The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Thomas Long tells a story about Grace Thomas. Grace was born in the early twentieth century as the second of five children. Her father was a streetcar conductor in Birmingham, Alabama, and so Grace grew up in modest circumstances. Later in life after getting married and moving to Georgia, Grace took a clerking job in the state capitol in Atlanta, where she developed a fondness for politics and the law. So, although already a full-time mother and a full-time clerk, Grace enrolled in night school to study law.
In 1954 Grace shocked her family by announcing that she wanted to run for public office. What’s more, Grace didn’t want to run for train commissioner or for the city council: Grace ran for governor of the state of Georgia. There was a total of nine candidates that year—nine candidates, one issue. It was 1954 and the issue was Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark decision that mandated a desegregating of schools. Grace Thomas was alone among the nine candidates to say she thought this was a just decision. Her campaign slogan was “Say Grace at the Polls”! Hardly anyone did, though, and Grace ran dead last.
Her family was glad she got it out of her system, except she didn’t and so decided to run for governor again in 1962. By then the racial tensions in the South were far more taut than they had been eight years earlier. Grace’s progressive platform on race issues earned her a number of death threats.
One day she held a rally in a small Georgia town and chose as her venue the old slave market in the town square. As she stood there, Grace motioned to the platform where once human beings had been bought and sold like a product and she said, “The old has passed away, the new has come. A new day has come when all Georgians, white and black, can join hands and work together.” At that point an outraged man in the crowd interrupted Grace’s speech to blurt out, “Are you a communist!?” “Why, no,” Grace replied quietly. “Well then, where’d you get all them galdurned ideas!?” Grace pointed to the steeple of a nearby Baptist church. “I learned them over there, in Sunday school.”
Grace had spent time listening to the words of her Lord. What she heard changed her life and launched her on a very specific mission in life. But to some thinking this way—much less embracing the idea that the Bible teaches us to think about how what Jesus said should help us to interpret current circumstances—was new. The struggle the church faces over and over is whether we can accept that the Bible continues to inspire and challenge us, offering new perspectives to which no less than the Holy Spirit of God is leading us.
In St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians he writes: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Seditious words, indeed.
We would be hard pressed to find a better lesson for today, Juneteenth. While not new to the African-American people of our country, Juneteenth might be new to some of us.
Juneteenth (short for “June Nineteenth”) marks the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, in 1865 to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people be freed. The troops’ arrival came a full two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
After the war came to a close in the spring of 1865, General Granger’s arrival in Galveston that June signaled freedom for Texas’s 250,000 enslaved people. Although emancipation didn’t happen overnight for everyone—in some cases, enslavers withheld the information until after harvest season—celebrations broke out among newly freed Black people, and Juneteenth was born. That December, slavery in America was formally abolished with the adoption of the 13th Amendment.*
Many people might assume that Juneteenth is an observance solely for those people and communities who lived under the scourge of slavery. I hope that we—and when I say “we” I mean all of us, could see this differently. Juneteenth is a day for all Americans—a reminder that we all need to be set free. Some Americans might celebrate liberation from slavery, others of us might celebrate a broader and more accurate reading of our history. Think of it this way—lack of knowledge or understanding is itself another type of oppression.
Because we live in a society whose culture is sensitized to ethnicity—and too often chooses sides based on things such as the color of our skin, language, sexual identity and politics, it makes the lesson from Galatians all the more important for us to hear.
Biblical scholar Elizabeth Johnson writes, “Paul reminds us that whatever human categories may describe us, they do not define us…all human categories are subordinate and ultimately irrelevant to our primary identity as members of the body of Christ. God has, after all made us “all one in Christ Jesus.” Paul doesn’t obliterate racial, socio-economic or gender distinctions—what he is doing is insisting that because of what Christ Jesus has graciously done, no member of God’s family is somehow superior or inferior to any other. In other words—we’re all on the same team.
That’s something Grace Thomas understood. She was a woman who dared to take what the Bible said to heart. She read the Good Book, she dared to believe that Jesus meant what he said, she risked public ridicule, death threats, and the ire of the people around her to do something remarkable—to live her faith out loud. To take seriously the command of her Lord to love everyone, and to work for the good of all. That’s an example worth taking to heart. That’s an example worth celebrating. It’s an example worth living. In Jesus’ name. Amen.