High above the Ohio River in Ripley, Ohio, sits the home of the Rankin family. Reverend John Rankin, a Presbyterian minister and early abolitionist, along with his wife and children, hosted over two thousand enslaved African Americans as conductors on the Underground Railroad. The enslaved would make their way across the river—sometimes on a small boat captained by John Parker, an enslaved man who purchased his freedom and moved to Ripley—and then proceed up the northern bank of the river to the Rankin home where a lantern burned in the front window signaling the pathway to freedom. Mrs. Rankin would serve the newly freed a hot meal and dry their wet clothes as they rested for a few hours before journeying on to the next stop on the Underground Railroad—often in Red Oak, Ohio, in the home of another Presbyterian minister.
In the 1820’s, Rev. Rankin wrote a series of letters to his brother, a slaveowner in Virginia, petitioning him to free the enslaved and arguing for abolition. These letters were later published as Letters on American Slavery. Rev. Rankin’s letters along with his passionate speeches ignited the abolitionist movement and influenced many of its ardent proponents.
My family visited the Rankin home this past Friday. A question asked by Jadon to the tour guide prompted her to speak of the Rankin home as a spiritual and holy place. As I later reflected on our visit and this comment by the guide, I thought to myself that indeed it is a holy place for the work of liberation is holy work—the work of God to which we are all called and invited. Rev. Rankin and his wife and children lived out the gospel in the dangerous yet lifegiving work of liberating others. They accepted God’s call on their lives even with the risks involved because they knew God needed them for the crucial work of setting others free.
People remain bound today—enslaved by poverty, addiction, mental illness, racism, sexism and homophobia. The work of liberation remains the work of God’s people. It begins by informing ourselves and understanding our own role in what keeps others bound and keeps us from setting them free. It then continues as we make changes to our attitudes and actions—seeing people differently and doing something concrete to bring liberation to them. Much like the Rankin family, our role is often to offer space and room to others as they make their own way to freedom. Our welcome and our simple aid can make all the difference as they journey to a better and freer place.
Much like the Rankin family, our role is often to offer space and room to others as they make their own way to freedom.
Enslaved men, women and children stood on the southern bank of the Ohio River looking and longing for the light in the window of the Rankin home—a light they knew would lead them to freedom. People look to us too. May we be light for their footsteps. May we make their path brighter and easier with our goodness, kindness and tenacious commitment to their liberation.