Friday, February 27, 2009

Faith Works 2-28-09
Jeff Gill

Listening For a Distant Train Rolling Down the Tracks

“Riding on the City of New Orleans,
Illinois Central Monday morning rail;
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders,
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail.”

Steve Goodman wrote these words in 1972, the beginning of a song that was made famous by Woody Guthrie’s son Arlo, and is now a folk classic in its own right.

We still have Arlo Guthrie on the concert circuit, though Steve was claimed by leukemia in 1984 (not before writing the marvelous "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request"). “City of New Orleans” has been called the greatest railroad song ever, which sadly, may be quite true.

Towards the end of the song either Arlo or Steve sing “This train's got the disappearing railroad blues.” This train, which for decades had brought the Great Migration of southern African Americans north to Chicago, was now fading into an industrial twilight, where on infrequent runs northern tourists would be the main ticket buyers.

Ironically, it was the popularity of the song that saved the Amtrak version of the “City of New Orleans,” which still leaves Union Station in Chicago most days and heads down through Memphis for the Crescent City. Enough folks kept asking about it that Amtrak knew they needed to keep some kind of rail line that was called “City of New Orleans,” even if many of the distinctive qualities of the historic line were no more.

The mythic quality of the route was rooted in the myriad personal narratives that went from rural delta Mississippi to urban south side Chicago, leaving behind economic collapse and seasonal floods, especially after 1927, to risk finding your way in the new industrial economy.

“And the sons of pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their father's magic carpets made of steel.”

Railroads are certainly our fathers’, really our grandfathers’ magic carpet. The sound of a train whistle just before the Depression of the 1930s meant change and transformation and hope, hope for economic transformation.

In general, passenger inter-city rail is fading; a certain amount of mass transit is always “on the verge of growth,” and perhaps their day will return with higher oil prices and the need to economize on the part of all workers. But outside of some specific urban commuter niches, railroading is a leisure choice more than an economic engine.

Ironically, once upon a time church groups considered trains and train culture as worrisome as cities and urban life – my older relatives had on their shelves a book unironically passed along to them copyrighted 19-0-something called “The Sins of the City.” In that book, and other early 20th century faith oriented novels like those of Harold Bell Wright, the train was as likely to bring trouble to a town as a pool hall.

Nowadays a train trip is a very homey, throwbacky, appropriate trip for church based senior groups to take, hearkening to what now is considered a simpler, more moral day. Is that hypocritical? No, times have changed, and what was once a troublesome harbinger of amoral progress is now a benchmark for lost certainties.

“Good night, America, how are you?
Don't you know me I'm your native son,
I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.”

What will we think of the internet phenomena that trouble us today, when a century has passed? Will we long for the more straightforward days of Twitter? Will the name Facebook make some distant observer smile with nostalgia, hazed over with delight at the simple gift of connection?

If you aren’t Amish, you need to ask of your faith and its worldview – how should technology be seen in the light of your religion? Is it a problem, a possibility, or . . . it might just be a little of both, and yet one more way a heart can find its way to healing.

That, or today’s technology might be something else that might best be given up for Lent, just to make sure that you know you can. Even if it is likely to become a quaint piece of history by the time we’re old(er), replaced by devices we can’t even imagine today, as a jet plane would have been to a freight train.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; pull the train whistle cord as you approach