glimpse of this faith as he heard the incredible music that seemed to come out of the slave’s soul while toiling in the field. If the slave owner had ventured into a slave church, his strong defense of slavery would no doubt have been weakened. He would have seen the people he considered inferior and sub-human without the defensive masks they wore in the fields; in their churches, enslaved men and women displayed a dignity and stateliness that survived the slave owner’s dehumanizing oppression.
“The church was more than a safe house. It served as a launching pad for black leadership and was involved early on in working for liberation. Many free blacks in the northern churches participated in the Underground Railroad, raised money for freedmen after the Civil War, and helped keep the black community intact.
“The importance of the black church cannot be overstated. It was, and perhaps still is, the single most important institution in the black community. It permitted self-expression and supported creativity at a time when it could have meant death. An example is found in the spirituals, gospel and other forms of music that helped blacks explain and endure their sojourn in America. Blacks were able to use their churches to hone organization and leadership skills useful in the economic, social and political development of their community. It’s no accident that Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson and a host of civil rights leaders got their start through the black church.
“The Black Church provided a haven from the daily oppression slaves faced, but after freedom it was also the center of social activities including the sponsorship of the annual Juneteenth Celebration.”
Excerpts from “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
—Letter from Birmingham City Jail: © 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. © renewed 1991 Coretta Scott King. Reprinted by arrangement with the Heirs to the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr., c/o Writers House as agent for the proprietor New York, NY.
“Dr. King wrote [Letter from Birmingham Jail] . . . on April 16, 1963, while in jail. He was serving a sentence for participating in civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama. He rarely took time to defend himself against his opponents. But eight prominent “liberal” Alabama clergymen, all white, published an open letter earlier in January that called on King to allow the battle for integration to continue in the local and federal courts, and warned that King’s nonviolent resistance would have the effect of inciting civil disturbances. Dr. King wanted Christian ministers (and all Christians) to see that the meaning of Christian discipleship was at the heart of the African American struggle for freedom, justice, and equality” (p. 289).
—Introduction to “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin Washington, © Coretta Scott King (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986, 2018).
“Why Am I Here?”
As to why he was in Alabama, Dr. King wrote: “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth century prophets left their little villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider in this country.”
Musical Interlude: “Hush, Hush, Somebody’s Callin’ My Name” African American spiritual, SZ 100
“Why Not Wait?”
“History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals.
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was ‘well timed,’ according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the words ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”
Hymn: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” African American spiritual, LUYH 469, GtG 825, PsH 617
“Just and Unjust Laws”
“There are two types of laws: there are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all.’
“Now what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”
“I must make two confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advised the Negro to wait until a more ‘convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Hymn: “There Is a Balm in Gilead” African American spiritual, LUYH 706, GtG 792, PsH 494
“Now Is the Time”
“I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth of time. I received a letter this morning from a white brother in Texas which said: ‘All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great of a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost 2000 years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.’ All that is said here grows out of a tragic misconception of time. It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will eventually cure all ills. Actually time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill-will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of those willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy, and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”
Musical Interlude: “Oh, Freedom” African American spiritual, SZ 102
“Never before have I written a letter this long (or should I say a book?). I’m afraid that it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else is there to do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell other than write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers?
“If I have said anything in this letter that is an overstatement of the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes me patient with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.
“I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader, but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all of their scintillating beauty.
“Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,
Martin Luther King, Jr.”
—Letter from Birmingham City Jail: © 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. © renewed 1991 Coretta Scott King. Reprinted by arrangement with the Heirs to the Estate of Martin Luther King Jr., c/o Writers House as agent for the proprietor New York, NY. Hymn: “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” African American spiritual, GtG 66, PH 315
Hymn:“Every Time I Feel the Spirit” African American spiritual, GtG 66, PH 315
Why We Celebrate Juneteenth
[Option: Assign one person to each letter, giving them that letter to hold up as they read the corresponding line.]
Voice 1: “J”—Juneteenth represents the joy of freedom, the chance for a new beginning.
Voice 2: “U”—Unless we expose the truth about the African American slave experience, Americans won’t truly be free.
All: “N”—Never must we forget the people who endured one of the worst slave experiences in human history.
Voice 1: “E”—Every American has benefited from the wealth blacks created through more than two hundred years of free labor, and Juneteenth allows us to acknowledge that debt.
Voice 2: “T”—To encourage every former slave-holding state to follow Texas’s and Oklahoma’s example and make Juneteenth a state holiday.
All: “E”—Every day in America, blacks are reminded of the legacy of slavery. Juneteenth counters that by reminding us of the promise of deliverance.
Voice 1: “E”—Even on the journey to discover who we are, Juneteenth allows us to reflect on where we’ve been, where we’re at, and where we’re going as a people.
Voice 2: “N”—“Never give up hope” is the legacy enslaved peoples left. It was this legacy that produced black heroism in the Civil War and helped launch the modern civil rights era. It is this legacy we celebrate.
Voice 1: “T”—To proclaim for all the world to hear, that human rights must never again become subservient to property rights.
Voice 2: “H”—History books have told only a small part of the story; Juneteenth gives us a chance to set the record straight.
All: Freedom is always worth celebrating! Amen.
Other African American hymnals
- African American Heritage Hymnal (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2001)
- Lift Every Voice and Sing: An African American Hymnal (New York: Church Publishing, 1993)
- One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2018)
- Songs of Zion (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1981)
- This Far By Faith: An African American Resource for Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1999)
Spoken introduction: Believing that when one part of the body suffers, we all suffer, that when one part of the body rejoices, we all rejoice, and that in Christ we are all one body, we read this litany using the collective “we” and “our.”
O Lord, we celebrate your strong hand of deliverance. We have seen your grace in the midst of life’s burdens.
Lord God of Hosts, on the anniversary of our freedom from slavery, we know that we can do all things through Christ, who strengthens us.
The Emancipation Proclamation freed African slaves in the United States on New Year’s Day in 1863. But actual freedom for the last slaves did not come until a June day two and a half years later. This Juneteenth milestone reminds us of the triumph of the human spirit.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us always, as you were with Harriet Tubman.
The Constitution once defined African Americans as three-fifths human. But we have all labored and died as whole men and women.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us always, as you were with Frederick Douglass.
The Thirteenth Amendment abolished the heinous institution of slavery, but we still struggle against the chains of racial discrimination.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us always, as you were with Vernon Johns.
The Fourteenth Amendment made us citizens by legislation because our blood, sweat, and tears helped to build this nation.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us always, as you were with Thurgood Marshall.
The Fifteenth Amendment said we could not be denied the right to vote because of our color; yet we have faced systemic exclusion from the political process, and we continue to struggle for full inclusion.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us always, as you were with Barbara Jordan.
The Twenty-fourth Amendment abolished poll taxes, voting tests, and other restrictions upon the right to vote; but these soon were replaced by gerrymandering and political apathy.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us always, as you were with Benjamin Quarles.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 translated into law most of the goals of the Civil Rights Movement, protecting all citizens from racial segregation and discrimination. Let us remain ever vigilant in our commitment to proactive citizenship.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us always, as you were with Stokely Carmichael.
Our hopes soar to new heights of joy when we remember the emancipation of Nelson Mandela in 1990, and his ascendancy to President of South Africa after twenty-six long years in prison. Blessed are the righteous.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us always, as you were with Desmond Tutu.
Let us leave behind those sins that pulled us down in the old year, and answer the high calling of your will for our lives in the new year.
Lord God of Hosts, on the anniversary of our freedom from slavery, we know that we can do all things through Christ, who strengthens us.
— ”Litany for Emancipation Day (January 1)” by Rev. Dr. Delores Carpenter from the African American Heritage Hymnal. © 2001, GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Prayers of the People and Lord’s Prayer
Affirmation of Faith
[Choose one or both of the following statements or something similar as an affirmation of faith.]
As white people, we can’t give away our privilege. We’ve got it whether we want it or not. What we can do is use our privilege to create change. We can speak up without fear of bringing down our entire race. We believe America is rich with white people clamoring to demonstrate their moral courage and be a part of change that creates the kind of world we can feel good about leaving to our children. We have a choice to make: resist change and keep alive antiquated beliefs about skin color, or outgrow those beliefs and make real the equality we envision. With God’s help, we can overcome the stain of slavery and racism in our country. This we believe. Amen.
— Adapted from Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race. © 2014 Debby Irving. Cambridge, MA: Elephant Room Press, admin. Used by permission.
As persons of color, we can’t give up. We can’t settle into a spirit of apathy. Let us not forget that we are God’s children, created in his image. God loves us, takes delight in us, and desires that all people, of all colors and nationalities, experience God’s shalom.
Spoken introduction: People of God, Scripture says that “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26–29, NRSV). Let us therefore stand together and profess our faith as one body using the words of the Apostles’ Creed. . . .
Option: Apostles’ Creed
Hymn: “We Shall Overcome” African American spiritual, GtG 379, WR 512