I Met the Storyteller Today
By Rev. Keith Turman | 2021-06-11 | 3 min read
Novella Nimmo, from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center did not allow the Zoom platform to diminish her passion. A team member asked, “Why did you accept our invitation to come to Lake Junaluska?” It was one of those moments. Had I been wearing shoes, I would have been compelled to take them off. The ground was holy. Novella often portrays her own great-grandmother, who was born into slavery. “I remember as a child my grandmother telling me the stories—stories that America wants to forget—stories that my ancestors were never able to tell. That’s why I’m coming. I have to tell their stories.” As we began to plan and shape the worship service, Novella asked the preacher, “Are you sure you want me to go first? The history is dark and painful. Maybe my enactment should come later in the service.” Rev. Dr. Stephanie Hand immediately shouted, “No! No! No! No! It must come first! The Word of God will speak healing into the brokenness, and then call us to action—toward justice and freedom.”
Some of the heroes were called ‘conductors.’ The Underground Railroad Freedom Center tells their stories. John Rankin, a white southerner from Dandridge, Tennessee, was licensed to preach in the Presbyterian Church in 1817, and immediately began to preach that owning slaves was sinful. Presbyterian leaders warned him to never repeat his views in Tennessee pulpits, so he made his way to Ripley, Ohio, and became the founder of an antislavery denomination. His book, ‘Letters on Slavery,’ was among the first and most effective publications that called for immediate emancipation. His home in the small village of Ripley, Ohio became a staging ground for freedom, and his life story is captured in the character of Eliza Harris in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ Our storyteller, Novella Nimmo, portrays the runaway slave who, with baby in arms, crossed the frozen Ohio River into the sanctuary of Rankin’s home. With a bounty on his head and armed slave owners constantly targeting his home, Rev. John Rankin and his friends helped two thousand runaway slaves find freedom.
Our faith story is a story of liberation. Moses’ barefooted moments on Mount Horeb—both a call to worship and a call to action—were moments that transformed an ancient shepherd into an ancient ‘conductor’—one who would lead a multitude of slaves to freedom—runaway slaves who would celebrate that freedom on the far side of the Red Sea. Our Juneteenth Celebration at Lake Junaluska will be one of those moments. We will worship. We will celebrate. We will be transformed.
I hope you will come.
I want you to meet the storyteller.