I was never taught about Juneteenth growing up.
I was born and raised in Philadelphia, the “cradle of liberty,” in Pennsylvania—which was the first state to end slavery with the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780. Philly was one of the major stops on the Underground Railroad, thanks to the abolitionism of the Quakers, and the home of Richard Allen’s Free African Society.
And while slavery was abolished in Pennsylvania more than 80 years before the Civil War began, I always thought of the Emancipation Proclamation as the document that ended slavery in America.
It wasn’t until years later when I heard of a woman named Ms. Opal Lee, who walked halfway across the country at 89 years old to advocate for Juneteenth to become a national holiday, that I discovered a history I had never learned in school.
Over two and a half years passed between President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and when the first of those enslaved in Texas tasted freedom: 900 more days of being separated from family and forced to work under the threat of violence and death.
But the question remains, why does Juneteenth matter to the church?
The times set aside to celebrate and reflect reveal what matters to society then, now, and in the future. For instance, Pilgrims in early America set apart “days of thanksgiving” to express gratitude to God for his providential grace—a tradition that was formalized into the national calendar in 1863 with Abraham Lincoln’s official proclamation of Thanksgiving Day “to heal the wounds of the nation” divided by war.
But an even earlier civically inspired sacred tradition was inadvertently established less than a year prior on December 31, 1862—when congregations of Black Christians gathered for “Watch Night” services on what they called “Freedom’s Eve.”
Black churches across the country met to worship, pray, and thank God for the freedom that came to their brethren on January 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. But it would be another two years after the first Watch Night service before this proclamation of freedom became a reality in the last holdout state of Texas.
The arrival of Union troops in Galveston, Texas, was a watershed moment in the nation’s history and included thousands of Black soldiers—some recently freed themselves—who had joined the military unit. The next day, General Gordon Granger announced General Order No. 3: an “absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.”
The news spread like wildfire, and nicknames for the day proliferated as well: Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, Juneteenth, and so on. When I discovered that one of the first names given to the commemoration was Jubilee Day, the significance for the church was brought home like a preacher dramatically coming to the sermon’s conclusion.
Like the national healing sought through the tradition of Thanksgiving, Juneteenth would likewise provide a day of healing to millions of Americans who had much reason to give thanks: those who were set free and those allies of abolition who fought for their freedom.
Described in Leviticus 25, Jubilee was an Old Testament festival to be observed every 50 years to honor the Lord by forgiving debts, releasing fellow Israelites from bondage, and even restoring tribal lands. The name came from the exultant joy that naturally accompanies such a momentous occasion.
That these newly emancipated Americans referred to the day as Jubilee meant they understood their deliverance not only in a physical sense but also in a spiritual sense—no doubt seeing connections between their liberation and God’s deliverance of Israel from over 400 years slavery in Egypt.
They also perceived that marking time to honor Christian virtues has value even if the dates originate in secular and civic contexts. Jesus’ instruction for his disciples to pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10) was an invitation for them to participate in God’s advancement of the kingdom of heaven’s appearance on earth.
It is always good for Christians to celebrate freedom. The end of the evil institution of slavery in our midst is valuable and valid no matter how messy and incomplete it is. There’s a renewal possible with a celebration such as Juneteenth—it’s a reminder of where we’ve been and hopefully where we’re going.
The apostle Paul instructed the church in Rome to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15), and Juneteenth provides a unique national moment to do both. We can “rejoice with those who rejoice” because freedom is a good gift from God that honors the image-bearing nature of humanity.
We can celebrate with those who point to that day as the beginning of their families making a life for themselves.
And yet it’s also an invitation to “mourn with those who mourn” because it provides an opportunity to reflect on the tragedy of American slavery that ensnared millions and denied the dignity and worth of untold numbers of fellow human beings who perished while under its oppression.
Expressing both jubilation and lament reminds us of Paul’s admonition in Romans 14:5–6: “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord.”
Celebrating Juneteenth is not a mandate, but it is a meaningful moment for us to experience together, just as Thanksgiving and Watch Night aren’t mandates but opportunities.
Many African Americans like me don’t know a specific date when our ancestors were freed. Although our nation’s population includes millions of people whose descendants are just a few generations removed from those who were enslaved or enslavers, we have not previously made time in our civic calendar of traditions to collectively reflect on the history of slavery and emancipation and its importance today.
Juneteenth gives us that opportunity. It is a historical reminder that invites us to continue “to proclaim freedom for the captives” (Isa. 61:1; Luke 4:18)—just like the apostle Paul encouraged the church in Corinth to reflect on Israel’s history: “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did” (1 Cor. 10:6).
If we let it, Juneteenth is a time to learn from stories we don’t typically hear and seek understanding about how our past has impacted our present circumstances.
Juneteenth can also deepen our theological understanding that God cares about the soul and the body. In a moment when the church is so divided about the future, we can find common ground and understanding.
We learn from our national holidays—Watch Night, Thanksgiving, and Juneteenth—that God still gives us much to rejoice, lament, and learn as we gather year after year. And as we reflect on our journey together as Americans and followers of Jesus, we gain a heart of wisdom, understanding, and joy.
When Jesus read from Isaiah 61, he declared that he had come “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19)—that in him, the Jubilee promises of holistic deliverance were fully manifest.
Jesus demonstrated this by healing the body and soul of the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed—but he ultimately revealed it in his death and resurrection, promising to raise to life whoever believes in him. Jesus himself is our Jubilee.
The connection between faith and freedom is what led me recently to journey to Texas and learn more of the history of Juneteenth on a personal level. The result is a new documentary titled Juneteenth: Faith & Freedom.
Likewise, many of those emancipated in Texas in 1865 saw God as the ultimate source of their deliverance. In fact, after talking to the descendants of those emancipated on the first Juneteenth, I discovered that many of them still serve in the same churches where their forebears first celebrated their newfound freedom.
I believe Juneteenth is something for which the whole church can say “Amen!”—and I pray we continue to experience more of the freedom and faith Jesus offers us as we celebrate.
Rasool Berry is the content developer and partnership liaison at Our Daily Bread Ministries and is a teaching pastor at the Bridge Church in Brooklyn, New York. You can watch his journey in the new documentary Juneteenth: Faith & Freedomhere.