Wednesday, June 17, 2020


I confess that until I became a bishop I had never heard about Juneteenth! My knowledge of African American history was sorely lacking, and I certainly am not the only one.  Here is some background information found in an article from the PBS network’s local WHYY affiliate. (The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)

On June 19, 1865, the following declaration was made: “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…”

President Abraham Lincoln had issued The Emancipation Proclamation 2½ years before that on January 1, 1863. This ended slavery in the Confederacy, and in the interim nearly 200,000 Black men had enlisted to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War.

Many slave owners in Mississippi, Louisiana and other points east had been migrating to Texas to escape the Union Army’s reach and they took 150,000 slaves with them.

The June 19, 1865, announcement was read aloud that day to slaves in south Texas by a U.S. Army general. But it did not bring about an instant change for all of the state’s 250,000 former slaves. Many were forced to keep working until the harvest came, and some were not even told. Still others were lynched or shot for exercising their new freedom.

The nation’s Freedmen’s Aid Bureau was further delayed in coming to Texas to help new black citizens adjust to freedom until September of 1865. Yet, despite the confusion, delays, exploitation, violence and even murders they had to endure, the newly freed Black men and women of Texas finally had a date to rally around. Thus began in 1866 the annual celebration of “Juneteenth,” also known as Jubilee Day and Freedom Day.

It was a day to gather family together and teach younger generations about the values of self-sufficiency and pride.  At these events there were religious services, singing, food (always a barbecue pit), games, and rodeos.  Black people gathered near rivers and lakes at first, but eventually they raised enough money to buy their own celebration sites.

In 1979 Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday. Since then 41 other states and the District of Columbia have recognized this as a state holiday or holiday observance. Pennsylvania just recognized it in 2019.

Juneteenth is an opportunity not only to celebrate freedom but also to speak out about injustice. Today more than ever we need to speak out against white privilege, racism, law enforcement brutality, mass incarceration, voter suppression, poor educational and health care opportunities, and the continual segregation of our schools and churches.  We all need to stand together to make real changes happen, and we cannot let this moment pass. 

Please pause and celebrate Juneteenth this year. Also, take time to study Black History, and not just in February. There is much to learn that can inform us about what we need to do in the future. Take stock of the progress that has been made, and wisely craft the road ahead. 

I am grateful for all I have learned on my journey as a bishop, thanks to many patient people who have taught me along the way. I still have a long way to go. Please join me on that journey.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

‘The Signs of the Times’

A Pastoral Letter from Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

I don’t often take to the streets and participate in peaceful protest marches. However, recently I joined with faithful people in a number of communities to physically show support for the “Black Lives Matter” movement. In recent weeks this has captured the imagination of the entire world and is a powerful and Spirit-filled moment like none other.

As your episcopal leader, I wish to begin by echoing the important words of the Council of Bishops recent letter. I confess to the sin of racism and White privilege in my life and vow to renew my baptismal covenant to “resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” 

I also wish to challenge more of the people called Methodist in the Eastern PA and Peninsula-Delaware annual conferences, the very cradle of Methodism, to take some action.

As I was marching last week in the streets there were various signs and protest cries shouted as we walked along. Together they offer “signs of the times” that can give us some practical “next steps.”

1) Name the Name:

Again and again the marchers named the names of the black people who have most recently been murdered at the hands of law enforcement officers and other assailants: George Floyd, Almaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Individual lives are important and precious. “We all bleed red” as one protester said. 

All of us are part of the family of humanity under one God. God knows each one of us by name. I challenge my sisters and brothers in the White community to build relationships with Black neighbors. That includes people in your neighboring churches, coworkers and community members. 

I did a survey of my close friends a few years ago, and I could see that they were all White. In recent years I have worked on building personal relationships with people of color and it has opened my eyes to much of what our White supremacist society has inflicted on the families of Black people. Build relationships, listen to hearts and hear the experiences of Black people who have had to endure a thousand pin pricks of discrimination and much, much abuse, grief and sorrow. 

2)  “Black Lives Matter”

Many of the posters, t-shirts and chants at the protest march included these familiar words. Some well-meaning but misinformed White people sometimes try to correct this and say, “All lives matter.” But that is missing the point. To say, “Black lives matter” is a recognition of the fact that for centuries in this country Black lives have been treated as a commodity, as “less than,” as deserving of suspicion, discrimination and disregard by the dominant White culture.

Studying the Word of God from the perspective of God’s favor upon all people is vitally important. Through it we learn what it means to respect the giftedness of the vast diversity of humanity. I encourage churches to gather in intentional Bible studies and prayer meetings to study what God will say to us at this important time. There are many good books that can be discussed on this topic as well. Top on my list right now is How to be Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi.

Also, as the Council of Bishops requests, let us pray at 8:46 every morning and evening, praying for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time of the police officer fatally pressed his knee down on George Floyd’s neck.

3)  “No Justice, No Peace”

This street chant is likely the most difficult but the most important. This calls us to actively engage in dismantling the systems of oppression. This includes, but is not limited to, holding law enforcement accountable, improving economic opportunities, changing the “mass incarceration” prison system, raising the quality of schools, insisting on equal opportunity in housing, working for fairness in health care systems, and decrying voter suppression.

Individually we cannot do everything but each of us can do something. As a connectional United Methodist Church we can do all kinds of networking, programming, political advocacy and education.

I promise in the months to come to work with conference leaders to engage us in these vitally important ministries of justice. Without justice for everyone there is no peace. The truth that White people often fail to see is that justice for all means healing the wounded-ness of racism. Unless everyone is whole and a part of the beloved community, humanity continues to suffer collectively.

We can learn a great deal at a protest march on the streets. However, I urge White people to take to the streets of your hearts and build relationships, prayerfully study the Word of God and other timely resources, and become involved in advocacy. There just might come a day in the future when we will achieve peace with justice.