Christian civil rights group organizing Juneteenth oberservances
By Steve Rees —
A faith-based nonprofit champion of social justice, holy activism and civil righteousness will commemorate Juneteenth, Saturday, June 19 and, at the same time, shine a light on modern-day slavery.
From Ferguson, Missouri to Fredericksburg, Virginia, the nonprofit Civil Righteousness is offering, food, fellowship, music and dance to mark Juneteenth, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of slavery’s end in the United States.
A banquet in Ferguson, called Let Freedom Ring, will honor the day that slaves in Galveston, Texas learned of their freedom. Another event in Fredericksburg will shine a light on the long road to freedom for victims of sexual exploitation.
Ferguson-based Civil Righteousness is spreading a Texas-sized table at Ferguson First Baptist Church, where 250 invited guests are invited to share a meal and conversation – even if some can’t afford the price of admission.
Let Freedom Ring is sponsored by Civil Righteousness, which is committed to reconciliation and restorative justice through spiritual, cultural and economic renewal. Its Pray on MLK events inspire people around the globe to gather on streets and monuments named after the preacher and civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Pastor Jonathan Tremaine Thomas, who founded Civil Righteousness, explains the vision for the table and other Let Freedom Ring gatherings on June 19.
“At the beginning of this year, I felt really strongly that the Lord was extending an invitation not just to me – but to the church in America – to build the table of the Lord, to build America’s table. The phrase specifically was: ‘I want you to build America’s table,’” says Thomas.
In Matthew 22, Jesus reveals the kingdom of heaven’s connection to the church. He likens it to a wedding feast. Citizens of the kingdom are obligated to invite everyone to the table. The chapter also talks about being properly dressed.
“I think what’s been happening in the culture with identity politics, virtue signaling, various movements, and different agendas there’s really an intense temptation for us to be dressed in our political allegiances. Or to be dressed in our ethnic identity or our cultural experiences or preferences,” Thomas says.
The Lord is setting a table for his family, and he’s preparing a feast for the church to invite people. “He wants to set the table, you know, the communion table, the negotiation table, the mediation table and the innovation table,” says Thomas.
In Ferguson, where a white police officer shot to death an18-year-old black man, Michael Brown, in 2014, Civil Righteousness is setting a custom-made, 500-foot table with a catered meal for invited guests.
Across the country, Civil Righteousness organizers are encouraged to acknowledge what Juneteenth represents and, if possible, set a table where people can gather, share and believe God for emotional and spiritual healing and freedom in their communities.
In Fredericksburg, the Freedom Society Collective plans to host short presentations on human trafficking at the Freedom Society Tea Room, where survivors’ arts and crafts are sold to support their freedom and to fund efforts to end sex slavery in India, China and the nation.
“We’re deeply committed to – along with Civil Righteousness – bringing the family together in loving, honest, sincere conversations and relationships in listening and lamenting,” says Jed Robyn who, with his wife Nicole, are local and regional organizers with Civil Righteousness and founders at freedomsocietycollective.com.
In Ferguson, Thomas was thinking about folding tables and chairs for lots of people at a meal fellowship when a local artist approached him with the idea of building a custom table. The craftsman – a woodworker – measured a section of street and decided with Thomas on a 500-foot structure.
Custom built, the table will seat abut 250 people – some of whom will dine for free while others pay for their meals or, as Thomas puts it, a table for those who sit in seats of power and for people who flip them over.
“It’s time for us to realize that there’s a place we all have and a role that we all have to play. For us to be able to facilitate healing conversations and give opportunities to create space and find one another over a really great meal. That’s really our heart,” Thomas says.
The meal will be catered by a St. Louis restaurant, Grace Meat + Three, a fitting selection for people focused on the grace of God around a family table.
The mayor of Ferguson, chief of police, civic, business and spiritual leaders are invited. “We wanted to make sure that we had the right representatives from the community, including people who may not be able to buy a ticket. We want to be a blessing,” Thomas says.
Civil Righteousness reached out to activist groups in Ferguson with 75 free tickets. “We also invited spiritual leaders and pastors because, at the end of the day, the ministry of reconciliation has been given to the church.
“We wanted to make sure that we have a good representation of ministry leaders there to infuse with vision to keep the conversations going in their respective communities,” Thomas says.
He already has relationships with many of the invited guests, including the city council. “The chief of police and the mayor have indicated their intention to come, and they’re excited about it.”
Thomas says a lot of ministries and charitable organizations host fund-raising events and talk about the people they’re serving. But they don’t embrace or represent the people being served. “It becomes more about what we’re doing, versus who we’re serving,” Thomas says.
The Civil Righteousness team agrees with Thomas that the table needs to be one where a king feels at home, and where the homeless feel like kings. “I believe that we’re royalty as sons and daughters.
“The message of the church is to not only say it, but to create atmosphere, opportunity and legitimacy of understanding within all of humanity that we are blood-bought sons and daughters, royalty in the household of the king, our Father, with an inheritance in him no matter whether you have power on the earth that you’re stewarding in your role in law enforcement or government,” Thomas says.
If stewarding a role as a janitor, he or she is a citizen of the kingdom with value because they’re a bearer of the image of God. “I’m not more excited about those who have political power or influence,” Thomas says.
“What excites me is the opportunity for us to potentially get some of these people who have had confrontations, or who may not understand one another, to a space where they can share healing experiences together,” Thomas says.
Like Ferguson First Baptist Church. It’s a white institution in a black community. The leadership recognizes that is a problem and is working to better reflect the community.
“As a result, they’ve been super open to working with us and other organizations in the community,” Thomas says.
Ferguson First Baptist is one of the larger venues in town with a big footprint and, with it, responsibility to the community. Less than 20 percent of the 96,000-square-foot facility is utilized regularly. COVID forced local church and ministry leaders into reexamining and rethinking what is church.
“Is God creating the scenario for us to leap frog over what has been road blocked in our thinking as it relates to how we do church? We’re beginning to re-imagine and re-envision use of space and what it looks like for the body of Christ to impact a city,” says Thomas.
Civil Righteousness is engaged in conversations with Ferguson First Baptist around high-level, paradigm-shifting ideas.
“You know the Southern Baptist Convention, which they are part of, is (having) intense conversations and making decisions around the controversial critical race theory and things like that.
“So it’s interesting timing that we’re even engaged in some of these conversations as their whole world is kind of spinning on its head around grasping how does the Southern Baptist Convention engage in communities of color and engage in the racism discussion, and engage in the racial justice discussion,” Thomas points out.
Many of the invited guests understand the significance of June 19, but not all do. Civil Righteousness will tell the story of events in Galveston, Texas where emancipation came for the last slaves in America.
The table is intended to be a multi-faith gathering. “There will be people who are believers, people who are of no faith. We won’t shy away from who we are, and the fact that we are representatives of the Christian world view. We’re pursuing these things according to our biblical ambitions,” Thomas says.
Organizers hope to highlight the significance of generations of slaves or enslaved persons who prayed to be free. They did not see in their generation but they prayed, ‘Let my children’s children be free.’
“That day (June 19) the Lord manifested and answered generational prayer that sons and daughters might be free. It was always about the family. It was always about the table, about families around the table.
“It’s also the place where enemies can become friends. It’s also where we get to know each other at the table of the Lord. (Civil Righteousness shares) this idea that, from Juneteenth, the Father was liberating sons and daughters who would then sing and declare his heart for the global family,” Thomas says.
Following June 19 is Father’s Day. “When we think about the heart of the Father, the whole issue of Imago Dei, injustice, man’s inhumanity, those issues are ultimately about the Father’s house and heart for his family.
“So we’re going to do our best to communicate those unique spiritual truths in ways that everyone can understand. More than talking, to demonstrate the love of God.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to move beyond this event to begin to set a banquet table in cities around America,” says Thomas.
In August, Thomas will partner with a friend for a worship, prayer and evangelism event in Chicago where, by the grace of God, they hope to set a table. “As one of the expressions of God’s kingdom and his love, we want to set a table there and feed the community.
“But more than that – it’s not just a food bank – we believe God wants to literally do miracles around the table. We’re envisioning what it looks like in other cities, too,” he says.
In the same way, there’s a movement called Awaken the Dawn, where leaders transport a big tent from city to city. “We’re wondering what it might look like for us to literally set America’s table from city to city,” Thomas says.
He thinks it’s a matter of time before Juneteenth becomes a federal, nationally recognized holiday.
Civil Righteousness organizers are encouraged to let freedom ring in their cities, too. If it’s not a table, then local leaders might pray at a place of pain in their city, or raise up a wall of prayer. If not that, it could be an awareness event like the Robyn’s are planning at the Freedom Society Collective in Fredericksburg.
“We’ve not necessarily called them into a uniform, formal expression around the country. We’ve just said, ‘hey, do something on this day in the way that best makes sense,’” Thomas says.
The Ferguson table is built in 16-foot sections. The thought is to ship pieces to cities where local organizers can engage in their communities in a public way. “What would it look like if we did a coordinated national table on the same day, or in the same week, in different cities around the country, where we’re able to supply them with a sizable section of the table?”
A businessman who contacted Civil Righteousness with a vision to help build America’s table is connected to other global projects. A tech-industry entrepreneur, Jon Phillips wasn’t walking with the Lord when he shared his vision with Thomas. “Through engaging with us, this gentleman has returned to the Lord, kind of returned to his roots, which has been amazing,” Thomas says.
The businessman then commissioned craftsman Chris Deshon to design and build the wooden table.
If people find it in their hearts to want to sow into Civil Righteousness or in helping build America’s table, or helping engage in the ministry of reconciliation around the nation, then Thomas welcomes prayer and financial support at civilrighteousness.org and thetablstl.com.
“Even if people can’t come and say we’ll buy a seat, or we’ll sponsor a table, or we want to sow directly into Civil Righteousness, that’s something. That’s helpful as we are beginning to establish more of a missions-based expression here in Ferguson.
Thomas believes Civil Righteousness is headed into the nations. “It’s seeing the bridge, the freedom that we’ve experienced and received as descendants of the African diaspora unto (God’s) global purpose for the nations.
“There’s a redemptive story that God is writing and we have a key, unique role to play in seeing the Gospel advance to the ends of the earth, and to see that Romans 11 provocation of Israel to jealousy.
“There’s a meta-narrative that’s so much more intense and far greater than black people and white people,” Thomas says.
He’s writing a book about the mature expression of global missions in the last days and the unique role the African-American community plays.
“It’s important for the body of Christ to understand the unique callings and gifting of the different people groups on the earth. The role we all uniquely play unto the return of Jesus. Building a bridge between the black communities and the black church worship expression and the ends of the earth,” says Thomas, who is still deciding on content and a publisher for the book.
For the event on Saturday, friends from Texas, Michigan, Tennessee, Indian will travel to Ferguson. Some are new to Civil Righteousness. Others have been on board in their cities for the long haul. They just want to be in Ferguson for Juneteenth.