This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 6/18/17. It explores the heritage of slavery on the 152 anniversary of Juneteenth.
As we mentioned earlier in the service, today’s sermon is different than advertised, even if we’ll try to get to the same place of finding renewed purpose in gratitude for a religious community striving for a better world. This week saw a shooting a congressional practice baseball game – targeting republicans and the capital police officers who were risking their lives to protect their charge. We saw graphic images of a horrendous fire engulfing a poor London apartment complex on a street that had vacation mansions being held for later property value. And we learned that no one would face any punishment for the killing of Philando Castile of Minnesota at a routine traffic stop, while his young daughter watched from the back seat of the car. Our systems are broken. And they’ve been broken before, and been repaired, only to break again. Humanity is imperfect, and we need to keep trying.
Let’s begin with today’s holiday, and see how we can find purpose, meaning, and deep wellsprings for the work for the years to come. “June 18 is the day Union General Gordon Granger and 2,000 federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take possession of the state and enforce the emancipation of its slaves. On June 19, 1865, legend has it while standing on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, Granger read the contents of “General Order No. 3”:”
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.””
What sounds to the modern ear as formal, perfunctory, and a bit horrifying – I couldn’t imagine working at the present home of my former master – was nonetheless cause for rejoicing in the streets. The discord in the language reminds us of how far we’ve come. Slavery had been formally at an end by January 1st of 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation officially went into effect, despite it’s September 22nd, 1862 issuing. It would take ten months, and 2000 more soldiers, to actually come to an end. This country would have such a long road ahead of it to realize Civil Rights, a road we are likely, at best, only about half-way down, but it would be enough to cause freedmen and women to rejoice in the streets.
The end of slavery in the US is no less a cause for celebration now than it was 146 years ago. Our humanity moved forward that day, and takes another step forward, every day slavery is at an end in our hearts. It’ll take another step forward when the for-private-profit prison-industrial complex is torn down. It will move forward when justice is served equally across all races and occupations. With acquittal being the ruling for the officer who killed Philando Castile (a black man who was caught on video, obeying all requests from the officer, who also posed no visible threat, who also had no record, and who also served the community he lived in) we painfully and tragically see that the worth of our lives are still not all treated the same. It’ll move forward when we invest more in our schools than our prisons; when we invest more in opportunities for those who have few and less in retribution against those we see as merely different. Our humanity will move forward when we offer living wages, and not merely minimum wages; when we recognize that the cost of living has increased since the start of the minimum wage in 1938, as has the proportion of rent to salary and cost of food to salary, but the minimum wage has not kept pace with the changing ratios of costs and spending, and of course, living. This last bit has caused much strife in our nation and our political landscape – as white people increasingly feel the burn of what I would call the logical conclusion of capitalism in a world where humanity can be greedy. As fewer people have so much more (as of January of this year, 8 men own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population) we’re seeing folks increasingly blaming those who are different. The thinking goes… ‘If only we closed our doors to the immigrant, or to Muslims,’ and on and on – all fake solutions born of fear and personal loss.
I think of our poor, of our working class, of our freedmen and women from our prisons when I hear of school budget cuts, or hear of the exorbitant costs of an increasingly necessary college education. I remember how often race and poverty are intertwined in our country. Slavery may be at an end. Poverty today is not the same as slavery in the 1800s. Race dynamics have changed. The road may be open for so many, but I wonder if the toll to walk it is too high. I think of the irony of Juneteenth 1865 where Blacks were told, “… that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts” now that they are freed, whereas the military these days are sending recruiters routinely into poor or inner city neighborhoods asking for the exact opposite.
I am drawn back to General Grangers words, “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.” I’m not sure that that message has gone away. I’m not sure that our society has changed so radically, so drastically, that we’re not continuing to ask certain classes or certain cultures within our community to continue to do this to this day. We all have the freedom to do whatever we wish. We all have access to the American Dream. We can all improve our lives and our lots if we work hard enough. But we might not have access to good primary education unless we live in the right place. But we might not be able to go to college because the prices have gone so high. But we might not have reasonable access to an alternative path to prosperity not involving college because those kinds of jobs have been shipped out of our neighborhoods. But we might be more likely to end up in prison because of the nature of location, birth, and community…. “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.”
If you will, try to imagine living in Galveston, Texas in 1865. Imagine being a slave. You might be aware of the Civil War. You might know that it’s being won by one side or the other, or you might not. You might know that it’s nominally being fought over slavery, but probably not. It’s hard to imagine a bunch of white folks in the 1800’s risking their lives to ensure the freedom of a black slave-cast. It would be heroic and noble if that were the case; but that would be too simple a telling – one that we best reserve for our elementary schools alongside other fairy tales – if even there. Then the military arrives – a white military to be sure. And everything changes. Life may not get incredibly better or easier, but you now have a chance to direct your own fate.
Try to imagine this moment in your own life. At what time in your life were you cast down; out of control of your future; at your lowest low? When did you hear that it no longer had to be like that? Who told you? Or who helped you to see that another way was possible? Or has no one yet told you that it can be another way? Have you never felt cast down?
I don’t mean to suggest that our woes are the same as the plight of slaves in the US in the 1800’s. I don’t mean to attempt to equate the bodily enslavement of a whole race of people, stolen violently from foreign lands or from their mothers and fathers on this soil of ours, with whatever temporary struggles we may currently face. I do mean though, to help find a way to celebrate this day in more than a merely intellectual fashion. I have no idea what slavery was or is like. I have never been taken from my family, or my home. I have never been made to work against my will. I can intellectually imagine the horrors these represent. But our mind’s eye is only one part of understanding how tragic, how inhumane, slavery was and is. And it’s serious enough to command more from us. We need to appreciate it with our hearts and our souls. We need to appreciate it with our hearts and souls, my friends, because its repercussions are alive and well in our country today, and all the thinking and intellectual disdain we can muster for 152 years has not yet gone far enough.
Fourth of July is the day we celebrate freedom with fireworks, but it’s only a comma in our history. The real celebration of America’s Independence happens when that last American became independent. Juneteenth completes that dream; and yet it too, is another comma on the path toward freedom – because all of us are not treated the same.
It is my prayer that if we can come to understand its reality with our hearts and our souls, it may change us enough to make the difference we need to see in the world. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul.” The answer to the inheritance slavery has given us requires more longing in our souls than thoughts in our heads, than rational responses of a simple, dignified people. The progress forward in our humanity requirements movement – a movement internally – and words in our heads seem to me to be failing us there.
So, again, try to imagine this moment in your own life. That moment in your life where you felt cast down; out of control of your future; at your lowest low. It may not be the same thing, but it’s the best opening we have to understanding what slavery has woefully given us. When you reflect on systems in our country that foster wealth for some, and poverty for others; when you wonder why some have access to education and others don’t; when you remember the demographics of our prison system – consider all this in light of that moment in your own life when you felt cast down. That moment in your life – that moment is what we foster within our neighbors and our neighborhoods when we keep alive the heritage of slavery. Call it racism; call it classism; call it xenophobia; call it sexism or transphobia or homophobia. None of them are the same as slavery, but the practice of tying privilege to the few is well exercised and each get a glimpse of its affects. We could argue the hierarchies of oppressions to the end of days and it would only serve the prolonging of them. Strive to find where we are connected, without diminishing the struggle of our neighbor, and build places of strength and succor from those connections. Appreciate our differences, while building upon our commonalities.
What this world needs is more comprehension that leads to compassion. Attend to that moment when you felt truly downtrodden, and work diligently, everyday, to not create that feeling or experience for anyone else. Actively challenge those systems as they arise. Be patient with other people’s pain. I said before that it’s hard to imagine a bunch of white folks in the 1800’s risking their lives to ensure the freedom of a black slave-cast. In the intervening 152 years, can we say that that reality has meaningfully changed? Regardless of our background, what risks have we taken to live up to our highest ideals? What modern day slaveries go on unperturbed by our passing?
And it all can be so overwhelming. I felt helplessly at a loss this week as I watched the news cycle. A shooting at a practice session for a congressional baseball game; a horrid housing fire in England that was a story that seemed to better belong to another century; and ending the week with the news about acquittal over the killing of Philando Castile. What has been done, we can’t change. It’s doubtful that the work any of us individually do will affect the outcomes we hold in our dreams. But building a better world is an incremental ministry we do collectively, and it begins at home. If this sermon is about the spiritual internal work we do to grow in compassion, our service is about how we come together to heal this corner of the world. I’ll invite us all to join in song about stoking the flames of our commitment to building this new world; and then we’ll hear from Liza Burby to tell us about what we’ve done in the world, and what we plan to do in the years to come. The work of life is never over, and we do it together.