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Secrets of Wayfarers Inn: A Celebration of the Underground Railroad

How the compelling history of the Underground Railroad inspired this writer—and a new series from Guideposts Books 

Author and historian Shella Gillus

Has God ever used something unexpected to change the course of your life?

My surprising turning point was winning a beauty pageant. I was crowned Miss Black Heritage as a sophomore at the University of Arizona. Although the title was nice, it was the prize that really mattered. I received a library of 100 books about African-American history. I was thrilled, but I had no idea that a set of hardback books would lead me to a career as a novelist.

Growing up in Tucson, Arizona, I had excellent role models: my parents, Lee and Minnie, along with my sister, Alisa, and members of my close-knit church. Yet I encountered few examples of greatness in the history textbooks at school. Most of the African-Americans I read about were enslaved or victims of segregation, which seemed to be our primary contribution to the American story.

Within the pages of my prize, I found inspiring stories that unlocked a whole new dimension of African-American history. I read about poets, artists, intellectuals, scholars, inventors, politicians, civil rights activists—an honor roll of accomplishment and enrichment of American culture. These role models helped me realize opportunities beyond my wildest dreams.

Today I’m a historical fiction writer in McKinney, Texas, a wife to my wise and creative husband of 17 years, Stacey, and a mother to my son and daughter, Spencer and Staci, who attend a school with a hybrid model of instruction that enables me to teach them at home a couple of times a week.

The cover for a volume in Guideposts Books' new series, Secrets of Wayfarers Inn
      Guideposts Books’ new series, Secrets
      of Wayfarers Inn

I’m also a consultant for Guideposts Books on a new fiction series featuring both contemporary and historical mysteries. Secrets of Wayfarers Inn is about three women who buy an old Ohio warehouse to turn into a hotel, only to discover that it was an important way station on the Underground Railroad, the network of secret routes and safe houses that enabled thousands of people to escape slavery. This novel series sheds light on this inspiring and often perilous journey.

Of all the remarkable findings I’ve discovered in African-American history, the Underground Railroad is the most compelling. Many of its “conductors”—people who guided and sheltered fleeing slaves—were formerly enslaved themselves, risking their lives and freedom to help others. Oftentimes lamps were lit at safe houses to lead the way through the dark and dangerous night to their next stop.

The model for the Underground Railroad, its message of escape from oppression, can be found in the Bible.

In chapter one of the book of Exodus, we discover a group of people, the Israelites, who are oppressed under the harsh rule of an Egyptian king. This Pharaoh orders the execution of boys born to Israelite women, but what happens next is remarkable. In the same chapter, we witness the bold action of the Hebrew midwives, who conceal the babies to protect them.

This passage through darkness to freedom is the same journey that every one of us is on at various stages in our lives. At some point, we all search for the path that leads to freedom. It’s a universal quest.

On our journey through life there are safe houses along the way, places we can go to find rest and comfort: our homes, our churches, our communities. But what’s most beautiful are the people God sends who have found what we’re looking for, who walk before us leading us to places we’ve never known. Others are behind us, searching for direction, desperate for light.

Where are you on the journey? Have you discovered your safe house, your conductors? Who is helping you find your way to where God is leading you? Who is stumbling in the dark behind you, searching for direction? Perhaps you’re the light that will lead the way.

During my life, I have had many conductors, strong men and women of faith who have walked before me, modeling for me a life committed to Christ. Through discipleship and Bible study, my husband and I continue to reach back to those freeing themselves from their past. Together we help them navigate seasons of darkness to a life lit with love, joy and peace.

Order your copy of Secrets of Wayfarers Inn!

Through this lens, I could see even our marriage ministry as an Underground Railroad for couples. In the weekend couples retreats we lead, Stacey and I provide a safe place for husbands and wives to imagine dynamic marriages using biblical principles. What’s most rewarding about leading people from good to great is watching the light ignited in their relationships as they discover the purpose God has for them as a couple. The freedom that comes from knowing why they’re here on earth is incredible to behold.

One of my conductors as a writer has been award-winning novelist Sharon Ewell Foster, who helped me find a literary agent for my debut novel, The Loom. In my upcoming novel, The Red Pen, a young lady discovers the dark secret of her town. She searches to find her way in the world, just as I had to discover mine through the world of literary fiction.

The Underground Railroad may seem like a piece of American history far removed from your experience. I hope through this new Guideposts series you can experience it from a new perspective. I pray you will find its universal message of hope in the world.

Perhaps the Secrets of Wayfarers Inn series will be just the thing God uses to launch you into the next season of your life. May you discover new conductors, others you can follow who have found the path to freedom. I trust you will reach back to those in their own form of bondage, individuals you are to lead through darkness to light. And I pray today is the day you choose to journey out in faith, trusting the same God who freed countless others to do the same for you.

For more inspiring stories, subscribe to Guideposts magazine.

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