And God said to Moses:
I’ve seen the awful suffering
Of my people down in Egypt.
I’ve watched their hard oppressors,
Their overseers and drivers;
The groans of my people have filled my ears
And I can’t stand it no longer;
So I’m come down to deliver them
Out of the land of Egypt,
And I will bring them out of that land
Into the land of Canaan;
Therefore, Moses, go down,
Go down into Egypt,
And tell Old Pharaoh
To let my people go.

God’s Trombones
James Weldon Johnson[1]

This December 31 marks the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation that pronounced freedom to all those who were enslaved in the Confederate States of America.  President Abraham Lincoln, by executive order, made that pronouncement on January 1, 1863.  The actual abolition of slavery did not officially occur until nearly two years later with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December of 1865.  However, for the nearly four million slaves that had never known freedom in the so-called, “Land of the Free,” January 1 was a day of celebration. 

abraham-lincoln-picture
Abraham Lincoln

The anticipation had to have been at fever pitch the day before.  It has long been a tradition in the African-American church to hold worship services and prayer meetings on New Year’s Eve.  They are known as “Watch Night” services and though their origins in the Black community are vigorously debated, there can be little doubt that the significance of these gatherings took on new meaning after 1862.  According to Albert J. Raboteau, a scholar of African American religion, the slaves received three to six days off during the week between Christmas and New Year’s and were allowed to visit family and friends on neighboring plantations.  With the arrival of New Year’s the celebrations ended and another year of work faced the slaves.[2] 

In addition the country was at war over the very issue of slavery.  One can only imagine the jubilant reaction upon hearing the President’s proclamation:

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”[3]

One could argue that not much has changed in one hundred fifty years.  Injustice and oppression are still significant issues for many people of color.  Though physical slavery is illegal, minority communities are still in bondage to the slavery of poverty, hunger, homelessness and violence. 

The latter point is one of most serious concerns not only toward people of color but among people of color.  The carnage such as what took place in Newtown, CT, on December 15, gets major coverage because it is unusual.  However, many urban communities live in what at times rivals a war zone in Afghanistan.  According to a Washington Post report, in the school year just ended in June of 2012, in Chicago, 319 school children were shot, 24 of them fatally.  I also borrowed this statistic from attorney and Civil Rights activist Ralph Wheeler. “The number of black children and teens killed by gunfire since 1979 is more than 10 times the number of black men, women, and children of all ages lynched in American history.”

One of the lines I quote most often is from the Sixteenth Century English poet John Donne:  “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…”

Our sense of community – any community, but in particular for people of color – is rooted in a sense of who God is for us.  The slaves, though oppressed, were held together by a deep and abiding faith in their Creator.  The Exodus story, told in rhyme by the poet James Weldon Johnson at the beginning of this essay, resonated deeply with the oppressed, enabled them to endure the inhumane treatment at the hands of slave owners, and fueled their hopes that someday they, too, would reach the Promised Land. 

What does that Promised Land look like for us today and what is God calling us, as God’s people, to do, not only to endure but to make it a reality in our lives?  I maintain that God is calling us to be more watchful, more observant of what our children watch; be more involved and invested in their daily lives; model for them those fruits of the Spirit that the Apostle Paul speaks so eloquently of in Galatians:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. [Gal. 5:22-23]

Our church has not observed a New Year’s Eve or Watch Night service for quite some time.  But I would encourage anyone who is preparing for 2013 to celebrate with joyful anticipation at some worship service this Watch Night, 2012.  One hundred fifty years later, may we anticipate a new emancipation – an emancipation of our Spirit ground in the belief that God is active and alive in our world and in our lives today.  And as I often end my sermons on Sunday, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope, by the power of the Holy Spirit.” [Romans 15:13]

Have a Happy, Safe, and Blessed New Year!


[1]   Johnson, James Weldon, God’s Trombones, Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. New York: Penguin Books, 1927, p. 46

[2]     Raboteau, Albert J., Slave Religion, The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978, p. 224

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