Commentary

What shall our voice be?

The Hinkley fires remind us of some often forgotten folk

On September 21, 1894, two immense forest fires, with flames shooting 200 feet into the air, converged on the town of Hinckley, Minnesota. In a matter of minutes, the 2,000 residents found themselves trapped in a burning inferno. Their only means of escape was to board two incoming trains that were due to arrive in their town. The engineers who drove these trains were Jim Root and Bill Best. They were simply two ordinary men, but that day they chose to do the extraordinary. Through smoke, flames, heat and falling timber these two men drove their trains into the heart of Hinckley and brought out hundreds of people to safety.

It was a daring rescue — one that almost did not happen because the two engineers were afraid. It was not the fear of smoke or fire, but the fear of losing their jobs. They were afraid they would be fired by their employers for risking the cargo that their trains carried if they continued into Hinckley.

Root and Best had every reason to be afraid. Earlier that summer they had joined 260,000 other railroad workers and walked off the job. They were protesting the labor practices of the Pullman Palace Car Company. In May the Pullman Company had slashed the wages of its workers and hiked the rent it charged to railroad employees living in company housing. In 26 states battles broke out between the railroad workers and state and local authorities. Both Root and Best were arrested. Finally, President Grover Cleveland intervened in one of the bloodiest labor disputes in American history. He sided with the railroad companies and ordered the railroad workers back to work.

On that day when they approached Hinckley, Root and Best faced a most difficult decision: would they do what was required to save their jobs, or would they do what was necessary to save lives? Fortunately for the people of Hinckley, they chose to save lives.

As I learned of this incredible story, I was left wondering where the voice of the Lutheran Church was during this time. Certainly the Lutheran voice was sounded by the pastor who went from door to door in Hinckley warning people of the impending danger. But where had the Lutheran voice been in the preceding months of the bloody labor dispute? In a time in Minnesota history when Lutherans began to hold public office, dramatically increased in numbers and gained political power, the Lutheran Church seemed to have nothing to say.

Why this silence? As Lutherans we long have held to an understanding of God’s dealings with humans that we call the “two kingdoms,” the temporal realm on the left and the spiritual realm on the right. Both of these kingdoms are part of God’s rule in human life, but this does not mean that they have nothing to say in the world of politics or economics, especially when human freedoms and rights are withheld by those within what Lutherans call the kingdom of the left.

Labor disputes, like the one in 1894, still are with us today. Too often workers are denied the right to organize and even basic necessities for life. What will our Lutheran voice be? What values do we bring as Lutherans to the bargaining table so that all gathered around it will experience something of the justice demanded by God’s rule? The time for silence is over; the time to speak has come. What will our voice be?

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David Wangaard is Bishop’s Associate for Urban and Multicultural Ministry, Minneapolis Area Synod, ELCA. He can be reached at d.wangaard@mpls-synod.org. To learn more about the Hinckley fire, he recommends the book Under A Flaming Sky by Daniel James Brown.