Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Lessons from the Road

My husband and I have returned from our vacation. It has been a long time since we had a "real" vacation where we left town. We visited family in Toledo and Chicago and had a wonderful time. We played, we saw "stuff" and we enjoyed time with those we love.

Leaving town, we drove as fast as the speed limit allowed to get to our destination. Coming home, however, we decided to take our time. We had several days to travel and chose to do just that.

Part of our journey was along Route 66. As my older brother said, "it's takes a Boomer to know what that is." I would add or anyone older!

Route 66 is the "mother road". It was the first attempt to connect this country by particular highways for automobiles. The oldest route was 1926-1930. Some of that original road is still in existence. And it is very narrow. Just enough room for a couple of Model A's to pass each other going in different directions. No shoulders, curves every which way and still being used as county or sometimes access roads along US and State highways. The next stage of Route 66 was from 1930-1940 and finally from 1940-1977. The route became straighter with each incarnation. Some of it is the same, of course, but many times adjustments were made to in order to take less time to get from one place to another.

In Illinois, much of the oldest route takes you through the early coal mining country. These little towns are filled with the relics of that day and age when the world of the worker and the company raged against one another. The late 1800's and early 1900's are filled with clashes between the owners of the mines and the ones who worked them.

The United Mine Worker's Union of America began in 1890 to fight unfair wages and the company stores. Now, I certainly had read about this part of our nation's history in school, but being in some of those places made the truth of those times more real. The early miners had to buy their supplies at the company stores. Those stores often were more expensive than retail. The miners, however, were not paid in cash, but in scrip that was only good at those stores. Their homes were owned by the company and they had to provide their own tools for work, bought of course, at the company store. It makes the song, "I owe my soul to the company store" more sad and somehow more real.

The clashes began as mine workers struggled to find a way to bargain for fair wages and working conditions. The risk was that they could lose everything since the companies owned everything. To make a complicated story simple, what agreements were made were not agreed to by everyone. Strike workers were brought in and in 1898 in Virden, Illinois violence erupted. What would become known as the Virden massacre left seven miners and five guards dead.

The Virden community refused to allow the miners to buried within in the city. So the union bought a one acre site in Mount Olive, Illinois, forty miles away and created the Union Miners Cemetery. Of course you know,that both Virden and Mount Olive are on Route 66.

There are certainly more stories of violence around the issue of fair wages, but I want to focus on the Mount Olive cemetery. The Mount Olive cemetery laid more miners to rest there. In 1930, Mary Harris "Mother" Jones was buried there to be "with her boys." In 1936 a monument was created to remember all miners and Mother Jones.

Of course we stopped. We walked the cemetery. We paused by the huge monument at the base of which Mother Jones is laid to rest. She was a woman of deep convictions and fiery temperament. She was considered one of the nations most "dangerous" women for her ability to stir up protest among miners, among women and among the children. She was arrested, yet she stayed the course for a just wage and working conditions for miners.

I paused to remember not only those miners, or Mother Jones, but all who have been willing to stand again injustice throughout the ages. I am challenged again to remember as a United Methodist it is part of my heritage to stand for what is good and right and just. In 1908, the Methodist Episcopal Church adopted their first social creed. It was the first of its kind and many other denominations and even the early roots of the National Council of Churches and the United Nations based their social statements on this early statement. It was a call to faithfulness and that early statement included standing for a living wage as a minimum standard, the right of workers to organize, opposition to child labor and many other standards for health care and housing we now take for granted.

My road trip, reminded me of why I am grateful for my call as a pastor and for the particular denomination I serve. I am not perfect, the United Methodist Church is not all it can be or will be, but the roots of standing up for the poor, the homeless, the victims of injustice are part of my heritage. I am glad we "took" the time to take the slow road, for it gave me an opportunity to visit some places and some important markers in our history.

Back to work, I am more committed to living a life that in the words of the Prophet Micah states, "What does God require of you? But to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God."

And with those lessons and reflections I remain

Graced to Serve.

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