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Spirituality Today: No small man

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February 2nd, 2009
"So who freed the slaves?" queried sociologist Andrew Billingsley. Grinning inside, I thought: Easy one. "Many young people today say they freed themselves," he answered. Now that was a new thought for me. Shortly after South Carolina quit the Union, one servant found himself piloting a cotton boat. For weeks, the Confederates had forced Robert Smalls to steer his side-wheeler as their gunboat. A pass to freedom When the white officers went ashore one May night in 1862, Smalls heard the familiar voice of freedom. Firing up the boilers, he and his eight counterparts sailed to a nearby dock and picked up their families. Dressing and gesturing like the captain, this brave man drove the steamship past five Rebel forts. Fearful that they might be boarded or fired upon, some begged to turn back. Instead, the 23-year-old shifted his back slightly toward Sumter, signaled his request to pass, and prayed: "Oh, Lord like you did for the Israelites in Egypt, please guide us to our promised land." Soon they were beyond the range of secessionist guns. Within a few short weeks, the humble hero met with President Lincoln and was later authorized to organize 5,000 African Americans as the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Volunteers. By Christmas, the Commander-in-Chief had promoted Smalls to captain his own vessel. By New Year s, the self-taught South Carolinian would readThe Emancipation Proclamationwith his own eyes. Before it was over, more than 134,000 had left servitude for soldiering. Robert Smalls might have made a good Benedictine, since he lived the motto: "Pray as if everything depends on God. Work as if everything depends upon you." He probably smiled at the Philippian ethic: "Work out your salvation for God works in you." As a man of integrity, Smalls bought his ex-master s house after the war, but allowed the man s widow to live in her familiar surroundings with his family at the end of her life. Elected five times to the U.S. House of Representatives, this gentleman could have easily mentored others with the wisdom of Micah: "What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God."

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