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Posted by Rolf Olson on

For God did not give us
a spirit of cowardice,
but rather a spirit of power
and of love and of self-discipline.

– 2 Timothy 1:7

There is no fear in love,
but perfect love casts out fear.

– I John 4:18


Mob violence is nothing new. Last week’s insurrection can be added to the long, sordid list of examples. The Bible has many stories of mob violence—including the murder of Jesus. Today’s devotion is a tale of quiet courage in the face of mob violence. It’s about character—what you do when no one is watching. I am following up on Pastor Chris’ devotion from last week. He wrote about the lynching of three Black men in Duluth in 1920 and tied it to the harmful rhetoric we hear in today’s political discourse. This is “the rest of the story.”

In the summer of 1920 a carnival spent several days in Duluth and then left for the Iron Range. After they were gone a young white woman claimed that some Black men had assaulted her (there was no medical examination). In response a group of Duluth men went to the Iron Range and kidnapped three Black carnival workers and hauled them back to Duluth (there was no ID other than their skin color). A mob of hundreds gathered outside the Duluth jail and demanded that the men be released to them. The officials refused so the mob broke down a wall, dragged the men out, and lynched them.

The bodies were taken to Crawford Funeral Home which then received threats of arson if they didn’t dispense with the bodies. In the dark of night the church council of my former church — First Lutheran — gathered. Their decision, recorded in minutes written in Norwegian, was to take the bodies and bury them in Park Hill Cemetery, owned by the church. No one ever knew where those bodies went — until 1991.

In the late 1980s the city of Duluth was looking for a place for a new city building. People protested when a large field on the north side of town was mentioned as the desired spot. Some said that it was the anonymous burial site of many poor Duluthians, including the Black men who were lynched. The manager of Park Hill Cemetery told community leaders that the men were actually buried in Park Hill Cemetery. A curious member of First Lutheran—a political scientist from UMD-- decided to research how this came about and discovered the funeral home/church/cemetery connection. He and I talked and proposed purchasing foot stones for the men and holding a dedication ceremony. The late October event drew national attention. We were fearful of vandalism but nature solved that. A few days later the Halloween megastorm dumped forty inches of snow on the cemetery and a crisis was averted.

I was so proud of those leaders at First Lutheran Church quietly acting out their values of compassion, respect, community. Calm came to the town and the funeral home was spared. In the face of racism in 1920s America, it was an act of courage which challenged prevailing norms. Sadly, justice never came for those three men and history has left it up to us to eliminate the racial prejudice that leads to horrors like this.

101 years later a similar mob scene occurred in Washington, D.C. A noose was hung near the Capitol amid cries to hang our leaders. Courageous responses are needed. The same Spirit that led those Duluth church leaders is calling us today. There are no simple answers, but fear cannot rule…nor can hate. Love must be at the center. 

– Rolf Olson, Visitation Pastor


God of justice and mercy, our world is filled with brokenness. You created a world intended for harmony but we fall so far short in achieving it. Forgive us. Empower us by your Spirit to be courageous in the face of lies, racism, division, hatred. We know that love casts out fear. Fill us with your love. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.