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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘As a people, we have struggled’: Multiple congregations join at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center for Juneteenth celebration Sunday

UPDATED: Mon., June 20, 2022

By Nick Gibson The Spokesman-Review The Spokesman-Review

Esther Kelley sat down at her keyboard in the gymnasium of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center on Sunday morning, and beamed as members of many different congregations walked in the doors.

“No matter where we’re at, we’re going to take the people to church,” said Kelley, director of music at Morning Star Baptist Church.

Kelley and her keyboard helped take a gymnasium full of people to church at the MLK Center on Sunday morning for the annual Juneteenth Praise in the Park service. A joint effort between the Spokane Ministers Fellowship and the Inland Northwest Juneteenth Coalition, the service was one of many Juneteenth events that took place in Spokane over the weekend. It was moved from Liberty Park to the MLK Center due to inclement weather.

The service was led by pastors with the Spokane Ministers Fellowship, including the Rev. Walter Kendricks of Morning Star Baptist Church, the Rev. James Watkins of New Hope Baptist Church and featured speaker, the Rev. Amos Atkinson of Calvary Baptist Church.

Watkins kicked off the service by recognizing the dual occasion for celebration, Juneteenth and Father’s Day taking place on Sunday. He thanked the many individuals involved in organizing the weekend’s Juneteenth events, his fellow pastors in the Spokane Ministers Fellowship and Spokane City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson, who was also in attendance.

Wilkerson spoke briefly at the service, echoing Watkins’ sentiments about the importance of the concurring holidays, as well as the importance of the church in Black communities. She said she hopes that churches and individuals across the nation, regardless of creed, class or ethnicity, come together to celebrate Juneteenth.

“We are together to honor God, and to celebrate Juneteenth – to celebrate liberation,” Wilkerson said. “As a people, we have struggled, but the church has been foundational through all of it. This is the place where we went when we needed help, when we were hunted, where we communicated, where we got the word out about what was going on; and the church still plays that role today.”

Juneteenth was recognized as a federal holiday by President Joe Biden in 2021, and since it fell on a Sunday this year, it will be observed Monday.

“It was a little bit of a sacrifice for all of the services to give up Father’s Day, but we decided to do it because this is the first Monday the city will be celebrating, or the state will be celebrating, Juneteenth,” Watkins said. “It’s that important that we be here and worship, honoring what God has done to get us to this moment.”

Watkins sent around the collection plate, a red bucket someone found in the gym, to benefit the community center. He said he used to work at the community center a few decades ago, and noticed the building needed some care. He called on members of the different congregations at the service to donate what they could.

Before handing off the microphone to Atkinson, Watkins called on preachers across the city to come together in their efforts to make Spokane a better city for the generations to come. He said they must hold each other accountable as they attempt to hold others accountable, and he believes Atkinson, who serves as the president of the Spokane Ministers Fellowship, is the right leader for their efforts.

Atkinson’s keynote sermon covered the history of Juneteenth, which originated in 1865 in Texas, the final state that notified slaves they were free after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect two years prior. Atkinson emphasized the 157 years Black Americans have spent fighting for freedom and equality since that initial Juneteenth and how the holiday has been a day of worship and jubilation for Black communities long before it was recognized federally.

Deacons and members from the congregations in attendance joined Kelley in leading musical worship at the service. Kelley, who is a fourth-generation member of the congregation at Morning Star, said she was moved that everyone came together from different congregations to worship. Her parents met in the choir at the church, and her dad played the organ for the same services she now helps lead.

“I enjoyed myself because people let themselves worship freely,” Kelley said. “They didn’t let denomination, or the setting, or where they worship normally, inhibit them from coming to join worship.”

Following the service, the Inland Northwest Juneteenth Coalition held a Father’s Day brunch a few blocks away at the Emmanuel Family Life Center. Michael Bethely, one of the organizers of the Juneteenth coalition, oversaw the brunch of chicken and waffles, and brought his wife Ashley, their three toddler sons and his grandparents to celebrate with him.

Bethely said that as a father, it is wonderful to have Father’s Day coincide with a holiday that celebrates his culture. Bethely’s oldest son is 6 years old, and he said his son is getting old enough that Michael Bethely can share with him how much it means to be his dad. It’s important to Bethely that as he raises his children, they know just how much he loves them, and that he is trying to set a good example for them.

“My 6-year-old made a Father’s Day gift that says, ‘What does your father tell you every day?’ and he says, ‘I love you,’ ” Bethely said. “For him to recognize that, it warms my heart and that’s what I want them to know, ‘I love you.’ ”

Bethely said that over the years, the coalition has tried to come up with as many opportunities to involve as much of the community as possible, like the Father’s Day brunch and the PILLAR awards, given out Friday night in recognition of community service. He is looking forward to what’s in store for future Juneteenth celebrations in Spokane .

“Family is beautiful,” Bethely said. “We just wanted to showcase that love to the community and say, ‘Here is a free breakfast for all of the fathers. Come celebrate family, celebrate fathers, celebrate yourselves.’ ”

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