Standing high on a hill on the banks of the Ohio River, looking across at the state of Kentucky, history was coursing through my veins filling me with a sense of time past and time present. As both crowded my heart and mind, I was swept up in the historicity of the ground on which I was standing and the purposeful sense that the work is and the work must continue.
I was at the Rev. John Rankin House, home of an influential Underground Railroad Conductor in the thirty years leading up to the Civil War; he is my ancestor four generations back. I stood at the window where he left a lantern burning when it was safe for escaping slaves to cross the river on one of its narrowest sections. He and his sons waited on the other side ready to risk their lives, as slave catchers chased their prey into and around the woods. Hiding, ducking bullets, dodging snarling dogs, they safely guided over 2,000 slaves to freedom not losing one to death or capture.
Rankin also wrote and organized. His Letters on American Slavery, written in 1836 to his brother Thomas who owned slaves, not only changed his brother’s mind and life forever, but those of many in and outside his community. With a bounty on his head and an attempt to burn down his family home with his wife and 13 children inside, Rankin continued unabated, literally helping to change the course of history. When Henry Ward Beecher was asked at the end of the Civil War, “Who abolished slavery?” he answered, “Rev. John Rankin and his sons did it.” (Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad, Ann Hagedorn, p. 275)
The steps leading up the steep hill to The Rankin House are widely known as the 100 Steps to Freedom. “Just one more step,” I can hear the escaping slaves saying between ragged breaths. “Just one more step. I’m almost there.”
Most of us are not called to literally risk our lives to work for the freedom of others, but I believe we are called to do something. Today there are more slaves in the world than at any other time in history. The US State Department and social scientists estimate that there are as many as 47 million slaves in the world today. By contrast, there were a little under 4 million slaves in the United States in 1860.
Human trafficking and slavery is a $150 billion/year industry, with the motivation again being the evil desire to profit from human flesh. Forced labor and child labor, sex trafficking and child sex trafficking, involuntary domestic servitude, and recruitment of child soldiers are all aspects of modern day slavery. What steps can we take? To begin, just buying our products from Fair Trade Certified organizations can and does make a difference. (See endslaverynow.org for a list of Slave Free companies.)
And there’s more, much more we can do in various arenas. Many people in our own backyard although physically free, are enslaved to addiction with the opioid epidemic out of control in our country. Americans consume 80% of the world’s pain killers – a type of enslavement to a substance that costs countless lives each year. (Business Insider, 5/14/2012)
In addition, many around the world are enslaved, trapped, in multi-generational poverty with no hope of escape. Yet you and I hold the key. Programs that cut at the heart of the systemic issues surrounding poverty can and do enable some to literally escape its grip. Nelson Mandela has written, “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.” Yes it is.
Yet I find in my own work in secondary education in Cameroon, West Africa, it isn’t always easy, with many obstacles to overcome. Rev. John Rankin faced them; my colleagues and I face them; you will face them. Whenever there is a force for good, for love, for care in the world there is often an equal force pushing back against it that can feel overwhelming at times. Some would call it the force of evil, others a force of fear of change, but a force it is nonetheless.
In those times, I find myself mystically one with those I am called to work with and for. “Just one more step. Just one more step,” I say to myself, knowing that God is with me, knowing that God already has and still does overcome evil, that love will win in the end.
One more step to freedom. Just one more step. Up the steep hill to Rev. Rankin’s house. In our own backyard. Halfway around the world.
Are you called to join the parade?
-The Rev. Canon Elizabeth Rankin Geitz