Less than 30 miles north of the iconic Liberty Bell, which allegedly tolled to announce the public reading of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, African American pastor Jerome Coleman leads First Baptist Church of Crestmont in Willow Grove.
2020 marks the first time in his 12 years of leadership the Southern Baptist church is commemorating Juneteenth, or June 19th, the day in 1865 when enslaved black people in Galveston, Texas, were informed by Union troops that they were free. Juneteenth came a full 901 days after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in January 1863, and nearly a century after the Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence.
Even as international uproar continues over racial injustice after a black man, George Floyd, died May 25 in police custody under the pressure of a white man’s knee, Juneteenth is increasingly being celebrated in the United States as the anniversary of African American freedom. That includes Coleman’s church.
“I want to make people aware that our independence day was June 19th, 1865, not July 4th, 1776,” Coleman said.
Churches, governments and protestors across the nation are increasingly recognizing the anniversary. Pennsylvania is among 46 states and Washington D.C. that recognize Juneteenth as a holiday or observance, according to the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. Philadelphia will close city offices on Juneteenth this year, Mayor Jim Kenney announced.
In Menifee, Calif., near Los Angeles, Pastor Gregory Perkins is leading The View Church in its first Juneteenth celebration. During the six-city outreach June 20 from 10 a.m.-noon PDT, church members plan to share gospel tracts and information on racial reconciliation.
“I think it’s important to hold the event because of the legacy Juneteenth represents and where we are as a country,” Perkins said. “What better way to honor the legacy of Juneteenth? As they were finally given hope by being emancipated, we’re now providing hope through the message of Jesus to a world that needs liberating from sin, just like the slaves were liberated from slavery.”
Several events marking Juneteenth are planned in Texas, the location of Juneteenth’s origins. About 250,000 blacks enslaved in the state didn’t learn they had been freed until nearly 30 months after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, when Union troops arrived in Galveston and Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger delivered the news.
The Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) is hosting a statewide Juneteenth Prayer Call on June 19 at 6:30 p.m. CDT. BGCT President Michael Evans Sr. is participating in the prayer call as well as a 3 p.m. webinar on race relations with a panel of community leaders.
Evans said both events are designed “to bring to the fore the importance of us being unified in regards to the present civil unrest, and the need for real positive change in the area of race, and equality, and just the way we treat each other, especially as Christians.” Evans plans to stream the webinar from the church’s webpage.
In San Marcos, Texas, Southern Baptist church planter Chris Millar had hoped to attend an outdoor Juneteenth community conversation on race relations in his middle class, ethnically diverse neighborhood.
“But it got canceled due to threats,” said Millar, who is planting The Well church in San Marcos. “The host received threats and canceled it because of that. … Our city (Kyle, Texas) is hosting a similar dialogue on Friday and they’re going to be streaming it, so I plan to attend that virtually.”
Millar mentioned the neighborhood event in an article published at the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention website, referencing his desire as a white man to learn about Juneteenth and become active in racial reconciliation.
Millar said his sending church, University Heights Baptist Church in Huntsville, Texas, will participate in a unity walk on Saturday in honor of Juneteenth with multiple churches, many of them predominantly African American.
Hundreds of community events are planned across the nation, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Coleman, the pastor of First Baptist of Crestmont in Willow Grove, Pa., is among many advocating for a federal Juneteenth holiday. He is hosting a Change.org petition promoting federal recognition.
With his congregation, he focused a Bible study on the subject this week, comparing the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt to the emancipation of blacks in the U.S. He said the study was designed to remind people that “the only reason we were freed is because of a God who’s been on our side.”
“We need to constantly remind our children that we have a history of slavery, but it’s not anything to be ashamed of,” Coleman said. “It’s for us to look back and see the God Who Hears the cries of His people and comes down and sees about them.
“He just didn’t do it in the Book of Exodus, but He heard the cries of His African people in American slavery and He came down and freed us in the same way.”
Coleman said African Americans need to teach their history, referencing God’s exhortation to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 11:19.
“Teach your children their story, because you can’t depend on somebody else to teach your children their story,” Coleman said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor.)