"The Underground Railroad"


This past week I finished a book that has just turned my world upside down.   It’s called “The Underground Railroad,” and its written by Colson Whitehead.  It tells the story of Cora, a slave, and her journey to freedom.  In reading this book, I was struck by the men and women in Cora’s life who risked all that they had so that she could make it to freedom. Hundreds, no thousands, of brave men and women who built this intricate system of people, churches, homes, wagons, jobs, food, and more in order that people could make it to freedom.

In this book, you also see the incredible way in which a part of our country clung to the evil system of slavery.   Every time you thought Cora was going to make it, she was pulled back into the system once more by people who breathed the same air and drank the same water as we do. I know I’ve been using the quote frequently, but Martin Luther King Jr’s quote about human nature seemed to ring true as I read the book: “And in every one of us, there's a war going on. It's a civil war. I don't care who you are, I don't care where you live, there is a civil war going on in your life. And every time you set out to be good, there's something pulling on you, telling you to be evil. It's going on in your life. Every time you set out to love, something keeps pulling on you, trying to get you to hate. Every time you set out to be kind and say nice things about people, something is pulling on you to be jealous and envious and to spread evil gossip about them. There's a civil war going on. There is a schizophrenia, as the psychologists or the psychiatrists would call it, going on within all of us. And there are times that all of us know somehow that there is a Mr. Hyde and a Dr. Jekyll in us...There's a tension at the heart of human nature. And whenever we set out to dream our dreams and to build our temples, we must be honest enough to recognize it.”  Scripture also comes to mind: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,[a] and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” Hebrews 12;1    It is difficult, indeed, to shake loose from the sin that clings so closely!  In so many ways our country is still caught in the tentacles of this sin called racism.


As I ponder that amazing network of people and Cora’s struggle for freedom, I am struck by my own journey toward freedom and the people who gave of themselves along the way that have helped me take steps towards freedom. One of them was a campus minister at DWU named “Duane Wilterdink.”  Duane was the coolest pastor I knew!   He was so approachable.  During college, our Campus Ministry was going through a tumultuous time.   Our campus, like many in the early 80’s, was being run over by Christian fundamentalists.   And because of that, I had decided to do what many have done in those moments: I quit!   I didn’t go to chapel! I rarely went to any functions put on by the campus ministry program.  I turned instead to partying (I’m not proud of that, but it was certainly a truth).  

Along with Conservative/Mainline theological issues, I was also trying to figure out the theological issues God and tragedy/suffering.  When I was 13, my sister had died in a car accident, and in college I found myself wrestling with the “why” of all of that.  And again, instead of going to get help, I chose instead to drown it out. Through all this time, Duane just kept in contact with me.   He never pushed, and always find ways to encourage me.  But as I approached my senior year of college, Duane invited me to come along with him on a white-water rafting trip to Colorado.   As soon as he offered, I shook my head.  “Sorry, man, I’m not going to let you trick me into that.”  I mumbled.  He smiled and said, “Come on, Brook.  When have I ever done that?  It’s going to be fun!  The Campus ministry pays half.  Invite some of your friends.”  The next day three of my friends cornered me…and I was going!

On the trip, we almost lost our life going down the “Sabre Tooth Rapids” near Durango, and maybe because of that there seemed to be a special bond that was built up between us. I found myself drawn to Duane.  One night, as everyone else went off to bed, Duane and I sat down by the fire and Duane quietly asked me, “Hey Brook, you don’t have to talk to me about this, but you know I’m just wondering exactly what your problem is with God.  I know it’s there.  No judgement.  I’m here to listen.”   And so, for hours we sat and chatted…or should I say…I sat and spilled my guts.  

I didn’t offer myself fully to God at that moment, and Duane didn’t ask me…but a window was opened.  I got married later that summer and started teaching music in a small town.  Two months in to that year, I was asked to lead the choir at the Lutheran church.   4 months before that, I would have run the other way, but, largely because of that conversation with Duane around the campfire, I said yes.  Not a big moment at the time, but as I look back on that railroad…huge.  Today I give thanks for people like Duane Wilterdink who helped me learn to say yes to our loving God.  Take some time this month, to ponder your “railroad to faith.”  Take some time to give thanks to those who’ve helped you on the journey.

Your friend and pastor, thankful for great listeners around the campfire, Brook

Tim Schaaf