Second Annual Juneteenth Celebration Sermon

Below is a copy of the sermon Rabbi Hyman delivered at the second annual Juneteenth Celebration. Rabbi Hyman was invited to by the Frederick Douglas Honor Society.

You know, it was exactly one year ago today that we gathered here on this spot and in this manner and as a community triumphantly celebrating the return of Fredrick Douglass back home to Talbot County. It was a moving and glorious morning of praise and thanksgiving. That special moment, one year ago, brought our community together allowing us to share in a sense of pride and accomplishment. All of us who gathered last year felt the uplifting power of God’s spirit touching each and every soul worshipping here that morning. It was a moment of magnificent celebration and joy. The dedication of the Statue opened up for us the door to healing in a way and with an unspoken power that is unusual and not often available to communities like ours. I delight in the fact that many of us took advantage of that occasion and walked across that threshold of opportunity.

At the end of last year’s service, as I was making my way back to the parking lot, the indefatigable and dynamic Harriette Lowery, came up to me and said, “I want the excitement of this experience to last, I want it to generate momentum that propels us forward. I want us to keep the spirit of this celebration alive throughout the year so that we can come together like this again next Juneteenth. I want the healing to continue.”

Not wanting to seem rude or impolite, ungrateful or insensitive, I said to Harriette, “O yes, I agree. It would be wonderful.” Silently, however, I thought to myself… “The dedication of THAT statue, the anticipation, excitement and pride, the enthusiasm generated by this stunning triumph…Lady, you better savor this moment now because it ain’t happenin’ like this again for a long time!”

Well…Harriette, Eric, members of the Juneteenth planning committee, members of the Frederick Douglass Honor Society, friends and neighbors…Show’s you what I know!! What a powerful and emotionally charged weekend this has been: every bit as rewarding, successful and historically vital as last year. This weekend has been a resounding success and a marvelous continuation of what began last year. Without question, Harriette, the healing continues.

From the opening reception at the Academy Art Museum Friday evening, to the viewing of the documentary Double Victory and the panel discussion with the Tuskegee Airmen at the Avalon Theatre yesterday afternoon, this weekend moved our soul, humbled our spirit and raised our horizon… and we are not yet finished. The power of this weekend compels us to engage with our history in a way that is markedly different from our experience last year. This weekend we connect with living heroes who did more then stand witness to our history. They made our history. This weekend we experience not the shadows of ancient history, no, this weekend we stand face to face and eye to eye with those who penned the very legacy of the history to which we lay claim.

What an honor to hear the Tuskegee Airman yesterday. How exhilarating to hear them talk of their accomplishments, their successes and their victories. Even after all these years, their faces glowed with the pride of accomplishment that comes with being the best and knowing the intimacies of triumph.

And when they talked about the social conditions forced upon them and the shameful reprehensible treatment they endured…not by the enemies of our Nation against whom they fought but at the hand of our Nation for whom they fought with honor, gallantry and distinction…you could see their faces change. You could see the lingering traces of pain and disappointment, anger and sadness still percolating out from their words. That kind of pain never really goes away or resolves and you realize that healing is a continuous, day by day ongoing process realized more by determination and attitude than by divine grace.

I want to share an observation with you…It seems to me that there is a real difference between healing and curing. Curing focuses on the components of a disease. Healing, however, targets quality of life issues. Healing and curing are not synonyms. Rather, the distinction between the two is wide, profound and determinative. As we know, you can be cured without being healed and you can heal without being cured. We are surrounded daily by examples of this truth.

On this morning, which is so highly charged with the power of God’s presence, the message and meaning of this weekend is clear. The consequence of our time together urges that we look carefully at who we are, that we take stock of what we are, analyze where we are and realize that we have a good distance still ahead of us to get to where we need to be.

You know, the function of history is rather simple. History documents the consequences and results of human action, human decisions and human behavior. All too often, human history, our history is a chronicle of deep sadness, profound pain and overwhelming embarrassment; an all too detailed account of our ability to be cruel, brutalizing and mean. History offers a time-line of events which requires healing – healing, even if and when a cure for the disease is unavailable.

“Heal us O Lord and we shall be healed…save us O Lord and we shall be saved,” Jeremiah’s word made plural, is the prayer we recite for a return to health. Notice it never mentions anything about a cure.

I don’t know how many of you are aware of this new movie entitled: Abe Lincoln Vampire Hunter? It was just released. I was, at first, offended at the absurd notion and ridiculous concept, portraying President Lincoln in the role of vampire hunter. But then it dawned on me, this movie is metaphor. Racism, bigotry, inequality, narrow-mindedness, discrimination, prejudice are vampires; culture killers, poisoning societies and destroying civilizations; sucking the life blood out of people, communities and society, creating a culture of the walking dead. These are the components of a disease that brings death to civilizations. If you are dead, you cannot heal.

President Lincoln wasn’t a hunter of vampires, he was a pursuer of justice. By pursuing justice he invited healing. Clearly, the disease is not cured…the contaminating and contagious germs of intolerance, injustice and xenophobia are ever present…like mold spores…ready to infect and fester. But, the healing that has begun here, the healing that you have inspired offers not a cure but a curative response to the human condition. “Heal us O Lord and we shall be healed…save us O Lord and we shall be saved.”

Yesterday, we delighted as we watched and listed to a group of elementary school children recite the Emancipation Proclamation on the lawn of the Academy Art Museum. They were so cute. I suspect that not one of those 3rd graders understood the definition of the words they recited. Nor, I suspect, do they comprehend the weightiness of those historic verses. And, thank God, as children of the 21st century, they don’t relate intimately and experientially to the reasons which necessitated those words. But it pains me that on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America, had to issue an executive order of emancipation.

The inhumanity of slavery, human cruelty and the pernicious practices of ordinary people confuse and confound me. I shake my head in bewilderment. And I stand embarrassed. Pain is a message communicating that something is wrong…that something is out of whack. In order to heal, I must be an agent of healing myself.

I was deeply moved yesterday afternoon as I sat in the Avalon Theatre and viewed the emotionally charged and exceptionally well done documentary, Double Victory, produced by George Lucas. Double Victory recounts the challenges and grotesque absurdities, the two- front war that the heroes of the 332nd Fighter Group and the 447th Bombardment Group, the Tuskegee Airmen confronted: the war against the Nazis in Europe and the battle for acceptance, equality and freedom back here in the country whose uniform they wore, whose values they defended and whose promise resonated within their souls.

There are scenes in this film that are difficult to watch. And as a Jewish person I was doubly pained to watch as the movie documented the indignities suffered by Tuskegee Airmen. It was painful to learn that American heroes, the Airmen who had been shot down and captured by the Nazis, received better treatment in the hands of the enemy than they received at home. And, German POW’s transported to military facilities in the United States were afforded broader privileges and given greater liberties than the officers, pilots and aircrews of the 332nd Fighter Group and the 447th Bombardment Group, the Tuskegee Airmen training and working at United States military bases home and abroad.

I take very seriously the heroism of the Tuskegee Airmen. Their skill and diligence, their commitment to a standard of excellence in flight and on the ground contributed to the liberation and rescue of members of my family and my community. Make no mistake…this is personal…and I stand motivated by our history. In order to heal, I must be an agent of healing myself first.

Listen to these words:

“Men talk of the Negro problem. There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own Constitution…We love our country. We fought for it. We ask only that we be treated as well as those who fought against it.”

Frederick Douglass spoke these words in 1892, a year after Emancipation and almost three decades after the Civil War. “Heal us O Lord and we shall be healed…save us O Lord and we shall be saved.”

Truth be told, I did not think that anything could match the power, the pageantry and prominence of last year’s Juneteenth celebration. I was wrong…this weekend has continued the intensity of emotion and the consistency of message offered our community last year. The door to healing was opened then and it remains open now. The invitation to walk through that door remains operative. We don’t have the power to cure the disease…those bugs and germs will always be out there waiting to infect…but in our hands and in our hearts is the power to heal…to heal ourselves, to help heal one another and to help heal our world.

“Heal us O Lord and we shall be healed…save us O Lord and we shall be saved.” Amen