Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) celebrates Juneteenth in a one-of-a-kind worship service


‘We look back to forge ahead’

by Gail Strange | Presbyterian News Service

Juneteenth Day June 19th, 1865

LOUISVILLE — The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) commemorated Juneteenth with a unique worship service on Wednesday morning.

The theme for the service was “What Is the Work of the People — Holding the Legacy While Building Our Destiny.”

The service opened with the African tradition of calling upon the ancestors. After a roll call of great leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Weldon Johnson, Fannie Lou Hamer, Zora Neale Hurston, Muhammad Ali and others, worshipers were reminded that no matter the language, the denomination, the tribe or one’s social status … we are one.

The nearly 200 individuals viewing the online service were welcomed by the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, who said, “Juneteenth is a holiday that celebrates the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States.” And, after sharing a brief history of the holiday, Moffett said, “Momentum is mounting to make Juneteenth a nationally recognized holiday, largely in response to those who lifted their voices and protested and continue to do so in many venues last year surrounding the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many others who came before and after them.”

In fact, Congress took action later Wednesday, making Juneteenth the 12th federal holiday and the first since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created in 1983. President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth holiday bill on Thursday. The Presbyterian Mission Agency, along with other agencies in the denomination, had already made Juneteenth an official holiday on the work calendar.

“This coming Friday, the building will be closed,” said Moffett. “But I hope we will be open to continue the work that we have been called to do to dismantle racism and systems of oppression. And I pray that the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Presbyterian Church at large will become a more diverse, equitable and inclusive church. As we celebrate the Juneteenth holiday, may we remember the past, even while we work to build a world that is aligned with the love, justice and mercy of Jesus Christ.”

The service revolved around five themes: Sankofa, Ubuntu, Umoja, Harambee & La Lucha, and Ojo Iwaju.

Speaking on the first theme, Sankofa, the Rev. Gregory J. Bentley, co-moderator of the 224th General Assembly (2020) of the PC(USA), said, “We look back to remember where we came from. We look back so that we acknowledge our past in order to forge ahead. We look back to remember our journey and reclaim the richness and value of our heritage, for this is the work of the people.

“When Elona [Street-Stewart] and I decided to stand together as co-moderators, we chose Sankofa as the symbol of our standing together,” he said. “The Sankofa bird while flying forward has an egg in her mouth, symbolizing looking back and going to the future, symbolizing that we need to go back and fix that which we have left behind.

“As we continue to dig deep into our history and to bring forward those things that will help us not only survive but thrive in this day and time, let us carry the spirit of Juneteenth that we may continue to work for justice until it rolls down like waters of righteousness.”

Another unique aspect of the service was “on the street” video interviews interspersed throughout. Aukram Burton, executive director of the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage, said Juneteenth is “about the spirit of our people that allows us not only to survive hard times but to overcome.”

In acknowledgement of the second theme, Ubuntu, the worship leader said, “We are alive and vital because you didn’t give up. We are grateful for the spirit of our ancestors. The legacy they gave, they left behind for this, is the work of the people.”

Reading from Audre Lorde’s “I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde,” the worship leader concluded the second theme with a quote from Lorde that stated, “This is no longer a time of waiting. It is a time for the real work’s urgencies.”

The Umoja theme lifted the Black family. Umoja means unity in Swahili. Reading from a piece from Sonia Sanchez, the worship leader said, “I say, where is your fire? You got to find it and pass it on. You got to find it and pass it on from you to me, from me to her, from her, to him, from the son to the father, from the brother to the sister, from the daughter to the mother, from the mother to the child, where is your fire?”

Uplifting the fourth theme, Harambee & La Lucha: Our Collective Struggle (of all Marginalized and Oppressed People), the worship leader noted, “This [Harambee & La Lucha] is our collective struggle. Our collective fight. We all must work together to be ourselves and to free ourselves. This is not a single journey, but a single fight, collective fight.”

Concluding with theme five, Ojo Iwaju: There Are Black People in the Future, the worship leader stated, “We strategize today to form a plan so that we may step into tomorrow. We will always exist, for there will be Black people in the future. This is the work of the people we declare. There are Black people in the future. We have traversed through the oppression of our people. We have used arts and music, culture, love and life to survive.

“The work of the people has been ingenuity, resilience, fortitude, creativity, intelligence and strengths, which characterize the depth of our witness. We have built everything from pyramids to the White House. We have created geometry to jazz. We have emerged from chattel to champion, and we shall go forward with the reverence to look back and the tenacity to keep rising. We have been here. We are now here and there shall always be Black people in the future.”

In his closing remarks, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA), the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, said, “It is indeed a pleasure to be able to participate in this celebration of Juneteenth. In so many different ways, we are still bound by slavery and incarceration and struggling with the efforts, even in the 21st century, to be free. We are still in the street marching. We’re still building hope and hospitality for those who’ve been left behind. You’re still being in a vision of what it means to live as a people who are not in for ongoing incarceration, issues of laws, such as holding individuals in local jails on cash bail and taking misdemeanor crimes and placing individuals in jails in order to live there sometimes up to five years before coming into a courtroom. We are still struggling with what it means to be free.

“And knowing that our work is not done until all men, women and children, and those who are considered the other and fall into categories, we today still have work to do, church. Get off your blessed assurance and let’s do the work in which this period, this celebration, this day, this new awakening in the Presbyterian Center,” he said. “Let’s be vigilant. We shall not stop until freedom comes. Go in peace, my friends, and do the work of freeing the captives. That’s what God requires.”

In addition to Bentley, Moffett and Nelson other worship participants/leaders included: Marla Edwards, Serritta Bell, Troy Marables,  the Rev. Paula Cooper and Edwin Gonzalez-Castillo.

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