A few years ago, I had a chance to participate in an experience called “Follow the North Star.” Basically, each participant is a slave seeking to escape their master’s care. Conner Prairie re-created the kind of settings, towns, and houses that the escaping slaves would encounter, including slave-owners, bounty hunters, and folks who may (or may not) help you along the journey. When I did it last time, it amazed me how quickly everyone fell into roles and how hard your heart can beat (and how loud every snap of a twig could be). All told, it was an intense and emotional experience, but I wanted to get a taste of what it must have felt like as I was doing research for my first novel.

I was reminded of this memory recently when a friend of mine wanted to know if it was possible to draw a parallel between the underground railroad and discipleship. In his words, he didn’t want “to allegorize the seriousness of what Harriet Tubman did but I would like to show the seriousness of the steps of discipleship and what it’ll cost.”

The simple profundity of this parallel stuck with me. Baring a traumatic event, people don’t change quickly. Slavery as practice in the Americas, however, had two distinguishing features. The dynamic shifted so that it was a matter of capital motives moreso than conquest; and was practiced along racial lines, justified by the inherent inferiority and dehumanization of African peoples. As a slave, your name, your body, your time, your mind, no aspect of your life was your own. You were born into the system and you very well expected to die in the system. However, whispers of escape, the hope of freedom, would light up your soul.

Christianity is a journey from slavery (from this world’s systems, notions of individualism, self-sufficiency, empire) to freedom (to be fully human in the way of Christ, living as we were meant to live). The spiritual formation that molds us to Christ-likeness, to more naturally have the ways of gentleness and love, takes time. Discipleship.

And discipleship is like the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad was a vast network of people, consisting of black folks and white people alike, who helped runaway slaves escape to the North and to Canada. Discipleship is about deepening your walk in spiritual maturity, spiritually formed into a disciple of Jesus. It’s done as a part of the community of believers as we participate in worship and the rites of covenant that mark our journey and progress.

The Underground Railroad network used terms familiar to the railroad setting:
-“stations” and “depots” – homes and businesses where fugitive slaves could rest and eat
-“station masters” – ran the “stations”
-“stockholders” – those who contributed money or goods
-“conductor” – responsible for moving fugitives from one station to the next
Likewise, discipleship is not done along, but rather within community, a network of believers from mentors to more formal gatherings. At each leg of the journey, fugitives from slavery, literal and figurative, must decide whether or not to move on to the next stage. Many people make commitments but don’t keep them. They may start out well, but may drop out.

A slave set out on an often dangerous journey, starting with having to escape the slave owner. The slave typically had to rely on his own resources, as the Spirit moved them, though sometimes a conductor would pose as a slave to enter the plantation and guide them northward. To become a disciple means to start a new life, a new journey – to find a new way to understand yourself, treat others, and see the world. Freedom isn’t easy. The same thing could be said of the spiritual seeker who has made the decision to become free. They experience that spiritual longing to be free, when their longing is met by the call of God. This leads to what some call the rite of conversion, a public profession of faith, as they begin their arduous journey.

The path of the Underground Railroad was a slow journey, usually 10-20 miles from one station to the next, places to rest, eat, and hide. While the fugitives waited, a message would be sent to the next station to alert the station master so that they might prepare for the coming of new arrivals.

The journey to freedom was not one easily made alone. A fugitive often needed a conductor, a mentor of sorts, to help them along the way. Harriet Tubman, “Moses” to over 300 slaves during her 19 trips into the South (having “never lost a single passenger”), became our model of a mentor. Each journey being different, she was prepared as well as flexible. Stern when she had to be (often carrying a gun to wave at weary fugitives as encouragement to move on and be free, or die), creative when needed (carrying drugs to give to babies should their crying risk the group), and at all times provided instruction as well as be a beacon of hope. For any who set on the path of discipleship, a mentor is any Christian who is willing to provide spiritual guidance for you, to help answer questions or point you in the right direction. The spiritual fugitives become hearers during these early steps of discipleship.

From Quakers to freed slaves, fugitives found themselves in new relationship with people. Fugitives had to sometimes travel by train or boat, either of which required money. For that matter, money was also needed to buy clothes, since being black was suspicious enough, but being black wearing tattered clothing was doubly so.

You don’t do the journey alone. You need others who help and encourage you in Christian faith and practice as you move away from a self-centered life to one of learning new ways of serving others and what it means to be free. As hearers, you seek out a new body, a new family, what we call the community of the church, an idea we’ll explore more next time.