Last Monday we celebrated Junteenth, a new federal holiday celebrated on the anniversary of the order by Major General Gordon Granger proclaiming freedom for enslaved people in Texas on June 19, 1865 (two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued). Until about 10 years ago, I knew nothing about this celebration or the fact that it took over two years for the news to reach Galveston by way of Granger and his troops. And I had no idea that enslaved people were not freed in the Union states of Delaware and Kentucky until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished chattel slavery nationwide, on December 6, 1865.
As Paul writes to the church in Corinth, "we see through a mirror dimly." 1 Corinthians 13:12.
When I was getting ready to move to Maui and serve the Makawao Union Church I spent months reading, listening and trying to learn as much as I could about the culture and community I was joining. The stories I had learned earlier in my life about Hawaii were filled with nostalgia for what I call the "Pearl Harbor" moment, and the 1959 statehood that brought the stars to 50 on the American flag. I don't remember when I learned about the Congregationalist Missionaries from New England that came in the days following Captain Cook's "discovery" in 1778, but I do remember the 1993 Apology from the UCC on the 100th anniversary of the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii by the US and the Congregational missionaries who were central to that effort. It was a faraway place that had nothing to do with me (little did I know) so it got filed in the recesses of my memory bank.
In my study before heading to Maui I discovered that the founding missionary of the church I was to serve was a relative of the Greene's who were a founding family of the church in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, where I was then serving. (The incoming Moderator in 2019 is a descendant of that family.) History became quite real as I drew together different threads of such seemingly disparate stories. The staunch abolitionist Jonathan Greene who founded the "Pa'ia Foreign Church" that later became the Makawao Union Church. Greene's commitment to end slavery that ended his relationship with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (Congregational missionary society) and his eventual collaboration with Henry Baldwin, a son of another Congregational missionary, who co-founded Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Company (A&B sugar packets are still around today), one of the Big Five that would work toward and support the overthrow the Kingdom of Hawaii in the 1890's.
The Greene's of New Hampshire and Maui who fought against enslavement would eventually succumb to the cultural and financial interests of the day. The welcome of Amos Fortune, a freed black man, into membership of the First Congregational Church of Jaffrey, NH has been celebrated for over 200 years, and yet the congregation has only welcomed less than a handful of African Americans in its 243-year history. The Baldwin's of Maui would ensure the "foreign" church would have the biggest organ, the best building, and be the place where the powerful would gather to worship God and their place in the expansion of the American Empire. While Jonathan Greene refused to allow anyone in his household to wear cotton because the labor for it was enslaved, Baldwin was happy to destroy the Native Hawaiian community to advance his own interests.
I offer all of this history as an invitation to think about our own story of half-truths around colonialism, missionary zeal, and the parts of the stories we tell to make us feel better. We love the story of Obed Dickinson and his radical welcome of America Waldo and Richard Arthur Bogle, and yet we neglect the relationship to the larger Congregational movement that supported the exclusion law that made it illegal for any "free negro or mulatto" not residing in the state at the time of the adoption of the Oregon Constitution to be here. We don't want to talk about those within the congregation who supported these laws as much as we want to affirm our connection to Dickinson as the leader.
I like the story of Amos Fortune and America and Richard Bogle. I like the sory of the Greenes. And yet, I must be willing to read and hear the rest of the story, the whole truth so I can both share the fullness of this history and learn to live with it in a hope-filled way.
I am grateful that our Conference leadership is reading Murder at the Mission: A Frontier Killing, Its Legacy of Lies, and the Taking of the American West by Blaine Harden and that Tyler has invited us all to join the conversation in, as an All-Conference Read of this book over the summer. I am grateful for the work of the Bush House Museum celebrating Black Pioneers in the face of the segregationist and exclusionary positions of Asahel Bush. I am grateful that several of our sister congregations and faith organizations are engaging in the work of exploring privilege and power as it relates to our denominational histories.
And yet, we live in a time when telling the whole truth is difficult, it is dangerous, and requires we be willing to sit with the complexity of our histories. We are called to listen to those who have been harmed, see the impact of our ancestor's and their choices, for good and ill, on human lives, and be moved to find reconciliation and healing toward that more perfect union imagined by Abraham Lincoln and the freed people's of Galveston on June 19, 1865.
As for me, I will join Tyler in reading Murder at the Mission this summer. I will finish reading Breaking Chains and learn more about the history of enslavement here in Oregon. I will finish listening to the 1619 Project, The Sum of Us, How We Get Free, and a host of other books in my listening library. And I will find ways for us to be in dialogue about these stories, these truths as we reimagine what being an Open and Affirming, Just Peace congregation means today, because I know that the intersections of all "isms" teach us how to see one another as divine creations, reflections of the One who created us in their image.
“Let us make humans in our image, according to our likeness..." Genesis 1:26
Happy Freedom Days for us all.