WILMINGTON — Juneteenth is not merely a celebration, but a call to action for all Catholics and all Americans, a prominent Philadelphia priest said June 29 in Wilmington.
Father Stephen Thorne, a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia currently studying in Washington, D.C., was the speaker at a Juneteenth event at St. Joseph’s Church on French Street in Wilmington. “Resilience Through Faith: Songs of Our Journey” was sponsored by the Ministry for Black Catholics of the Diocese of Wilmington and featured Scripture, music and a meal in addition to Father Thorne’s talk.
The title of the talk was “Good Morning, Gorgeous,” which happens to be a song about self-affirmation by hip hop artist Mary J. Blige. Father Thorne explained that, with all due respect to Blige, God said those words first.
“God says it everyday. It’s not an alarm clock that wakes you up. It’s God’s grace and mercy that taps you on the shoulder and says to you, ‘Good morning, gorgeous,’” he said. “God spent extra time on me. That’s not arrogance. That’s confidence in a good and gracious God.”
Unfortunately, he continued, not everyone is seen as gorgeous. African people were taken from their homeland in chains, separated from their families and brought to the United States as slaves. They were seen as property and degraded.
Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19, marks the day in 1865 that enslaved people in Texas learned they were free. Still, almost 160 years later, Father Thorne said, work remains to be done to get people to recognize that they are gorgeous. So Juneteenth is not only a day to celebrate, but to work.
“We come to church to get our assignment. Because we’ve got work to do, church. We’ve got work to do. Juneteenth is not just a party. It’s a national call to action,” he said.
To help with that assignment, Father Thorne outlined three points. First, African-American Catholics must know their history. It was not something that was ever mentioned in his education in Philadelphia.
“You’ve got to know your story, church,” he said. “We must teach that story to young folks who do not know the story. That’s your story. It’s not just a Black story. It’s an American story. You’ve got to tell the story, church.”
Second, we need to understand the cost of freedom. With freedom comes responsibility and accountability, he said. People need to believe in their own goodness as African Americans.
“To truly say, ‘I’m free,’ it means something. We’re called to call ourselves to excellence. You don’t give God junk, church, you give God your best,” he said to applause.
Be sure to be able to give people “the why,” as his sister calls it, and don’t be afraid to call people to excellence.
“Don’t tell me you can’t do it because we’ve been doing it since we got here. Excellence is who we are. That’s how we got here,” said Father Thorne, whose parents were married at St. Joseph’s.
Third, realize that Juneteenth is a call to unity, similar to what was on display at St. Joe’s on June 29.
“In God’s house, we should find some unity. In God’s house, we should realize that we’re all part of one human family,” he said.
“Juneteenth reminds us that unless everyone’s free, no one’s free.”
We need to not only lift ourselves up, but others as well. The apostle Paul writes that we are all part of the body of Christ. What we do affects each other, Father Thorne said.
“In this time of division in our country, in our church, we need Christian folks to rise up and say, ‘You are my sister. You are my brother. We’re part of one family,’” he said as applause filled the church.
To truly be a pro-life people, we must care for the person who can’t find a job or is incarcerated, disabled or otherwise disadvantaged. He said one of the greatest experiences he has had in the past 10 years is to be a mentor to a man who had been released from prison. The priest said he had never been in a prison, that he had people in his life who “pulled my collar before I had a collar.”
The man told Father Thorne one day that he didn’t know why the priest was doing what he did, that he had a record.
“I said, ‘Well so do I.’ We’ve all got a record. Some records are published, and some are not. But I’ve got a record, and so do you. So do all of us. I do it because somebody lifted me up. And because they lifted me up and saw me as lovable, educatable, adorable, gorgeous, I’ve got to lift somebody else up. I can’t keep it to myself. That light that God gave to us is true,” he said.
The light referred to the Gospel of Matthew that was read by Deacon Bob Cousar before Father Thorne’s talk. In it, Jesus tells us to let our light shine and to not hide it under a wicker basket.
Music was provided by the St. Helena’s Choir, the Hildeman Chorale and trumpeter Tony Smith. Brenda Burns, the diocesan director of the Ministry for Black Catholics, welcomed the congregation. Father Glenn Evers, the pastor of St. Joe’s, offered the opening prayer and closing remarks. A meal was held after the ceremony in the parish hall.
The event can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qmpbK4sZSI.
All photos by Don Blake.