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From Ferguson to Mother Emmanuel: A Juneteenth Sermon

From Ferguson to Mother Emmanuel: A Juneteenth Sermon by Dr. Dianne Rush Woods

June 19th, 2016

When I was little, my pastor, Reverend Edwards, was just as likely to start the sermon with a song as with words. In the African American tradition, bible stories and verses were codified in song. Therefore, you did not have to read to understand a bible story. I grew up in the Baptist church and many of the values and beliefs as well as bible stories learned then remain with me today. One of the first stories that I remember is that of Jesus and his disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee.

In today’s scripture, Jesus and his disciples on the waters in a boat that was tossed about by gaint waves. The disciples despaired and thought that they might drown. Jesus , awakened by his disciples, orders the waters and ther wind to calm down…peace, be still.. and the waves subsided.

Today, I ask that we think about what we can do to become more actively involved in addressing social justice issues, and racial justice issues. How can we decrease the waves of violence that threaten the well-being and the lives of so many of our brothers and sisters ? Those of color, those who are lesbian, gay, transgender, queer and questioning, and those who are poor, immigrants, farm workers , as well as those who are imprisoned. With a concerted effort we were able to end slavery, so we can end gun and racial violence.

On this day, 151 years ago, more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the slaves of Galveston, Texas finally received word that the Civil War was over. They were free. A century and a half later, African Americans still recognize, Juneteenth, as a symbol of our country’s journey toward a more perfect union. Communities come together and celebrate the enduring promise of our country: that all of us are created equal[1].

On this Sunday, last year, we prayed for the nine members of the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, who were attending Bible study and who were murdered by shooter, Dylann Roof.

Elizabeth A. Eton The Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, , the church to which Dylann Roof, the shooter belongs, wrote the following words in response to the murders at Mother Emanuel AME:

“It has been a long season of disquiet in our country. From Ferguson to Baltimore, simmering racial tensions have boiled over into violence. But this … the fatal shooting of nine African Americans in a church is a stark, raw manifestation of the sin that is racism. The church

was desecrated. The people of that congregation were desecrated. The aspiration voiced in the

Pledge of Allegiance that we are “one nation under God” was desecrated.”[2]

Today, our hearts are filled with sorrow, once again. We pray for the forty-nine victims who perished and the 53 who were injured at the Pulse Club in Orlando. Once again hatred of the other, “LGBTQ, Latino” snuffed out the light and the life of many.

This year on the anniversary of the Bible Study shootings, Mother Emanuel AME invited the public to a bible study." Rev. Anthony Thompson, the husband of Myra Thompson, one of the Emanuel Nine conducted this service. I saw him in a video and he was so nervous and so shaken, but he did it. He spoke of the need for gun control and the problems of racism and the mass incarceration of African-American men – who are 21 times more likely to be arrested than white men[3]- as societal issues brought to light in the immediate days and long months since the church slayings but that, have been insufficiently addressed since the Emanuel Nine were lost.

Malcolm Graham, the brother of victim Cynthia Hurd, said of the shootings. "After 400 years, the African-American community still is suffering and dealing with these types of issues relating to race."[4]

Last year, our President in his Juneteenth statement last year, said, “We don’t have to look far to see that racism and bigotry, hate and intolerance, are still all too alive in our world. Just as the slaves of Galveston knew that emancipation is only the first step toward true freedom, , we know our work remains undone. For as long as people still hate each other for nothing more than the color of their skin or for who they love – and so long as it remains far too easy for dangerous people to get their hands on a gun – we cannot honestly say that our country is living up to its highest ideals. But Juneteenth has never been a celebration of victory, or an acceptance of the way things are, instead, it’s a celebration of progress. It’s an affirmation that despite the most painful parts of our history, things do get better. America can change. It must change. [5]

In our bible verse today, the disciples ask Jesus:

Teacher, do you not care that we are perish.

We must ask the same question as a predominantly white church. Do we not care that African Americans perish at an alarmingly higher rate…infant mortality, death by violence at early ages, mass incarceration, unusually high rates of death through their interactions with the police. We know that God cares, and as God’s children, we should we must care. And, we must be able to open our eyes and see, that for whatever reason, a disproportionate number of lives, stolen and lost, are Black lives.

I read recently that in the biblical literature, the sea is where the great chaos monster resides, and going out on the sea is to be subjected to that fear, that chaos---the closeness of everything we cannot control. For some Black Americans, life is lived out in the midst of that storm. Lived out in the knowledge that your life, the life of a friend, the life of a family member, could be taken in one interaction with a police officer gone wrong. And that there are no safe place. People of color live lives in the midst of a storm that they cannot simply step away from or out of[6].

I’ll give you a simple example of what that chaos feels like for me. I read an article by NY Times writer, Roxane Gay, a writer and professor who is Black. She states and I concur that:

“Each time I get in my car, I make sure I have my license, registration and insurance cards. I make sure my seatbelt is fastened. I place my cellphone on wireless, so that I can speak hands free. I check and double check and triple check these details because when (not if) I get pulled over, I want there to be no doubt I am following the letter of the law. I do this knowing it doesn’t really matter if I am following the letter of the law or not. Law enforcement officers see only the color of my skin, and in the color of my skin they see criminality, deviance, a lack of humanity. This is their unconscious bias.

There is nothing I can do to protect myself, but I am comforted by the illusion of safety. “ and I am so much safer than millions of my brothers and sisters who are caught in the storm[7].

In addition, there is very little that I can do to ensure that my boys are safe…that they will not be demonized and murdered. I pray that this will not happen to them. But, I know that it can. I also know that they can be killed in a drive-by. I would love it if bullets cost $50 dollars to cover the damage done to those who are shot and the cost to the public for the health care required to treat victims of gunshot wounds and to support their families.

Today, we need to work to calm the storm and to break the back of the illness of racism and to break the back of gun violence. We need to work as God’s disciples to abate the chaos.

As Epworthian Karin Hilton, states on her facebook page: It’s not just Orlando, it is not just Charleston. It is the racism, hatred, homophobia, Islamophobia, fear and unaddressed mental illness in the U.S. It is the sale of guns, the sales of bullets, and the culture of violence which we have to stop. She declares that all of it has to stop and I agree. WE have to listen. We have to engage, and plan and take action, as we are called to do so.

So, you might ask, what does this have to do with us. We are basically a progressive, informed, liberal congregation. Primarily white, and in many cases activists. When one thinks about Epworthians, one thinks about “good people” who believe in equity, fairness, and non-violence.

But, the pages of history are filled with good people who took part in or allowed to happen evil things. Systemic racism is evil , gun violence is evil and we must make an effort to see it for what it is.

Ta-neish-Coates , the author of “Between the World and me” writes, “In modern America we attribute racism to the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons, and orcs.[8]”

But evil belongs to good people too. We may not condone racism or poverty or violence, we might not think that its acceptable---actually we probably all think that it is horrible. But, as good people much more is demanded than this. There is an old saying which goes, “If you are not with us, then you are against us.” We can modify this to say in the case of systemic injustice, and systemic racism, “if we are not against it, then we are with it”[9].

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said,

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people[10].”

What does the Lord require of you, Epworth. What does the Lord require of you. Michah 6:8 states:

The Lord God has told us what is right and what he demands: “See that justice is done, let mercy be your first concern, and humbly obey your God.”


Our book of discipline states the following:

The United Methodist Church Constitution “recognizes that the sin of racism has been destructive to its unity throughout its history” and commits “to address concerns that threaten the cause of racial justice at all times and in all places [11].

At all times and in all places. Epworth, the tempest is raging and there is much that we must and can do. If you are so called, lets work with groups that address gun control; we don’t have to create something new. Let’s join up with those who are fighting the battle.

If you are so called, join me in Conversations about Race, as a small group study.

If you are so called, lets call a townhall and have regular discussions with the larger multicultural Methodist church community and discuss the “isms” (racism, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, sexism…. ) and discuss strategies and tactics to address these evils.

If you are called-organize people to vote.

If you are so called learn what it means to become an lgbtq ally

if you are called join in anti-racism training

if you are called speak to your children about race and racism

if you are called teach people to read

if you are called join up with groups like Black Lives Matters

If you are so called, read Policy Link, Colorlines and other social justice and racial justice materials.

Let’s work together ; be thou not discouraged. Do not believe that we, a small but incredible group of believers, can’t make a difference. We can.

MLK- who gave his life in the struggle said:

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war (and I add …gun violence) that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word”[12].

Peace, be still!

[1] President Obama’s 2015 Juneteenth Speech

[9] Terence E. Fretheim, For the Working Preacher- Sit and Eat Racial Justice

[11] Article V, Book of Discipline 2004, ¶5

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