If we wish to be a welcoming parish, we are called to be a courageous parish because fear leads us to limit freedom – especially the freedom of those we perceive as other. The Juneteenth holiday reminds us of the cost of fear.
The Juneteenth holiday, also known as Juneteenth National Independence Day, commemorates the date when Union General Gordon Granger issued an order proclaiming freedom for enslaved people in Texas on June 19th, 1865.
The name – Juneteenth – comes from combining the words June and Nineteenth. Although Juneteenth became a federal holiday only very recently – President Biden signed the law in 2021 – celebrations of the day date back to the beginning in 1866. In some ways, the Juneteenth holiday is the fulfillment of the promise of freedom and equality contained in the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation. Neither the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863) nor the 13th Amendment (ratified in December 1865) were sufficient to allow the full experience of freedom by those people formerly enslaved. The presence of federal troops and the order of the commanding general were necessary to establish these freedoms.
It is likely that the enslaved people in the Confederacy knew of the Emancipation Proclamation and that they were technically free – some 180,000 black people – including former slaves who fought for the Union Army during the Civil Way – they knew of the freedom promised and were willing to fight for that freedom. Rather, without the Union troops present, the threat of violence prevented the full exercise of freedom.
Fear limited freedom for those newly freed:
In their essay entitled “Fear” in the Pulitzer Prize winning book the 1619 Project, Leslie Alexander and Michelle Alexander detail the challenges that black people have experienced claiming the full rights of citizenship in the United States. Black Codes enacted following the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments sought to limit the exercise of freedom granted to these formerly enslaved people by those amendments. The presence of federal troops and the reconstruction laws passed at the federal level allowed for the exercise of these freedoms. Following the election of 1876 which prompted the end of reconstruction and the withdrawal of federal troops. Jim Crow laws were enacted that successfully limited the rights of black citizens in parts of the United States for another century. Violence, and the fear of violence, once again limited the exercise of freedom.
What does this history have to do with Our Lady of Hope Parish?
As we look at the history since June 19th, 1866, we can see times when a safe enough space was created for the exercise of freedom, but the space has never been completely safe. Elsewhere on our website, we (Our Lady of Hope Parish) describe ourselves as seeking to be a welcoming parish. What kind of a space do we need to create to be welcoming? I like the answer provided in the poem by Beth Stano often called, “An Invitation to Brave Space.” The poem opens “There is no such thing as a ‘safe space,’ we exist in the real world – we all carry scars and have caused wounds.”
To create a more welcoming community we need to acknowledge the bravery that it takes for someone, who has met rejection and judgment elsewhere, to risk coming to Our Lady of Hope.
We also need to be brave enough to allow ourselves to be changed by our encounter with the other. Perhaps our understanding of what committed love means will change by our encounters with those who are divorced and remarried or those who are in committed same-sex relationships. Perhaps our encounter with those we may have been raised to fear will teach us about being brave enough to encounter the real person and not the stereotype we were taught.
A commitment to be a welcoming parish includes a call to courage – a call to stand with those who have been denied the full expression of their humanity – as those Union troops stood with the those formerly enslaved persons on June 19th, 1865.
Fr. Brian Conley, SJ