An invitation to contemplate the joy and rightness of freedom for all people
By Stephanie Painter
In 2019, my local Methodist church hosted its first Juneteenth Unity service. Celebrated in African American churches since 1866, Juneteenth celebrates emancipation from slavery in the United States. When Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger traveled to Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, the enslaved learned that they were free. The people, men, women, and children rejoiced in this news. Today, while inequality persists, Juneteenth remains a reason to celebrate.
The unity service is an invitation to contemplate the joy and rightness of freedom for all people. Just as news of the Emancipation Proclamation was two years late to reach the slaves who toiled in Galveston, this service was a long time coming to this place of worship located in a Memphis suburb. When the service was held three years ago, only two Black families were registered as members of Germantown United Methodist Church’s congregation. The multicultural service was unusual enough to draw attention from a Memphis television news station. In a time of racial division and police shootings of unarmed Black men, the story was hopeful and pointed to the possibility of strengthening bonds.
Reverend Dr. Erin Beasley was then an associate pastor with a vision of engaging the church to help in healing. The young Black pastor planned a multicultural service bringing together three other area churches: New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, El Redentor United Methodist Church,and German Presbyterian Church. “Black Christians have a long history of enduring racism within the church,” she notes. “Many Germantown United Methodist Church members did not know much about the church’s racist past and were shocked to learn about it. The church’s segregation today is a byproduct of this racism.”
When Beasley was a child, her African American Methodist church offered an Emancipation Proclamation service on New Year’s Day. “In the Black church, we talk about how powerful the Exodus story was for our ancestors. They believed slavery was not God’s will for their lives. I don’t know what the abolitionist movement would have been without the story of the Exodus.” Beasley has co-authored the book “I’m Black. I’m Christian. I’m Methodist,” published by Abingdon Press. The anthology is a good resource for white churches to learn more about the Black Christian Experience.
Leading up to the service, clergy had reached out to build friendships with congregations at New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, El Redentor United Methodist, and Germantown Presbyterian, hosting conversations and book study discussions about race and inequality. “We agreed to move beyond conversations and put things into practice and have multicultural worship services,” recalls Beasley. “Juneteenth service was our start. Our society is diverse, and churches aren’t reflecting that diversity. Juneteenth shouldn’t simply be considered an African American but also an American celebration.”
At six o’clock in the evening, I slipped into a pew, ready to learn, witness, and celebrate. Joining me were my sister-in-law Cleo and brother-in-law Ron, both community organizers and activists who were engaged in the Civil Rights movement. Cleo is a Black woman who has fought for social justice throughout her lifetime, and the couple’s work aligns with John Wesley’s mission. “John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement in England, was a social activist and talked about how faith should guide our practices,” says Beasley. “He spoke for those who didn’t have a voice and stood for those who could not stand for themselves. John Wesley was vocal about his opposition to slavery.” This service represented the merging of faith and action.
In the sanctuary, people who may not often connect with one another in daily life sang Bind Us Together. My sister-in-law later told me that many hymns in the service were sung during the Civil Rights movement, including Precious Lord Take My Hand. A gesture shared by Cleo and Ron remains one of my most powerful memories. Throughout the service, they clasped hands tightly, their different skin colors woven in a symbol of love and unity.
The pastors of El Redentor led communion in the Spanish language. A sermon from District Superintendent Dr. Deborah Smith focused on reconciliation, and the chosen Scripture was 1 Corinthians 12:12-27. Smith’s message did not ignore the reality of racial tension “and added the accountability piece we all needed to hear,” notes Beasley. “In the body of Christ, all these gifts come together, and our differences should be valued. The Corinthian church was diverse and divided by socioeconomic status, ethnicities, and religions held before Christianity. Paul preached about loving one another and seeing the beauty in our differences. Paul’s overarching message was that as a church, we are always better together.”
After the service in 2019, the plan was to share Bible studies and continue “tapping into the Word” with groups from other churches. Then COVID-19 altered many plans.Beasley is now serving at another church and hopes that GUMC clergy will continue to hold the Juneteenth Unity service. Juneteenth is now a federal holiday with an opportunity for employees to take time off from work and attend worship services.
As I reflect on the service, it is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2022, an apt time to consider freedom’s many dimensions. Beasley offers encouragement to churches seeking unity.“Churches should play a role in activism and prioritize this work as a part of their faith walk. The first step is to build relationships with minority faith groups. They should engage in tough conversations on race and other social issues and find ways to serve together as the hands and feet of Christ.”