America Awakes: Juneteenth Isn’t Just For Black People

On June 19, 2022, I delivered this address for the Juneteenth celebration of The Hills Church in Fort Worth, Texas. Special thanks to the Unity Builders ministry for the opportunity. 

Happy Juneteenth!

Do you know what I love most about today? Juneteenth is a day of freedom. Freedom to love who you are today. Freedom to love how you are today. Freedom to breathe. To be. To uplift. To rejoice.

We celebrate the freedom to thank God for how far we’ve come. Juneteenth doesn’t deny reality, but we also won’t allow it to dim our light. Today is Freedom Day.

I love that Juneteenth, for me, is not just about discrimination or marginalization or segregation or slavery. It’s not about being excluded or unequal. It’s not about the burden of being too Black or the worry of not being white enough. Because Juneteenth is more than Black history or American history, it’s a story that is still being written. 

It reminds me of another story. A good story, the Gospel. As believers, as sons and daughters, we celebrate the exodus from captivity because it means we’re closer to the promised land. But first, we must make it through the wilderness of injustice that has ensnared us for more than 6 generations since General Granger and Union soldiers announced liberation on Galveston shores.

The First Jubilee

Can you imagine what that first day of Jubilee must have been like? What the first Juneteenth must have felt like? I imagine it like this.

It’s the morning of June 19, 1865. You woke up again to the same sad reality. Through no sin or act of your own, your skin color alone has sentenced you to a lifetime of suffering. But you say your morning prayers anyway because you’re convinced God still answers prayers – even Black ones.

You’re careful. You pray quietly since getting caught could mean trouble. As you fold your hands you remember the stories you were told when you were a kid. How half of your ancestors didn’t make it across the Atlantic. How millions of Black bodies remain buried on the bottom of the ocean. And even among those who made it from Africa, 1 in 3 died during their first few years in the colony. 

Big Mama used to say they were the lucky ones. You didn’t understand why she would say such a thing but now you know. What faced them in the future was worse than death.

Your culture, your language, and even your name don’t belong to you. You are not a person, you are property. Ten generations after the first cargo ships arrived carrying Black lives like livestock, it’s only gotten worse. Your family has been bought, sold, separated, tortured and abused. You’ve been forced to farm land your entire life. Your children were traded away so your wife takes care of the master’s children and, sometimes, she’s forced to take care of the master himself. 

Every night you sleep on a dirt floor praying for God to hear you. You’re tired, bruised & weary. Even your soul swelters in the Texas sun. Until this morning.

You look to the horizon and see thousands of Black soldiers in the distance. They are riding and walking next to white soldiers. You had heard the whispers of freedom for more than two years since the end of the Civil War but no freedom was to be had in Texas.

Then comes General Granger, announcing what was already true. We are equal. We are free. General Order No. 3 has made truth a reality.

You were wronged but you rejoice! You’re penniless but you feel so powerful. You had been praying for years, a lifetime, in secret and now freedom has arrived. Free men and women flood the streets. They call it Emancipation Day, Jubilee Day and Freedom Day.

It doesn’t just set enslaved people free, God was giving slaveowners a way back to him as well. You start again. Some leave. Some stay. Some preach. Some teach. Some serve. Some search for their family. 

The first day of Jubilee was a day of new beginnings but it’s still awaiting an ending. 

The Children’s March of 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama
A New Ending 

The last lines of General Order No. 3 admonished the newly emancipated to stay put “quietly” and to “work for wages” as hired labor for their former masters. Even our freedom has not been truly free. 

What they meant to say was: You’re free as long as you obey us. You’re free as long as you serve us. You’re free as long as you’re safe to us. As long as you benefit us.

Conditional freedom is not freedom at all.

It took me 42 years to learn one thing: Everything looks different in the light of the spirit. 

It’s scary and disorienting. But fear doesn’t mean my faith is fragile, weak or insufficient. Fear means I am alive. Fear means I am awake. Today, it’s not about waiting for permission, approvals or agreement to be who God said you were from the beginning. It’s not about our deficiency but rather our sufficiency in Him. We celebrate who we are, not those who choose to deny it. We commemorate what we have, not those who want to take it away.  

Today is Freedom Day!

As Christians, our Freedom Day began when we first believed. But as the legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass explained, “I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”

Today we pray with our voice, our vote, our hands and our hearts. We will act, speak, stand, kneel, leave, launch, learn, listen, grow and continue to shine despite the difficulties. We pray with our actions.

Church, today I have something to say. This is not the time or occasion to sacrifice clarity for diplomacy. It’s time for us to create a new ending. A new story. We have 3 tasks at hand:

  1. Stay Awake
  2. Seek Truth
  3. Speak Light

1. STAY AWAKE

In the last book he finished before being murdered in Memphis at just 39 years old, Martin Luther King, Jr. issued the challenge of his time without knowing it would become the challenge of a century:

One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. But today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change. Together we must learn to live as brothers or together we will be forced to perish as fools.”

Another America

Martin’s challenge to stay awake was not so much advice, but evidence from his experiences navigating the two Americas. So what I have to say today is not my advice, but my evidence from navigating those same two Americas 54 years later after his death

In one America, we celebrate July 4th annually as Independence Day. In another America, we remember that on July 4, 1776, 20% of the population was enslaved.

In one American democracy, we elect public officials to serve their community. In another America, in just 1 year we’ve introduced 440 bills to restrict voting rights among our own citizens.

In one America, lives the #1 wealthiest country in the world with 21 trillion dollars in GDP. In another America, 37 million people live in poverty every day.

30% of the Christians in the entire world live in 1 America. In another America, 20 percent of all the prisoners in the world call a U.S. jail cell their home. 

In one America, Christians proclaim the greatest commandment is just 3 words: “Love your neighbor.” In another America, saying these 3 words is considered controversial: “Black Lives Matter.”

Could it be that slavery never ended, it simply evolved?

Photo by Andrew Seaman
How Do You Stay Awake? 

How do you stay awake when it seems much easier or more convenient to stay asleep? When the night is long, how do we hold on?

Typically I’d say, “ask Jesus.” But in this case, he didn’t have much luck either. 

In the book of Matthew, we find the disciples snoozing & snoring in the garden of Gethsemane. The very son of God had asked them to just do him one favor, Stay Awake! He said: My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” (Matthew 26: 38)

He goes away to pray and comes back one hour later to find what? Them suckers are asleep! They said their spirit was willing, but their bodies were weak. He woke them up and went to pray again. 

The second time he goes away to pray and when he comes back what does he find? The disciples fell asleep again! And then it happens a third time, they fall asleep when all he asked was for them to keep watch with him. But this time they were out of time. There would be no more sleeping. Jesus says, “Are you still sleeping? Rise and let us go!”

The hour had come. Over the horizon, Jesus saw destiny walking down the hill. Judas, church leaders, and a crowd of armed & angry men stormed ahead to put Jesus in chains. His disciples had slept through their last hours with Jesus before he would die.

Now, it’s easy to read that and think, See, white people have fallen asleep. White America needs to wake up.

In this story, it’s easier to put myself in the water-walking shoes of Jesus than it is to admit the times I’ve fallen asleep.

I’ve fallen asleep as a Black father. I’ve fallen asleep as a Black brother, a Black leader, and as a Black Christian. But, church, today I am awake. But it’s not my power keeping me awake – because my body will always be too weak. It’s His.

If the disciples had known what was coming, they would not have taken naps, they would have taken notice. The only way to stay awake is to seek truth.

Boy at ‘Colored’ fountain in Halifax, North Carolina, 1938 (Photo by Unseen Histories)

2. SEEK TRUTH

It’s not enough to just be awake or alert. The purpose of awareness is to seek truthfulness, even in the dark.

Some of you know this story as well. It also happens after dark.

Jesus is in Jerusalem. He’s just finished doing miracles, signs and wonders, all the stuff a Jesus would do. Then he gets a nighttime visit from a man named Nicodemus.

Nicodemus wasn’t just anybody or a nobody, Nicodemus was somebody. He was honored and revered. He was a community and church leader who observed very strict laws & codes.

Nicodemus didn’t just follow the laws, he helped make them. As part of the local city council, he helped shape policies for Jewish society. If Nicodemus was alive today, he might be a conservative Republican on the city council who is also an elder at the synagogue. Nicodemus did not play. 

He had spent his entire life studying God’s word, living for God’s people and looking for the coming Messiah. But then the night came and Nicodemus the public servant became an undercover brother, sneaking to speak with a Messiah he had been told was a mistake. 

He acknowledged that Jesus must be from God. He knew who Jesus was but he didn’t know how to be truly free.

What Nicodemus needed that night was what so many of us need in those moonless moments of our journey. When we don’t what to do or where to go. When the darkness feels more like a season than a cycle.

And what does Jesus say? You must be born again.

What Jesus Didn’t Do

What Jesus didn’t do is just as telling as what he did do. He didn’t tell Nicodemus one thing to improve. He told him everything that mattered. 

Jesus didn’t meet his immediate needs. He met his highest need.

Jesus didn’t give him optimism, or a list of spiritual disciplines, or 10 new commandments to follow, or a sermon series.

Jesus gave him the truth. Why? Because the truth is still the only thing that sets us free.

Are you Nicodemus? I am.

  • You are accomplished but aimless.
  • You are important but insignificant.
  • You are proud but purposeless. 
  • You are so focused on being better but blind.
  • You are disciplined but not a true disciple. 
  • You have a lifetime of good deeds but it doesn’t amount to 1 ounce of God’s goodness.

Like my ancestors, Nicodemus was living in two lands, the old country and the new. Notoriously, Nicodemus the man has become a noun. A ‘Nicodemite‘ refers to someone who hides their true beliefs to survive. Someone who lives in opposition to their own beliefs to avoid persecution. How often do I secretly believe but outwardly deny?

I know I am made in God’s image (I’m a preacher’s kid!) but I submit to the power of people who see my skin as a weapon. 

I believe my beautiful brown babies are born to be fully loved and fully free but I prepare them for the possibility that someone will treat them differently. 

I was taught to walk in the freedom of being a son, a friend, and an heir of the one, true living God, yet I walk into rooms of white people and adopt an identity to fit the American cultural norm.

Africa was the womb of the world’s civilizations yet we’re taught that African American history is all about slavery.

Every day I live in opposition to my beliefs. Am I an enemy of the truth or a victim of lies? For centuries our people didn’t have a choice. 

Nicodemus was looking for an answer on how to live a better religious life. He didn’t know he needed a new life. Nicodemus needed what my ancestors needed: a Freedom Day.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao
Juneteenth Jesus

We, too, need a Freedom Day. Jesus points the way to living like Juneteenth every day. It may be delayed, but it’s mine. It may be late but you can’t take it away. It may cost everything I have but it’s worth it.

We worship a Juneteenth Jesus.

Juneteenth Jesus invites us to see His kingdom by being born into it. On that sweltering day in June, these Texans were some of the last enslaved people in the entire country – 2 and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation! But they rejoiced because they were born into a new hope.

Our country, too, must be born again. Our families must be born again. And, as much as it pains me to say it, this very church must be born again. We have not repented of our wrongs. We have not confessed to the cruel ways we have demeaned others, by staying quiet, standing still or withholding the love we know we’re called to give. 

Nicodemus’s natural eyes saw rebirth as impossible., asking “How can you climb into your mother’s womb? He probably wanted to say, “Silly Jesus, is that water or wine in your cup? I can’t be born again.”

He couldn’t see the freedom right in his path. He saw limits, laws and traditions as truth. Jesus was saying “The only way to see the truth is to look up with your soul, not your sight. 

Listen, I don’t hate America. But I have the right to hold her accountable for promises unkept.

I’m not anti-white. But in a country built for anti-Blackness just loving myself can seem like an act of radical resistance. 

I don’t doubt God. But I dare to take Him at his word and refuse to allow even His people to confiscate Christ as a political pawn.

I’ll never understand why we have to work so hard for so little. But that’s no excuse to stop trying. Today, I am awake. Today I seek truth.

We must stay awake. We must seek truth. And, lastly, we must speak light.

3. SPEAK LIGHT

Ida B. Wells, the legendary journalist and cofounder of the NAACP, said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.

James Baldwin, one of the greatest authors ever to live, said, “We must tell the truth until we can no longer bear it.”

We speak light because we can no longer be realistic. We can no longer depend on the decency of a white majority to set the timetable for our freedom. Juneteenth was the beginning of a 157-year question.

  • Will America live up to its promise? 
  • How long will white supremacy be the default setting for an entire culture?
  • Will this church allow white superiority unfettered access to our faith traditions and faith leaders? 
  • Is justice in our time a reality?
  • Was I only your brother at The Hills as long as I remained silent, safe & submissive?
  • When did telling the truth make me a burden instead of your brother? 
  • Why am I a threat now that I speak the words God has given if we worship the same God? 

I can feel the tightness in the air. The tension. But to speak light we have to normalize these tensions. To live in the light I’ve had to learn to live with healthy, honest, uncomfortable truths.

Truth Hurts… But It Can Still Set Us Free

To my white brothers and sisters, listen. The tension of truth is constructive. Confronting the past is not destructive or divisive, it’s the only path to true freedom. Freedom Day is for white people too. You need to look at the horrors of prejudice and decide to be different. You need to be free. Both you and I are Nicodemus. No one gets to be Jesus on Juneteenth or any other day.

You cannot allow Blacks to bear the burden for freedom work. The legacy of lop-sided equality must end with you. When we talk about the hate or discrimination we experience, remember we’re describing a cancer we didn’t cause. Unless it’s treated we both will perish as fools. 

Now, I’ve seen a disturbing trend in companies, churches & communities. I’ve been talking about this for a long time and this is what I see.

It starts with well-meaning men and women being ashamed of their ignorance of our country’s racist legacy. But instead of being awakened, they become indifferent. Their indifference becomes denial. Denial becomes defensiveness. And defensiveness becomes a death sentence to freedom. 

This cycle has played out for more than 150 years after the first Juneteenth. But Juneteenth Jesus says “My word is a lamp to your feet and a light to my path.” We need a new light.

Some of you are asking yourselves an obvious question. Where do I start?

I think Howard Thurman, writer and civil rights leader, lights the way with these words: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Justice is reconciliation in action. You can go where you’re celebrated unconditionally. Ironically, I found a bit of truth in the last place I thought I’d ever find it, on Twitter. Esau McCaulley, theologian and author of Reading While Black, penned this tweet that changed my perspective. He said:

 “My life changed when I stopped begging people or organizations to love us and instead started spending energy on people who showed a commitment to love Black people well.” 

Is The Hills Church this type of place? Is this a church where diversity isn’t a program but a part of God’s purpose for his kingdom? Is this a church and a people that will commit to loving Black people well? All of us?

Photo by Islander Images
When Brown Stars Shine

Like many of you, the drastic times of the pandemic led to drastic coping mechanisms. At the Parker house, we did it all – pets, plants and planets. We got a new puppy named Knox and then realized we aren’t “dog people.” Don’t worry, he’s in a much better place now. At a farm with a family who actually likes dogs. My wife started buying plants and gardening. We even got “Yard of the Month” once. And my son got a telescope so we’ve been looking into the sky for planets and other shiny things.

We learned a lot about planets & stars. Most people know planets reflect light but stars produce their own. But there are stars called Brown Stars that are really amazing. For many years scientists called them “failed stars” because we couldn’t see their light very well. Brown Stars were too different from the other stars we know. They even called them Brown Dwarfs. 

We didn’t know how to classify them. Brown Stars are too big to be planets but too small to be “true” stars. They are strange, unusual and too different from the stars we know.

We tried to define what was true in the universe by what was visible from earth. But just because Brown Stars have been misunderstood for decades didn’t mean they weren’t part of God’s design. You see, in the last 2 years we’ve learned so much more about Brown Stars. More than we can see with our eyes alone. They emit a light that isn’t always visible to human eyes. Their shine is beyond our ability to perceive their power. 

Now, astronomers think they might actually be a core part of the cosmic makeup of the universe. What we couldn’t see has been there all along. What we guessed was abnormal was not only normal but a necessary part of our solar system. They are all over the sky. All we had to do was look again.

Juvenile chain gang in 1903

Do I have any Brown Stars here today on Freedom Day?

You’re everywhere. You’re shining but you’re tired. You’re burning but you could use a break. You’re stretching across a galaxy, making your own light. Making your own orbit. What people thought was a failed star was actually a masterpiece. And here’s the miracle – Brown Stars never die.

It feels great to be in a room full of Brown Stars. This is a taste of heaven. A taste of His promise. We are beautiful and precious and heaven-crafted even though thw earth has people that refuse to see us shine. 

Today we have something they didn’t have in 1865. We have a chance to decide who we want to be. To decide who we are. The truth that set them free in 1865 is the same that sets us free in 2022. 

One year ago, I had a moment when I discovered my own Brown Stars. I looked up and saw this constellation of witnesses. They told me Black fathers were hard to find but then I saw my father, grandparents and ancestors shining across generations of Brown Stars.

They told me Black children were bad but I looked at my kids and saw a sky full of hope they told me wasn’t there. 

They said Black talent was too hard to find but I looked at my network and saw hundreds of Brown Stars defying the odds in corporations.

At church, they told me they couldn’t find qualified Black elders but I looked around and saw a host of Brown Stars who love the Lord.

I looked at my country, they said Black excellence was a myth but I saw it all around me.

Every time I looked around all I saw were Brown Stars shining, burning, glowing and growing into what God designed them to be. Beautiful.

Do I have any Brown Stars here today? Will you stand with me? If you didn’t know, you don’t have to be Black to love or support Brown Stars. I wrote these words because I wanted to always remember the truth. I wanted to stay awake, seek truth and speak light. This is an ode to our Brown Stars.

Stand up! Look up! What do you see?
There in the sky, High above me?

It moves like flames. It jumps so far.
It’s just like you, It’s a Brown Star!

Brown Stars are born small as a dot.
Then spin and spring until they’re hot.

The bulbs glow warm when smiles grow wide,
and then our God sends them outside! 

In twilight skies, they crest and burn.
By day they rest to wait their turn.

They boom like jazz and flash like soul.
Brown Stars turn blues into bright gold.

Most stars are nice, they twinkle too.
No star out there sparkles like you.

From honeydew to cocoa bean,
Brown Stars have tones not often seen. 

So if your shine seems hard to find
don’t dim your shade to please the blind. 

Make waves. 
Make time.
Stay brave. 
Stay smart.

Be true. 
Be kind.
Take care. 
Take heart.

Your light is love and made to share.
It cracks through clouds and twirls on air.

Brown Stars are fierce but still have doubt.
Sometimes they fear they will stand out.

If darkness tries to lure you in, 
or lies and hate begin to win.

Remember this – let it be known,
that no Brown Star is all alone!

Ancestors bought and sold as youth
protect our thoughts and our hold our truth:

The glare up there beyond the shore,
reflects the Stars who beamed before.

They fight for us and weep for you,
to keep your dream and see it through.

Then on the day you blaze and fly,
teach us the way to raise the sky.

My hope is yours. Your hope is mine.
Rise up, Brown Star. It’s time to shine!

Rise up, Brown Star. It’s time to shine!
Rise up, Brown Star. It’s time to shine!

Thank you. I pray you all stay awake, seek truth and speak light. God bless you.

The Hills Church Juneteenth celebration 2022

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