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Watch Night services to celebrate New Year, freedom from slavery

December 31, 2012 |  3:36 pm

The Emancipation Proclamation. Many black churches will have “Watch Night” services commemorating the wait for President Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation proclamation in 1863.

The Rev. Mark Whitlock will be donning a tuxedo Monday night for a joyful New Year’s Eve celebration, ringing in 2013 from the pulpit of his Orange County church.

For many African American Christians, such as Whitlock, New Year’s Eve is a time to gather in “Watch Night” services commemorating their ancestors’ vigil150 years ago over whether President Lincoln would sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Because Lincoln did sign it on Jan. 1, 1863, declaring all slaves in confederate states “forever free,” the evening became a time of prayer, song, dance and celebration, Whitlock said.

“For us, it’s about the birth of freedom in 1863,” said Whitlock, pastor of Christ Our Redeemer Church, an African Methodist Episcopal congregation in Irvine. “And in 2013, we shall seek freedom from oppression and inner conflicts.”

The pastor of the 2,800-member congregation said festivities would start at 9 p.m. with dinner, followed by a 10 p.m. worship service featuring gospel music and an 11:30 p.m. sermon. Putting a modern twist on the freedom message, congregants will share stories of their liberation this year from alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty, poor health and other crippling conditions, Whitlock said.

Congregants will dramatize watchmen awaiting news over Lincoln’s decision, then break into celebration at the stroke of midnight. The church is at 46 Maxwell in Irvine.

Several other African American congregations also have Watch Night services planned. First AME, at 2270 South Harvard Blvd. in Los Angeles, has scheduled services at 10 p.m. Monday and noon Tuesday to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

A 10 p.m. service is also scheduled at the cathedral of West Angeles Church of God in Christ, 3600 Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Watch Night services will also be held in the United Methodist Church, whose co-founder, John Wesley, first popularized them in the 18th century. Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño of the denomination’s Los Angeles Episcopal area, said Wesley began the Watch Nights as an opportunity to renew congregants’ covenant with God for the new year.

“Wesley had a deep sense that we have come this far by the grace of God and the only appropriate response is … to recommit our lives to God,” she said.

Several Methodist congregations have scheduled Watch Nights, including a 7 p.m. service at Claremont United Methodist  Church, 211 West Foothill Blvd. In the Episcopal denomination, a 7:30 p.m. service is scheduled at All Saints Church, 132 N. Euclid Avenue in Pasadena.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, New Year’s Eve Masses are offered for all who died this year, according to Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese. Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez will celebrate a 9 p.m. bilingual Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, 555 W. Temple St. in Los Angeles.


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Photo: The original Emancipation Proclamation on display in the Rotunda of the National Archives in Washington in 2005. Many black churches gather in “Watch Night” services commemorating the wait for President Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation 150 years ago. Credit: Evan Vucci / Associated Press