Reflections on Juneteenth
by Rev. Jan Niemeyer
Many in our congregation and community were impacted by the Juneteenth Service of Remembrance that was held at First Pres on Friday, June 19. The reflections shared by Floyd Mays and TC Anderson called our congregation to awareness and action in support of our Black brothers and sisters to address the racism that is inherent in so many of our societal systems. The Reverend Jan Niemeyer was so moved by what she heard that evening and what she was witnessing around the country that she penned the following letter and shared it with the First Pres staff. May we all feel called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps to seek justice for all.
I’m an 81-year-old white woman, American citizen born in Springfield, Illinois, and for many years now, I’ve been an activist. Each time I’ve gotten the call to speak out, to learn more, I move from one realization to another about who is in a situation not necessarily of their own making in which they are in some kind of danger: malnutrition, starvation, oppression, death.
It’s only mid-July, but the year 2020 has proved to be a most dangerous one. The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has killed thousands of people, but it has also revealed, uncovered, shown to the world, deadly forces at work in human life: How dangerous it is to be a Black person.
Pastor Martin Niemoeller spoke in the years following the Holocaust of human responsibility and he used these words:
“First they came for the socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionist and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Next, they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.”
I have finally come to realize that they have been coming for Black people for 400 years and in all my life I have not spoken out for Black people because I am white.
Yes, I studied and researched and learned and continue to learn, but until this year, I saw Black people as different for me. I acted as though the threats to their lives and livelihoods were threats against them and although it was clearly my concern to stand by them, to care about them, to love them so that they could have the strength to overcome the dangers to their lives, I did not yet realize that the very fact that I am white, made it my business to take away the threat.
White people are not here to help. White people are the problem. It is as if we, like that police officer in Minneapolis, are complacently kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, thinking that his life is not my concern.
I realize that almost all the white people that I know are good, kind, loving people. They are people who have no intention of hurting and certainly not of killing Black people, but the cultural reality in which we live is that the system of racism is driven by the complacency of white people thinking that it’s not our problem to solve.
It has taken far too long for me to wake up to this reality. A young man named Floyd Mays spoke truth to power when he told our wonderful, loving, and caring majority white congregation that we needed to take action in the face of the dangerous threat to life and limb our society poses to the Black people of our own family.
I know the fear and helplessness I felt when my beloved adult grandson lay dangerously near death from COVID-19, but I have not until now realized in my own skin, the daily threat of random acts of violence, of systemic exclusion from the benefits that flow toward those who are white and are historically restricted and often stolen from people who are Black.
Dear members of my white-skinned family, not only must we care about and love those who are Black or of any color other than white, it is our job to end the systems in our society that are crushing their lives and find ways to live as one family from here on out. Now is the time to take up our own work.
Don’t be shy. Step on up. By God’s grace we can do what we are called to do. What part of the system calls you to act? What is your part of the job? Write it down. Tell everyone you know and care about. Share your passion and together we will dismantle this terrible regime. †