Watch Night

Tonight is Watch Night… read what Enuma Okoro, Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove have to say about this night (December 31), and then about the first day of the New Year.


"Established in African-American communities on December 31, 1862, Watch Night is a gathering to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation becoming law. When the clock struck midnight on January 01, 1863, all slaves in the Confederate States were proclaimed free. Since that date 146 years ago, African-Americans have celebrated the good news of freedom in local churches on New Year's Eve. Like the slaves who first gathered while the Civil War raged on, we proclaim freedom for all captives in Jesus' name, knowing that for millions, freedom is not a reality. Our celebration is a commitment to join modern-day slaves and undocumented workers in their struggle for justice."

Writing about his first Watch Night, Booker T. Washington said, 'As the great day grew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted longer into the night. True, they had sung those same verses before, but they had been careful to explain that the "freedom" in these songs referred to the next world, and had no connection with life in this world. Now they gradually threw off the mask; and were not afraid to let it be known that the "freedom" in their songs meant freedom of the body in this world'." (Claiborne, Okoro, Wilson-Hartgrove, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, 84-85).


"In 1788 Quakers in Pennsylvania freed their slaves, anticipating the emancipation of chattel slaves in the United States some seventy-five years later. Together with free blacks, abolitionist evangelicals, and slaves who were willing to risk their lives, Quakers led one of America's most vibrant faith-based movements — The Underground Railroad. Committed to simplicity, religious freedom, and non-violence, Quakers have contributed to movements for peace and justice throughout US history." (Claiborne, Okoro, Wilson-Hartgrove, Common Prayer: Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, p.90).

The fact that there is still a need for an Underground Railroad, so to speak, in our world today is sad and disheartening. The awe, however, I possess standing with people who will give their lives for the freedom from slavery of all kinds around the world is indescribable. Watch Night, carrying on the tradition and the spiritual liturgy, only spurs us on towards lifting Songs from the Underground… love and freedom for every man, woman and child around the world held in slavery. Survivors are taking the mic, as it were, and singing their voices that have sounded all along… except few listened. Now they are being heard again and again and again. Let it rise, Lord, let it rise.


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