faith in action

Agency: The capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power

The people of Adrian, a city in southeastern Michigan, dedicated a bench in memory of those who traveled through the region on the Underground Railroad.

A diverse group in Adrian, Mich., unveils their "Bench by the Road."

Recognizing and respecting the agency of others is at the heart of God’s justice. It calls us to listen, to hear, and to affirm. That is what happened recently on a crisp Friday afternoon in October.

The people of Adrian, a city in southeastern Michigan, dedicated a bench in memory of those who traveled through the region on the Underground Railroad.

This memorial is not like other memorials. It is a series of benches sponsored by the Toni Morrison Society, an organization named after and led by the Nobel-prize winning author. These benches document, in tangible form, the holy ground along freedom’s journey.

The benches are located in places like Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Concord, Massachusetts, and even Paris, France and Fort-de-France, Martinique. The 21st bench was dedicated last spring at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The Adrian bench is No. 22 in the series.

Adrian harbors an underrated legacy of hosting people on the road from antebellum slavery to Canada. While there is a statue of beloved white abolitionist Laura Haviland in Adrian, there was no marker for the often-forgotten souls who came through the area. That has changed.

The point of it all is to hear people, even those who crossed over long ago.

Personally speaking, once the rigorous process of site selection was approved, the bench was funded in memory of those who traveled, and in memory of my wife.

Kim struggled with serious disease for many years and died of cancer in August 2016. She was the sweetest, most loving, and strongest person I have ever known. Such sweetness turned into absolutely ferocious advocacy when someone without power was ignored. The bench is not about Kim, but a modest plate says that it was given by her. Kim’s agency matters too, even though it comes from the other side of the river.

When we dedicated the bench, nationally-recognized scholars from the Morrison Society came to town. An exceedingly diverse crowd gathered in the historical society’s parking lot, and the people of Adrian unveiled the memorial. My son, Chris, helped to pull back the veil, along with high school students, elders from the community, and representatives from Brothers in Action, an advocacy group of Adrian College students.

Nothing about this project happened by accident.

We know that memory has recently been a combustible subject in America. Who are we, really? For at least one afternoon, we were people who marshaled our agency to listen, to hear, and to honor the agency of others.

The Rev. Dr. Chris Momany is the chaplain at United-Methodist related Adrian College and teaches in the Philosophy/Religion Department. He is finishing a book, under contract with Foundery Books, Nashville that addresses the teaching of ethical theory and arguments for and against slavery before the Civil War.