By Jeff Miller, District Superintendent
We stood on the hilltop and took in the majestic Ohio River valley vista. It was stunning. Pam and I could easily see across into Kentucky and for miles in each direction along the river. Beside us was a pastor’s house standing like a lighthouse on a peak. It truly was a beacon. For years, the light on the porch of the house beckoned to those on the far shore that this was a place of safety and passage. Those seeking freedom and life transformation could cross the river and make their way to the house on the hill. From there, caring people throughout Ohio would guide and guard them on their pathway to freedom and a new life.
The pastor was John Rankin. The place was Ripley, OH. Though no one knows for sure how many slaves crossed the Ohio River and passed through the Rankin manse, the best estimates are over two thousand. The biggest stops on the ‘underground railroad’ were Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Ripley. Who knew? Not I. Little Ripley made a big dent in the fight for freedom for all people.
As we stood on sacred ground, on a peaceful spring day, I wondered at the tension and terror – the hope laced with horror – of those running north and rushing to cross the divide from bondage into freedom. As the Rankins and others in Ripley helped each weary desperate person, I suspect that they rarely thought of the “big picture”. I think they thought of that night, that frantic slave, those hounds barking in the distance, those horses carrying men with guns, wondering when the moon or sun would rise and how to get these needy folks with panicked hearts racing to the next stop. They likely did not see what they were doing as stopping the institution of slavery, but instead saw themselves as saving this one person of great worth who was at their door that night.
And so it is for us in ministry. Would we love to be the movers who lead massive revival, who are instrumental in a great movement of disciplemaking and multiplication? Would we wish to be the face and voice of global works of the Spirit? Sure we would. But I think that those who end up being the movement leaders and the world changers rarely realize their impact while they are in the midst of the dirty work, with sleeves rolled up and sweat pouring down. I suspect that they often feel like few notice, that little progress is being made, and that the circumstances are actually getting worse. That at best, they are instrumental in saving one life here and leading another to freedom there. Some on the pathway to freedom don’t make it and those helping on the ‘railroad’ feel the pain of shared loss. Sometimes, even as we seek to help those desperate for transformation and freedom, we pay a high personal price ourselves.
So it was for Pastor Rankin. Things weren’t always rosy at the church. His views and his work were not embraced by all. It was hard to know who to trust and rely on. I doubt John Rankin ever fully realized the impact of his labor for the needy people who were also created in the image of God.
It is interesting how the Lord weaves things together to accomplish His greater purposes that we could never have thought of or manufactured ourselves. One day, John Rankin was visiting some people in Cincinnati. He shared some of the stories of freedom travelers with Lyman Beecher and Calvin Stowe. Lyman’s daughter, who also happened to be Calvin’s wife, listened intently. One true story of a fugitive slave who crossed the icy Ohio River with her child and made her way to the Rankin’s house was etched in her memory. Later, that story became the basis for Harriet’s fictionalized character Eliza in her book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which became a national best seller. It had a huge influence upon American culture leading up to the Civil War. After the war someone was asked, “Who abolished slavery?”. The answer came back, “John Rankin and his sons did.”
No doubt the answer is more complex than that. But don’t miss the point. In your current ministry, your intentional actions are to save one person from slavery to sin, from addiction and destruction, from ruin and bondage -- and then your intentional actions are to reach and assist yet another on their path to freedom -- and then another. This will, of course, be eternally significant in the life of that one needy person, yet it may be much more than that. Who knows what tapestry the Spirit is weaving? Who knows what broader and long-term impact will ripple from your faithfulness?
You may have heard me discuss the tension many of us feel in Christian ministry between the tug of fruitfulness versus faithfulness. Was John Rankin’s work fruitful? I think every descendant of some two thousand slaves who moved into freedom through the Rankin house would say Yes! However, it was a compilation of individual successes. I do not think he fully fathomed how his work would impact a whole country and the whole trajectory of a nation. In that sense he was simply faithful to what was presented in front of him as need and opportunity. For me this sheds more light on the phrase I long to hear some day, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”