On Juneteenth, Christians rally in Baltimore, emphasize ‘freedom in Christ’
BALTIMORE — Members of Churches of Church used Juneteenth — an annual celebration of the liberation from slavery in the United States — to march through the streets of Baltimore.
Friday’s spirited rally mixed praise, preaching and conversations with strangers the Christians met along the way. After months of online worship, church members enjoyed singing a cappella hymns together.
Ministers who shared the microphone reflected on the unrest caused by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd and similar cases nationwide.
“We have a lot of uncertainty and social unrest, and people need direction. They need encouragement, and they need comfort,” said Elmer Sembly III, minister for the Woodlawn Park Church of Christ in Windsor Mill, Md., in Baltimore County.
“The Church of Christ has largely been silent and physically absent during times of civil unrest,” added Sembly, an African American preacher who led the march and rally. “Churches have prayed, but we need presence to let people know that we care and that God cares.”
The march began at Baltimore’s War Memorial Plaza, filed past the police headquarters and snaked down Frederick Douglass park along the Inner Harbor. Police in cars with lights flashing and a helicopter in the sky followed.
“The spirit and the power of presence is awesome. That’s why the church showed up, and you showed up,” Sembly told the crowd. “We are here as a church to find out what is happening.”
Woodlawn Park member Shelly Edison, who helped organize the event, leads a faith-based organization called Change Starts with Hope. A law school student at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., Edison is the mother of two boys.
“I am afraid that I might have to bury my Black boys, and they might not make it to my age,” she said of her motivation for getting involved.
John Wilkie, minister for the Edgewood Church of Christ in Harford County, Md., north of Baltimore, also took part in the event with some of his members. He said the effort to help people in Baltimore must go beyond marching and ministry through megaphones.
“It is not just, ‘Deal with problems,’” Wilkie said. “It’s dealing with different systems, and if the systems can be addressed, then people can address policies.”
Samuell Pounds came up for the event from Winter Haven, Fla., where he preaches for the Hilltop Church of Christ.
In addition to preaching in his style of employing the ABC’s in his sermons, Pounds talked about freedom.
“What does it mean to be free?” he said. “John 8:36 said who the Son sets free is free indeed. The problem with America today is that they have turned away from God.”
Willie Hubbard, minister for Maryland’s District Heights Church of Christ, south of Baltimore, said: “The problem today is that we are not dealing with sin. As Christians, we have a job to do because it is through us (that) God will heal the world.”
The march and rally lasted more than three hours, and Sembly said the event was an excellent start to meeting needs in the community.
Samuel Knight, interim minister for the Church of Christ North West in Pikesville, Md., northwest of Baltimore, added that it comes down to education.
“We need less ritual and more action,” Knight said. “We need to educate people to pool our resources and educate them about finances.”
While there were plenty of speeches, one of the most wrenching moments came when Edison asked people to take a knee for eight minutes and 46 seconds — the length of time that Floyd’s neck was pinned under a Minneapolis officer’s knee on May 25.
Various people offered prayers reflecting on Floyd’s death and asking God for a new day of peace in America.
“This is a highly unusual undertaking for the Churches of Christ,” Sembly said. “However, it’s time to ‘Be present’ to encourage, comfort and learn and to show that we care — and most importantly, God cares!”
Juneteenth also is known as Freedom Day.
“This year there is a renewed emphasis on the ‘Freedom’ theme because of the repetitive social injustices that African Americans continue to face in this country,” Sembly said. “As children of God, we are uniquely qualified to relate, identify and speak about the freedoms in Christ that God gives — its benefits, responsibilities, accountabilities, expediencies, peace, comfort and more.”
HAMIL R. HARRIS is a Christian Chronicle correspondent and veteran journalist. He preaches for the Glenarden Church of Christ in Maryland.