Pastor Marlyn Bussey on how Juneteenth inspires "mixed feelings"

Pastor Marlyn Bussey on how Juneteenth inspires “mixed feelings”

St. James A.M.E. Zion Church in San Mateo is a historically African American Methodist congregation that is intentional about becoming a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic ministry. In addition to more than 20 different ministries and its many community partnerships, since the pandemic started St. James has hosted a weekly COVID-19 testing site and several vaccination clinics.

Rev. Dr. Marlyn Bussey has been the church’s pastor since 2009 and is a member of SVCF’s Community Advisory Council. She answered several questions for us about the congregation’s work and what Juneteenth means to her. The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.

1) What is the most vital work you are doing right now?  

In our current ministry, we’ve partnered with San Mateo County to support the Latinx, African American and Pacific Islander communities in the North Central neighborhood of the city of San Mateo. The church, county and Bay Area Community Health Advisory Council began our work together by establishing a community-based census outreach and education center. We registered hundreds of people in hard-to-reach populations of San Mateo. The county then invited us to provide voter education and registration. That, too, was a successful effort. The church became a weekly COVID-19 testing site in November 2020 and in March 2021, we partnered with Sequoia Hospital to provide four vaccination clinics for hard-to-reach populations in the area.

2) What are you most excited about next?

We are currently in negotiations with San Mateo County to provide a weekly community health clinic for blood sugar and blood pressure screening. This clinic will be in addition to the weekly COVID-19 testing, which will continue through the end of 2021. I’m also excited that we [reopened] the church for Sunday worship on June 20. Ministry and worship in the age of COVID-19 is necessarily different but is also exciting as we work to continue ministry in the virtual world and also reach new people.

3) What are your feelings and thoughts about Juneteenth?

I have mixed feelings about Juneteenth. On the one hand, I understand the need to celebrate victory, regardless of how delayed it was. But I struggle with the fact that Black people in Texas were kept in chattel slavery two and a half years longer than they should have been, then invited to continue working for a pittance for the same masters. It doesn't feel like freedom, in the true sense, to me. On the other hand, making this day a national holiday feels patronizing when what the Black community needs is to have Congress pass the George Floyd Policing Act, to stop allowing bad cops to continue working in law enforcement and to ban any law that prohibits people from voting without suppression. That would give me something to celebrate! Congress has the power to do what needs to be done in order to form “a more perfect union.” They proved that when the Senate overwhelmingly passed the anti-Asian hate crimes bill. I am thrilled that my Asian siblings now have some real protection. I just wonder if and when the same will be done for Black and Brown people.

4) What role has the complex legacy of Juneteenth played in your work in San Mateo and beyond?

The majority of my senior congregants are from the South, many from Texas, so they are well acquainted with the Juneteenth celebrations. As their pastor, I feel a responsibility to stand on the front lines of social justice issues so that as “the freedom church” we can continue to give voice to the struggle for authentic freedom. The church is represented as taking a firm stand against inequality in any form and is a welcoming, affirming fellowship. In that spirit, I am also the co-director of the Peninsula Solidarity Cohort, a group of 40 interfaith leaders who work together to provide leadership for San Mateo as we strive to make our county the most moral, welcoming county in the state of California.

SVCF's commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion is reflected in our work across multiple initiatives since our founding in 2007. For more information about our efforts, visit our page with racial equity and social justice resources and information.

Read more: Why Juneteenth matters: Q&A with Milan R. Balinton of African American Community Service Agency

Read more: SVCF President and CEO Nicole Taylor on Juneteenth

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