I’ve only been to prison once. I remember the sinking feeling as one set of heavy metal automatic doors after another closed behind me with a loud crash and I realized there was no going back. It was the infamous Attic Correctional facility where 43 prisoners and guards had died in a riot years earlier. Unlike the Apostle Paul who was imprisoned several times for preaching the gospel, I was in prison for the very purpose of preaching to the inmates at the invitation of chaplain. I was very happy to return to freedom as soon as the sermon was over.
In our Epistle reading, Paul and his friend Silas were thrown in prison not just for preaching but for jeopardizing the income of a slave owner. A slave girl is described as having a demon that allowed her to tell the fortune of people who lived in the city of Philippi. She must have been considered a rare treasure. Not every slave has special gifts like that, and her owner exploited her talent to make lots and lots of money for himself. The “spirit of divination” in her caused the woman to recognize that Paul and Silas had an important message. She told everyone about them. You would think the men might be glad for the free advertising, but in fact they were annoyed by her following them around. Finally, in desperation, Paul spoke to the demon and cast it out. That’s the last we hear about the slave girl in the story. After the demon departed, the focus was on who was to blame and how to punish the men for ruining the girl’s profitability.
I wish we knew more about that girl. Where did she come from? Did she have a family? How did she become a slave? Was she released to freedom when she was no longer any use, or was she pressed into some other kind of service? The fact that this remarkable character just disappears says a lot about the lack of value attributed to someone who was young, female, and considered property.
On Tuesday while visiting my brother in New York State, I drove 3 miles off my usual route to visit the town of Seneca Falls. Seneca Falls is known for two things: It is believed to have inspired the fictional town of Bedford Falls in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and, much more importantly, it was the location of the first Women’s Rights convention in 1848. Today, the Wesleyan Chapel that hosted Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott and others has been restored and is the center piece of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. It took seventy more years, but that historic meeting was the catalyst for women claiming the right to vote in our country.
The Women’s Rights Movement of the mid-nineteenth century emerged from and was closely tied to the Abolitionist Movement. Just sixteen miles from Seneca Falls in Auburn, New York is the home of Harriet Tubman. She bought the house in 1857 and lived there until her death in 1913.
Like the fortune teller in the books of Acts, Harriet Tubman was a young, female slave. Also, like the girl in Acts, she had visions or premonitions that inspired her to act boldly. Some might say the visions were the result of a traumatic brain injury she received when she was hit in the head by her owner with a heavy metal weight intended for another slave. She, however, attributed the visions to her belief in God and her certainly that God had important plans for her life. At the age of twenty-seven, Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery in Maryland and made her way to Philadelphia. She returned for her family and then for others, ultimately making thirteen trips that delivered seventy families to safety. Many were brought to Canada through the “Underground Railroad.”
Harriet Tubman became known as “Moses” for her commitment to delivering people from slavery. She was despised by slave owners and championed as a hero by all within the Abolitionist Movement. She helped the newly-freed slaves find work, and during the Civil War she was the first woman to lead an armed expedition. The raid she led on Combahee Ferry freed seven hundred slaves. She married a Civil War veteran and they moved to the home in Auburn where they adopted a little girl named Gertie. Harriet became active in the Women’s Rights Movement as she cared for her elderly parents and took odd jobs to make ends meet. Before she died, Harriet Tubman deeded her home to her church to be used as a home for elderly and indigent African American Women.
A few weeks ago, the U.S. Treasury announced that Harriet Tubman’s portrait would be placed on the front of the twenty dollar bill and President Andrew Jackson, a slave-owner, would be moved to the back. Talk about poetic justice!
Harriet Tubman is an exceedingly worthy woman to honor on our currency and also to lift up on Mother’s Day. Her commitment to justice meant that her own daughter would not live in slavery. What an incredible legacy for a mother to leave for her child. Her commitment to the dignity and rights of all women meant that her own daughter would one day vote even though she herself did not live long enough to exercise that right. In contrast, the slave girl in the book of Acts just sort of disappeared when the writer believed that everything relevant had already been said about her. It’s as though she ceased to exist. There was no legacy but an unfinished story. Harriet Tubman and other strong female advocates for justice have assured that women do not disappear; that their stories are valued and remembered.
When Paul and Silas were thrown in prison and the doors crashed loudly behind them, they had at least one successful prison break in their past. In Acts 5, an angel is said to have opened the doors for them. Here in chapter 16, an earthquake did the job. The foundation of the prison was shaken and the doors opened and the chains fell off of the prisoners. Just before the earthquake struck, Paul and Silas were singing hymns. The mental picture of them belting out songs of praise to God in the midst of their imprisonment makes me think of the old spirituals sung by slaves in the deep South. Even the worst kinds of bondage have not always succeeded in suppressing the human spirit. The earthquake freed the prisoners instead of trapping or destroying them. The powers and prisons of this world can be shaken, but those oppressed by them will not be crushed.
Michelle Alexander is a law professor at Ohio State University. She wrote a book titled The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness. Recently, she described the irony now existing in Colorado and Washington State where primarily white men are legally and profitably engaged in selling marijuana while impoverished black man continue to sit in prison cells for selling the same substance, their lives and families essentially destroyed. With five percent of the world’s population, the United States has incarcerated twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners, with those imprisoned disproportionately black. Those who break the law while white are far more likely to be punished and to be punished more severely than those of color. Michelle Alexander is one female voice among many advocating for change within our legal system and the prison industry it supports. Working for justice does not mean turning a blind eye to crime, but it does mean opening doors and breaking chains for those who are imprisoned unjustly.
Let’s go back to that slave girl in Acts 16. The rest of her story is not told. The writer lost interest, and she was perhaps discarded by her owner when she was no longer generating a profit. What opportunities were likely for her in a world that would enslave a child in the first place? As far as we know, there were no Harriet Tubmans rescuing families at that time by leading them to freedom and helping them find meaningful employment. I would like to think that perhaps the women who supported Paul and Silas along their missionary journey saw the girl and took her into their care.
What is your opportunity to break chains and open doors so that others can walk into freedom? Bondage comes in many, many forms. Injustice is all around us, and we all have the power to make a difference.
Lisel Mueller is a poet who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997. She fled with her family from Germany during the Nazi regime when she was fifteen year old. The poem we heard speaks of the power of strong women to overcome injustice. Hear this portion again:
Prisoners held in underground cells
imagine that they see daylight
when they remember the laughter of women
What a language it is, the laughter of women,
high-flying and subversive.
Long before law and scripture
we heard the laughter, we understood freedom.
I picture Harriet Tubman and a ragtag group of travelers laughing as they crossed the Mason-Dixon Line from slavery to freedom. I imagine women laughing with joy as the right to vote was finally won. And I hear the laughter of a girl no longer enslaved by the spirit of hopelessness. What do you hear? And what can you do to bring laughter to the lips of those who live under the bondage of any oppression today?