Known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” Opal Lee was present on June 17, 2021, when President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act bill that established June 19, or “Juneteenth,” a federal holiday. Lee is the oldest living board member of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, a national movement to have Juneteenth declared a National Holiday. At 90 years of age she started her walking campaign to bring awareness to the need for celebrating Juneteenth nationally. She walked 2.5 miles in cities all across the country to represent the 2.5 years it took after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation for enforcement to reach Texas to free the enslaved. In 2019, she launched an online petition campaign that garnered over 1.6 million signatures to continue the crusade for holiday observance. Lee has received three honorary doctorates, has been named 2021 Texan of the Year by the Dallas Morning News editorial board, the 2021 Unsung Hero of the Pandemic, Fort Worth Inc.’s 2022 Person of the Year and most recently was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Bishop LaTrelle…: Welcome to The Unfinished Church. I’m LaTrelle Miller Easterling.
Bishop Gregory …: I’m Gregory Palmer.
Bishop Mike McK…: And I’m Mike McKee. You’re listening to The Unfinished Church Podcast. The Unfinished Church is a place for brave conversations. To build a world in which racial prejudice has no power. God is not finished with us.
I’m so glad we had this conversation with Opal Lee because she is so full of energy at her age, and that’s because she has a significant, called purpose in her life that she’s answered. I’m convinced of that.
Bishop LaTrelle…: And I was moved by the fact that even though she and her family have faced tremendous hardship, she talked about their home being destroyed because of who they were and I will presume because of the kind of activism that her family was engaged in, she’s not lost her hope, she’s not lost her joy, and she’s not taken her hand off the Gospel plow. What a tremendous witness and example she is to all of us.
Bishop Gregory …: The thing that struck me is that this notion of what it means to persevere, when you have a mission, you stick with it and you see it through until you can’t do it anymore, and even though there was this watershed of getting the Juneteenth peace as a recognized national holiday. Obviously she’s going to be a part of the celebrating and implementing of that but she’s on to other things, both nationally, regionally, and globally. So it wasn’t like I made it to the top of the summit and sort of pat herself on the back. It’s like, okay, I got these hungry people to feed, there’s climate change, there’s a lack of access to medical care.
The other thing that struck me is she is not worried about what people think about her, and yet, not anything that comes out of her that exudes a mean bone or spirit in her body. Some people are on mission and they’re just mean about it. I mean, they’re doing things I agree with. Their cause feels right to me, but I don’t have any sense that they actually like or love people. I genuinely believe she loves people, which includes her friends and her enemies, and that comes through as a clarion call. That you can be on mission, you can persevere, you can be relentless, and you do not have to ever lose sight of the Imago Dei, the image of God, in every person even the people that have worked against your best interests. Thanks be to God.
Bishop Mike McK…: That’s so true. You know, and this activism is not just Juneteenth. She’s been doing that other stuff for decades, and that’s how she became so well known in the Fort Worth community, is that her activism was backed by her own personal witness or activity in the community on behalf of others.
Bishop Gregory …: Well, I was just responding to what Bishop McKee said. I mean, what you just said about it was backed up by her own witness and I mean, she’s a reliable witness. I know we have at least one former member of the bar here. She was a credible witness. So credibility means a lot. Consistency means a lot. Is this something we see running through the vein of a person’s whole life, or is this episodic? And is this something about getting the spotlight to shine on me? I mean, she is heads down and straight ahead, getting real work done. We’ve got too many show people and some of them in the name of Jesus and it’s a show, but nothing’s nothing’s happening. So I don’t know if you all are going to edit this out or not, but I’m okay if you leave it in, because she is not here, as I used to hear people pray, Lord, we are not here for form or fashion nor show to the outside world.
Bishop LaTrelle…: Well, and you can’t be a reliable witness if you can’t offer testimony. That’s what a reliable witness is. They offer testimony. Testimony comes through what you’ve experienced, what you’ve seen for yourself. What you know for yourself. Her testimony is real.
Bishop Mike McK…: She actually walks the talk. I mean, everything she’s advocating or witnessing to, she’s living it out. That’s what a disciple of Jesus does. Friends, we are excited to invite you to this conversation with Opal Lee. You’re going to enjoy it and you’re going to be hearing from a real follower, disciple of Jesus. Enjoy.
Ms. Lee, or may I call you Miss Opal or call you Opal? We welcome you today.
Ms. Opal Lee: Thank you young people, and remember you are all young people if you’re not 95. I’m delighted and you can call me whatever you like.
Bishop Mike McK…: Okay. So let me say this to you, Opal. You make 95 look very young.
Ms. Opal Lee: If you got lots to do, it will, and you need all the time you got. Well, let’s say young if you want to.
Bishop Mike McK…: Okay. Which, we want to talk about in some different ways with you this morning. Tell us about your experiences growing up, that shaped your faith. How did your family, the church, your community, shape your faith?
Ms. Opal Lee: I’d have to go way back. My mother was one of 19 children. Three sets of twins my grandparents had. And so, I spent a lot of time with them and so did my two brothers, but in that household, and it was a 40-acre farm, breakfasts, everybody, even if you had chores, you heard that bell that said, come for breakfast. And we’d all sit down and my grandfather, who was a circuit-riding preacher, would sit at the head of the table and each person at that table, young or old, had to say Bible verse. And you’d better know more than one because if somebody said one that you planned to say, you’d have to get up from the table, go get the Bible, learn a verse before you could eat. Well, there was the noon prayer. He wasn’t available then, but at night for the evening meal, we gathered again. And of course he prayed, but all of us had to participate. Every one of us. And when my mother got married and moved to Marshall, Texas, that pattern followed. And my grandfather would send people to my mother. He’d do that to my grandmother. Bring somebody that needed food or clothes, a place to stay, and instruct them that they were to see after that person till they could get on their feet.
So I guess you could say I was sort of steeped in the Bible and knowing that you were to look after your fellow man. In Marshall, my mother joined a Methodist church because it was close to where she lived. My grandfather didn’t care where you went to church so long as you would go. When we left Marshall for Fort Worth, my mother, we left on Saturday, my mother had a job on Sunday and she was away a lot, because she worked and worked and worked some more. But we knew as children that at our meals, we had to have a blessing and say our verses, whether she was there or not. When our house was destroyed by people who didn’t want us in the neighborhood, things were disrupted, but we still had to continue that. And see, I forgot to mention that there was a… Grandpa, we all gathered in the evening after chores, and he did the prayer. It was like, I say, now, being on your knees at church. Once those prayers were said, you could go finish your chores if you hadn’t, or if you had places to go, that was the time, but you didn’t leave until Papa had prayed.
So, Fort Worth again. My mother worked extremely hard and it was left to us to have our meal, say our verses, and so it stayed with me. I did the same thing with my children. I had four of them-girl and three boys. And again, I was away working a lot and they too were supposed to say their blessing before they ate. And we knew, we knew if my mom brought somebody home that needed something, or they had to stay with us a while until they got on their feet, it’s sort of in our DNA that we are supposed to help our brother. I think somewhere in the Bible we’ve been taught that we are our brother’s keeper, and so in my family, we are responsible for people.
Bishop Mike McK…: Opal, one of the things that, when you tell some of those stories, reminds me is that this is just part of your makeup from the very beginning of your life in east Texas, and then you come to Fort Worth, my hometown, and you engage in some significant activism over the last several decades related to public schools, related to hunger, and things of that nature. How did you think, although you’ve been really clear about this, how did you stay engaged in that activism throughout your life? I mean, where does that resilience come from, and when you got to a place that it was so difficult, what did you do?
Ms. Opal Lee: Pray. That’s what we were taught to do. Pray, and something’s going to happen. It might not happen when you ask for it, but pray. And then again, if there’s somebody else to tend to besides yourself and your family, and it happens all the time. I mean nonstop. There’s always somebody who needs something and they’d find me or somebody would send them to me. So I didn’t have any time to regret or be sorry, or wonder what’s my fate, how come I don’t have this. I never had the time for that kind of stuff. You did what you could with what you had, and sometimes you were surprised because you got maybe a little extra in your paycheck or somebody passed on something that somebody else didn’t want. So I just don’t know what to say except you have to continue to look after people and look after yourself, and sure enough, if you look after somebody else, you’re not going to worry about what’s happening at your place.
Bishop LaTrelle…: Ms. Lee, as a follow-up to that, if I could ask you, this is Bishop Easterling. The kind of activism that it has taken to secure both the Juneteenth holiday and the work that has come after that, some would argue, is political and then others would say politics has no place in the church. How do you respond to that?
Ms. Opal Lee: Well, for me, it’s never come up. I’ve never bothered about what others said. You know? It just sort of rolls off of me like water off a duck’s back. If you have something to do, you do it. Criticism, you’re going to get, but you shouldn’t let it stop you from doing what you know is right. I felt like Juneteenth needed to be a national holiday. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Why it took me 40 years? I don’t know. I had other things to do, I guess. You just keep putting one foot in front of the other. And I too heard that political thing.
Somebody was supposed to let us have an RV, and I wouldn’t have to go to hotels and motels, but they decided that what I was doing was too political. I didn’t give it a second thought, and when I was walking two and a half miles, another two and a half miles, I went from Fort Worth to Arlington to Grand Prairie to Dallas, Balch Springs and Chaco. Two and a half miles, two and a half miles, until I reached that point. My teammates decided, “Hey, you’re not going to do it like that. You are only going to go where there are Juneteenth celebrations or festivals and where you were invited.” Okay. I was invited all over these United States. So the criticism for me, I just put it behind me. I don’t give it a thought.
Bishop Mike McK…: So Opal, not only the Juneteenth holiday, but you had several other endeavors in your community that were really important. Could you just name those so we have a sense about how you have really persevered for a long time?
Ms. Opal Lee: What happened somewhere along the line… I mean, it really started when I was a teacher. They called me a visiting teacher, and that wasn’t it, but I would go to the homes. There were children who’d come to school hungry, didn’t have shoes, didn’t have a decent place to stay, and it was my responsibility to alleviate that. That’s what I did as a visiting teacher. So when I retired, that stuff still followed me. People still needed things, and I would get food for the elderly. There was a food bank that I joined and it burned, and so there’s this huge building behind my house with a big sign on it that said for sale, and I asked and they wanted $4,000 a month, and we moved into it. How about that for faith? We didn’t have a dime, but we paid that for 11 months, and do you know, that place services some 500 families a day?
We didn’t have $4,000. The people who owned the building came to us and said, “Seems like you’re doing a good work,” and the river authority gave me the use of 13 acres on the river. Oh, have we had a good time. We’ve got the best farm manager in the world. He gives some of the produce to the food bank, to the WIC program, and then he goes to the market on Saturdays. We are delighted. That is…
And so, we chose to work with people who had been incarcerated and couldn’t find a job. We felt like if they were taught farming, you know, a lot of people think that stuff on the grocery shelf, they don’t know where it comes from. But we thought if these young people, these people learned farming, and they were given, they’d earned a certificate from one of the colleges and the time that they had spent in jail was not wasted, we felt we were doing a service. And that’s what we are hoping other farmers will do. Take somebody in. Teach them what you are doing. They got to be paid, but we sort of think that that might spread. That somebody else might take it up.
Bishop Mike McK…: You see Juneteenth as a bridge, and much of your work has a focus on unity. How have you been able to build bridges based on trust and get to the place of assuming the positive intent in others?
Ms. Opal Lee: Well, I just wish there was a little more of me because don’t seem to have a problem with getting responses from people who are not on the same page I’m on. And I don’t just quiz them. I like to know what they are doing, and we talk, and sometimes it’s like a light bulb. Oh, I didn’t realize that. I didn’t know that this happened. I certain it wouldn’t have been a part of that.
People simply haven’t been told. We need books that tell the story of what actually happened, so that we can heal from it and get on with the business of living. And if I didn’t have anything else to do with that, I’d be like Johnny Appleseed going all over the land, talking to people and changing their minds. And I’ve asked people to make themselves a committee of one, to change the mind of somebody they know that’s not on the same page they on. And just think; if the 3 million people… We took 1.5 million signatures to come and we were going to take another 1.5 million when we were called to the White House. Just think. If 3 million people would change the minds of somebody else, boy, we’d be in really good shape. It’s a dream, but it could happen.
Bishop Gregory …: Ms. Lee, this is Gregory Vaughn Palmer, and thank you for your witness and your perseverance with grace through the years. This is maybe a similar question as has been asked by Bishop Easterling. She talked about, and you responded to, people’s resistance to the mixing of religion and politics. And in this age where you’re telling us we need to know our stories, all of us, and to know the real story, and I may add with all of its nuances, there is this huge backlash against, shall we say, the conversation about critical race theory. Saying that it’s only going to divide us. Now state legislatures are spending as much time, in some cases, trying to outlaw certain textbooks, certain narratives from being told in the classroom.
So let’s assume for a moment you’re talking to a group of people that feel that telling the whole story is divisive. It’s too painful. Say a word about how you come alongside them to help them to know that knowing the truth actually can heal us, because you talked about you want to get it out there so we can be healed, and then I think you said get on with the business of living. How can knowing the truth of our stories, even the painful parts or especially the painful parts, participate or be a part of the healing of the land?
Ms. Opal Lee: Well, I’m going to be speaking to AT&T employees tomorrow or the next day. Again, I’ll talk to them, probably say the same thing I’ve been saying here, but I want to put in their minds, everybody that works there is not on the same page. And so I’m saying to those people, you know a person that you work with. Why don’t you start changing that person’s mind? It ain’t going to take a day or two. You got to work with them and it’s hard, but I think people’s minds can be changed.
I know because I’ve changed some minds. I know that if people understand that knowing the truth and being able to see that there are things we can do so that doesn’t happen again. I think we are all on a mission. We should be. There are too many things that need to be addressed. Homelessness and joblessness and healthcare that some people can get and others can’t, climate change. All these things need to be addressed, and I think we could do it. I think we could make this the best country in the whole wide world if we only understand freedom. Not for black folk, not for Asians or Mexican Americans. Freedom is for everybody, and as long as we are not free, we’re going to have these issues. And my point is, let’s get on with the business of making this free for every one of us.
Bishop Mike McK…: Thank you. One last question. So you’ve shared about your perseverance, your activism, your dreams about our country. How do you care for your own soul in the midst of this work?
Ms. Opal Lee: I think that the work is important, and I’m a person who reads the Bible often, and I do have set time for my prayers and I’m still doing my prayers when I eat my food at home or out in the cafe or wherever. So I’m hoping my soul is being nourished when I do something for somebody else, and I hope I’ll have the strength to do so many things that I think need to be done.
Would you believe I had this idea because I read about this woman in Uganda, who was the mother of 44 children, 38 of them still living, and I am so proud of her I don’t know what to do. You may need to know that the doctor stopped her from having children. You may need to know that her family, she was 12 years old when they married her to somebody and she ended up with her first set of twins, and now she’s had twins and twins and triplets and triplets and quadruples, 38 children she has. I want to do something. I want to send some containers, railroad containers that are furnished for those people. I want to send three containers. Now they got containers over there, so I guess if I asked the railroad over there about those containers, maybe I could get them there and it wouldn’t be so expensive. But how come I’m dreaming about somebody in Uganda and I got folk right here that need help? But the Lord’s going to help me see whether I can do that or not or if I need to stay here and just help where I can.
Bishop Gregory …: Amen.
Bishop Mike McK…: Friend, you have given us so much to think about, and now I ask my colleagues, Bishops Easterling and Palmer. What would you highlight from today’s conversation?
Bishop Gregory …: Well, I would highlight, what’s been stimulated in me by listening to Ms. Lee, this remarkable servant of God, leader of a movement, woman of great faith, and it stirred up in me two songs that I can’t wait till we stop recording so I can go in a room and close the door and just start singing. One is the hymn that has the words of its first line, “Oh, for a faith that will not shrink though pressed by every foe.” So when I think going forward of Ms. Lee, I’m going to be thinking of a faith that will not shrink. That’s the water off the duck’s back. The other is out of the African American tradition of spirituals. The song that says, “Lord, I keep so busy working for my Jesus. I ain’t got time to die.” Ms. Lee has evoked in me, if you got something to do, keep on doing it. Thank you Ms. Lee.
Bishop LaTrelle…: Amen and amen. And I would add that what resonates within me from this conversation and will be with me is as we think about choosing a path forward, it’s important that what is instilled in us every day, this reclaiming of scripture, this being immersed in God’s word, prepares us to be able to understand the amazing grace that we have been offered and that we can extend that amazing grace to others, assuming positive intent. Sometimes having to look past what appears on the surface, but assuming positive intent, as we all go on to perfection to really to continue to become the beloved community. It requires something of us, but in the end, it blesses the whole. So, that will resonate with me and thank you so much Ms. Lee, for what you have imparted to us today.
Bishop Mike McK…: Ms. Lee, every time I hear you speak, and the couple of times that we’ve been together, I always find myself to begin to smile more and more and more, and it’s because your very presence and your words just exudes joy, and so that I think with a sense of joy that we’re capable of so much more than we think, and that joy is a gift from our God that comes from people who’ve allowed God to nurture their spirits. And so, I’m reminded again about your sense of joy and you’re continuing to be steadfast and the work that you know that God has called you to do in our communities. So I want to thank you for being with us this morning.
Ms. Opal Lee: Thank you for letting me be with you. I’ve enjoyed this. I have. Let’s do it again.
Bishop Mike McK…: Friends, please join our next conversation about seeking relationships with Fred Shaw.
Bishop Gregory …: Episodes are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Bishop LaTrelle…: Connect with us and find related resources on our website, theunfinishedchurch.org.
The Unfinished Church. Conversations that transform.