Here & Now
An invitation to Pause, Encounter, and Grow together.
An invitation to Pause, Encounter, and Grow together.
“God will take care of the poor trampled slave, but where will the slaveholder be when eternity begins?”
Sojourner Truth, slave
This week marks Juneteenth, a federal holiday in the United States on June 19 that is only two years old. It commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. Deriving its name from combining “June” and “nineteenth,” it is celebrated on the anniversary of General Order No. 3, issued by Major General Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865, proclaiming freedom for enslaved people in Texas. However, it wasn’t until 2021 that President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law after the efforts of Lula Briggs Galloway, Opal Lee, and others.
What is the significance of Juneteenth to a contemplative community? Why should we pause, encounter the Spirit, and grow together?
The answer for me lies in the example Sojourner Truth sets.
Sojourner lived her life despite slavery. Slavery—it’s not a pretty word. It’s not the politically correct word, but sometimes we have to face the ugly so we can grow as individuals, a community, and a society. That it took until 2021 before we as a nation recognized Juneteenth shows we can pause and acknowledge the abhorrent institution it was and grow. We need to do more of this – allow the Spirit to help us grow into a better society, a Godly society.
In recognition of Juneteenth, I want to share the story of a remarkable woman – Sojourner Truth (1797-1887), a runaway enslaved person, an abolitionist, suffragist, preacher, and social reformer. Sojourner caught the attention of many political leaders, and even President Abraham Lincoln was one of her admirers.
Sojourner Truth, or Isabella, was born into slavery and remembered hearing her mother cry long into the night as she mourned the loss of her children sold and taken away from her. Isabella’s mother reminded her remaining children, “Oh my children, there is a God who hears and sees you. He lives in the sky, and when you are beaten or cruelly treated or fall into any trouble, you must ask Him to help because he always hears you.”
Isabella was sold, taken from her parents, and “married” to an enslaved person on her plantation at 17. After giving birth to five children, Isabella decided to run away, convinced that God affirmed freedom for the slave. A Quaker couple hired Sojourner as a house servant, and, for the first time, she earned money for her labor.
She changed her name from Isabella to Sojourner Truth, explaining, “My name was Isabella, but when I left the house of bondage, I left everything behind. I wasn’t goin’ to keep nothin’ of Egypt on me, and so I went to the Lord and asked him to give me a new name. And the Lord gave me Sojourner because I was to travel up and down the land, showin’ the people their sins, and being a sign unto them. Afterward, I told the Lord I wanted another name ’cause everybody else had two.”
Truth helped recruit black troops for the Union Army during the Civil War. After the war, she tried unsuccessfully to secure land grants from the federal government for formerly enslaved people (the promise of “forty acres and a mule”). Nevertheless, she continued to fight on behalf of women and African Americans until her death.
Sojourner was a popular speaker for the cause of women’s rights. When she rose to speak, her stature was imposing, and her voice was robust, with rich tones that none dared to interrupt.
During a suffragist convention in Ohio, Truth gave her most famous lecture on women’s rights, and her words ring immortal. She said:
“I born my children and seen most of them sold to slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard—and aren’t I a woman?… Den dat little man in black dar, he says women can’t have as many rights as man, cause Christ wasn’t a woman. Whar did your Christ come from?” As she stood there with outstretched arms and eyes of fire, raising her voice louder, she repeated, “Whar did your Christ come from? From God and a woman. The man had nothing to do with him.”
She wrote Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave in 1850. The autobiography is still in print. I read it this year as part of the Renovaré Book Club. The royalties from the book supported her itinerant preaching.
In 1887 Truth died. Her funeral procession drew thousands: abolitionists, suffragists, and friends who recalled how Sojourner had served her country and had said how happy she was “that the stars and stripes of the American flag no longer represent the scars and stripes of the slave.”
Why should we pause, encounter, and grow on Juneteenth? The answer lies perhaps in Sojourner Truth’s story of overcoming bondage and championing the cause of black war veterans and women’s rights.
Perhaps we can live as she did by celebrating Sojourner Truth and speaking against injustice.
I invite you on this second official observation of Juneteenth to pause and consider what Sojourner might say if she was still alive. I wonder what she’d have to say about black lives matter, women’s rights such as Roe v. Wade, and the lives of LGBTQ+ persons. I wonder if she’d join one of Seattle’s marches and what her sign might say.
So, I choose to pause in honor of Juneteenth and reflect on Sojourner Truth’s brave and amazing life. I pray the Spirit will make me as bold as Sojourner in speaking out against injustice and in service to others. Happy Juneteenth, Sojourner Truth, march on!