To deepen my understanding of Holy Islam, I began joining Muslims in prayer at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh (ICP) in Oakland during weekend visits to my son. As a Eucharistic Minister in the Anglican communion, this participation presents no theological difficulty. Being a fellow monotheist, I can easily affirm the first part of the Islamic Shahade “There is no G-d but Allah” and acknowledge Muhammed’s status as a prophet. As Muslims recognize Moses, King David, and Jesus as prophets, it is not much of a stretch.
In March I picked up a flyer at the ICP which paled my timid efforts at ecumenicism: An apparent nexus between Islam and runaway slaves in the antebellum era! The handbill proclaimed “ANNUAL UNDERGROUND RAILROAD RE-ENACTMENT” for the last Sunday in April, beginning downtown and concluding at a safe house in Mt. Washington. As a recovering paranoiac, I am usually extra perceptive of connections, but deducing a relationship between Islam and runaway slaves was beyond my powers.
The Moslem Women’s Association of Pittsburgh was listed as sponsor, but no time or assembly point was given. Though the new Imam would attend, it was not an official ICP event. The male worshipers I asked knew nothing about it, and fear of violating some stricture in Islam about male-female contact made me reluctant to ask the women. Fortunately, there was a community event several days before the Re-enactment. I approached a woman there wearing the niqab [only the eyes are uncovered] and inquired. She politely asked for my email and said someone would contact me. A woman from one of the suburbs, Malak, then emailed back and forth with me, relaying my requests to the “conductor” for answers.
After church on the appointed Sunday, my son and I went to the Duquesne Incline on Grandview Avenue to wait. Eliot, being impatient, soon took my car to run errands and bring back food. A grey sedan then pulled up, the front window went down, and a dark-skinned woman told me to get in. I asked if they could wait a few minutes, but the woman said they were already behind schedule. So like many of the foot travelers, I began my journey after Christian worship and on an empty stomach.
A tall white man dressed in suit and tie met us at a park on the west side of Mt. Washington. The man, a retired architect, introduced himself as David. There were 15 or so gathered there, from children to the elderly (likely I was oldest at 77). We immediately set off on a narrow path with David and Sarah, the woman from the car, as our “conductors” for our reprise of this portion of the Underground Railroad. The conductors led us out of the park on a trail seemingly parallel with Sawmill Run Boulevard below. As I trudged along a few words from Isaiah–prophet to Muslims, Christians, and Jews–came to me: “They that wait upon the L-rd . . . shall walk and not be faint.” Sarah stopped regularly to point out edible items (like plantain), serving to whet my appetite. Suddenly David stopped and asked us what runaway slaves used as a navigational guide. I felt a sudden panic (“How the heck would I get out of here now!”), followed by a moment of what Buddhists call satori (enlightenment).
Obviously, these runaways were confronted with more than a walk in the woods on a Sunday afternoon: they had to make it from somewhere in “Ole Dixie” to Canada. Due to fugitive slave laws, slave-catchers, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision in 1858, there was no safe “high ground” in the United States for an African slave. The only safety was to keep moving until they reached Canada.
My head stopped spinning. Recalling a tidbit from American history, I blurted out “the North Star!” David went on to talk about using moss on the north side of trees and the rising and setting of the sun during the day as a guide, which was difficult except on solstices. Personally, I despaired being able to find my way back to the Golden Triangle using Polaris and tree moss as my guides. As we continued through the woods, my head grew lighter and lighter, and I walked slower and slower. A few people started following me, perhaps fearful that like a weak slave I might give up and wander off in the woods. The end finally came. We soon passed through the “safe house” and ended up in the same parking lot we had started in earlier.
Sarah said there had been many annual re-enactments in various parts of Pittsburgh over the years. I don’t know about other walkers in the past, but I had learned something. “And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.” — “Little Gidding,” T.S. Eliot.
John Rogers is a retired West Virginia attorney and attends Trinity Cathedral. He is also a member of the Pa. Prison Society and the Franciscan Order of Divine Compassion.