By Darrell Gillespie
“Watch Night Service,” also known as “Freedom’s Eve” in the American Black Church, symbolizes the historical event on the night of Dec. 31, 1862 when free and freed Blacks living in the Union States gathered at churches and other safe spaces while thousands of their enslaved Black sisters and brothers stood, knelt, and prayed on plantations and other slave-holding sites in America, waiting for President Abraham Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation into law, officially ending slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation legally recognized that the Civil War was fought for slavery.
The idea of watching and waiting for something as glorious as freedom sparked a tradition of a church service to bring in the New Year. These services include singing, praying and giving testimonies, along with scriptures read silently and out loud. Those who attend this service can reflect on their relationship with Christ throughout the year, share their testimonies with others and look inwardly in anticipation of the year ahead.
Over the years, I have gone from hating to spend New Year’s Eve in church to making sure I am there early to give God glory and honor for bringing me into another year. Back in 1988, when I attended a “Watch Service” as a college senior, I could not wait for the final blessing so I could make it to a slamming New Year’s Eve party. I went up and was anointed with oil by Pastor Albert Lee as he prayed for my protection for the year. I went to that slamming party, and after it was over I rode home as the passenger in a car. The driver began driving at a high speed, went over a railroad track and we flew in the air, hitting a telephone pole. The car flipped over three times, hit another electric pole and then flipped over again. Finally, we landed upside down. We jumped out of the car and ran because the driver had no license. My takeaway was that Watch Service prayer saved my life!
I mention that story ,which will hold a special place in my heart forever, because I think about my ancestors who waited on the good news of slavery’s end and freedom. I am sure they gave praise to God who answered their prayers. Now, I think about sitting in Shiloh Temple International Ministries on December 31, 2019. I sat alone in the back weeping and thanking God for all the trouble of 2019 and praising Him for a prosperous 2020. I received my New Year’s slogan for our church: “Walking in Plenty in 2020.” Little did I know what we were in for—a pandemic that would affect every part of our life. Then to make matters worse, the murder of George Floyd happened. I wondered, was God playing a joke with the theme He gave me?
This has been a year full of pain and growth! I think Watch Night services allow for us to take a critical look at how good God really is despite all that is going on around us. James 1:2-4 reads: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” As we think about moving into 2021, we must be joyful in what is to come and how we can continue to grow.
Holding a Watch Night service can be relevant now for people in all communities because of the struggles we still face and endure. A service like this allows reflection and release.
- Reflect on ways we can do things differently and how we can celebrate and love one another.
- Reflect upon how God will use us in ways that will pull us out of our comfort zones, trusting his will, will be done!
- Release the harmful thoughts and behaviors of those who do not truly understand the importance of unity.
- Release those who have done us wrong and move into a place of forgiveness and restoration.
The significance of Watch Night for people of faith, particularly African American people of faith, cannot be denied. What is so beautiful about the Watch Night tradition is what it embodies. For a group that was previously in bondage and is largely marginalized, the idea of freedom is powerful. It provides a space for many to be reminded of their freedom and the significance behind it. It also serves as a reminder that there is still a long way for us to go to get where we need to be.
Your Turn: Attend a Watch Night Service this Year
If you have not before, look into participating in a Watch Night service. This year you’ll probably have some virtual options, an opportunity that didn’t exist in other years. Bring your own hopes and prayers with you, but also consider the perspectives of other worshipers from different backgrounds. Thank God not only for allowing you to wake up another day but also for the freedoms that have been bestowed upon you. Without God, nothing is possible and with God all things are possible. It could save your life!
About the Author
Darrell Gillespie is the Senior Pastor and Founder of Proverbs Christian Fellowship , a 17-year-old non-denominational congregation in North Minneapolis. He graduated with his MDiv from Luther Seminary in 2006 and is currently working on a DMin in Black Church Leadership through United Theological Seminary.
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