The Watch Night Services in black communities can be traced back to gatherings on Dec. 31, 1862, also known as "Freedom’s Eve." On that night, blacks came together in churches and private homes across the nation, anxiously awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation actually had become law. Then, at the stroke of midnight, all the slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free. When the news was received, there were prayers, shouts and songs of joy as people fell to their knees and thanked God. Black folks have gathered in churches annually on New Year’s Eve ever since, praising God for bringing us safely through another year.
From Bethany Lutheran's 2009 bulletin (the night is also traced to the Moravians and Methodists).
Ringing in the New Year is largely a secular celebration—left to gatherings in homes, bars, restaurants or Times Square. But on Chicago's South Side, members of Bethany Lutheran tap into a traditional church gathering called Watch Night every New Year's Eve. And if the timing is about right with the preacher's homily, they enter the New Year sharing the peace.
"It's not about drinking or partying or firing our guns. It's not about some big ball dropping. It's about God seeing us through to a new year," said Darryl Thompson Powell, pastor. "It's a somewhat traditional black church gathering with a Bethany twist."
Members gather in the fellowship hall about 9:30 p.m. for a potluck. Around 11 p.m. they make their way upstairs for worship that includes remembering why they celebrate Watch Night (see sidebar). Worshipers also celebrate the last day of Kwanzaa and communion. It's a multigenerational service, though Powell said the elderly members don't make it out as they used to.
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