Preserved by Purpose: The Jewel of Juneteenth

After sharing that she loved Michelle Obama and had just seen her, she added that she was hoping she could talk to Mrs. Obama about making Juneteenth a national holiday. It then clicked who she was. I asked her if she was Opal Lee by chance. She nodded her head yes and then pulled out a stack of papers from her purse explaining why Juneteenth being a national holiday was so important. Moreover, she stated that she was a little disappointed that she didn’t have a chance to meet with Ms. Obama personally but that she was going to keep trying. Her optimism was contagious as she added that she had faith and that she knew one day it would happen.

When I asked Ms. Lee if she was traveling with anyone, with a determined twinkle in her eye, she declared that she was by herself. Before I could ask why, she stated that her people would not have wanted her to come and that they didn’t know she was there by herself. At that point, I looked at her and said that she was no longer traveling by herself and that me and my co-workers would travel with her until she made it to her destination. My co-workers and I marveled at how sharp her mind was as she passionately shared about Juneteenth as well as her first-of-the-year community dinner. Ms. Lee seemed like she was guided by an unyielding positivity and persistence.

She embodies Hebrews 11:1 “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Her belief in making Juneteenth has also led her to walk to Washington DC, hosting an ecumenical prayer breakfast, community festival, play and movie screening.

I thought about this first encounter with Ms. Lee as I watched the excitement on Ms. Lee’s face as she stood next to President Joe Biden when he signed the Juneteenth bill into a law. It was a breathtaking historical moment! Even more importantly, it showed the power of the faith of one person to make a difference in the lives of so many.


Shewanda Riley is a Fort Worth-based author of “Love Hangover: Moving from Pain to Purpose After a Relationship Ends” and “Writing to the Beat of God’s Heart: A Book of Prayers for Writers.” Email her at or follow her on Twitter @shewanda.


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