Living in the United States, freedom is a word most children hear from a young age. It may be presented as a lived reality or a lofty ideal to strive for or even a promise unkept. Freedom is a complicated concept to talk about with children because its meaning is multi-layered. For this reason (and many more) it’s an idea that we return to again and again with children, adjusting and expanding on its definition. Fortunately, the calendar offers a great opportunity to discuss freedom this weekend in the context of Juneteenth (June 19), the day set aside to remember the emancipation of the last slaves in 1865.
This lesson offers an entry point for talking with your children about freedom within the context of the Bible by looking at the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Then it provides an opportunity to examine freedom within the context of American history by connecting the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt to Juneteenth.
Begin the time with your children by reading aloud Exodus 5-12; 14:1-31. Because this reading is long and it includes details that may be overly upsetting or troubling for young readers, a children’s Bible version of the text is best for this lesson. A particularly well-written version is included in “Growing in God’s Love: A Story Bible” (sections “Terrible, Awful Things” and “Walking on Dry Land”). After reading, discuss God’s relationship to the Israelites throughout the story. Why did God want to free them from slavery? Also, discuss the Israelites’ relationship to God. How did they respond when God finally brought them across the Red Sea? (Note that children may struggle with the methods God used to bring God’s people to freedom. Don’t hesitate to acknowledge the difficulty of the text.)
Next, look beyond this reading at the lives of the Israelites. Depending on your children’s knowledge of the twists and turns that occur after they escape from Pharaoh, you can either ask your children to imagine what might have happened next or to summarize what they know about their desert wanderings, deliverance to the land of milk and honey and eventual exile. Alternately, you can tell a condensed version of the events. The goal is to show that their freedom from slavery is not the end of their challenges. While they do reach the land that was promised to them, they also continue to struggle and to experience oppression. Still, God is with them through all this and always wants them to be well and to be free.
Continue your discussion by asking your children to think of other times God has been with people who were oppressed or were enslaved. If they are not aware of the history of slavery in the U.S. or they bring it up as you brainstorm, bring it to their attention. Share that black slaves suffered immensely and with God’s help, they were freed. The abolition of slavery did not end the challenges experienced by black Americans, just as the Israelites continued to struggle even after they were no longer under the control of Pharaoh. The holiday, Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19 recognizes the continued journey towards freedom of black people in America that began on that date in 1865 when the last slaves were released from slavery.
Even though Juneteenth is celebrated on Saturday, spend some time on Sunday to recognizing it in relationship to the Exodus text. A few options to consider are:
- Learn more about the history of Juneteenth. There are many great write ups and videos online you can explore online. One particularly good resource for getting at the complexity of the celebrations is “Teaching Juneteenth” from Teaching Tolerance Magazine.
- Participate in a Juneteenth celebration in your community or one offered online. Many local events are being presented virtually because of the pandemic. To view a national event featuring the music of Sweet Honey and the Rock and several prominent speakers, click here. (This event will be live on Friday, June 19 at 8:00 p.m. ET and then a recorded version will be available at this link.)
- Talk about the ways Juneteenth is a day of celebration but also remembrance and reflection. What work do we still have to do? What freedom is still left to obtain? Where is God in this ongoing journey? How do we partner with God to bring about freedom?
JOELLE BRUMMIT-YALE is the director of children’s and youth ministries at Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. When not at the church, she can usually be found at home with her son and husband caring for their many animals and developing their family homestead.