If you have seen the film, A Night to Remember, you will recall the final scene in which four brave musicians stand on the deck of the Titanic and play "Nearer my God to Thee" as the ship sinks slowly beneath the waves. But almost no one recalls the following story about another musician who possessed equal or greater courage.
His unparalleled act of courage took place during the Iroquois Theater fire in Chicago, one of the worst disasters in American history. The writer Anthony P. Hatch has pointed out the many striking parallels between the fire and the sinking of the Titanic. Like the Titanic, the newly built theater was the best of its kind. Its owners boasted that the theater was fireproof and indestructible. Like the Titanic, which lacked enough lifeboats for its passengers, the Iroquois Theater had too few fire exits to allow its audience to escape. And like the Titanic, which sunk on its maiden voyage, the magnificent new theater caught fire the day it was dedicated.
On New Year's Eve 1903, the Iroquois Theater was packed with more than one thousand happy women and children. The performance started well, with much laughter and loud applause. But not long into the show, a spark from an arc light ignited a piece of scenery.
As the flames billowed out from behind the curtain, Eddie Foy, the star of the show, pleaded with his orchestra to play on, hoping the music would calm the crowd of terrified women and children. One-by-one, the members of the orchestra fled as the flames roared through the fire curtain. Only one man was brave enough to keep on playing. He was a portly, middle-aged gentleman, a violinist whose name has been lost to history. Despite his heroic effort, six hundred women and children perished in the blaze.
My friend, most of us will never face such a difficult choice, whether to flee to safety or to give our lives for the sake of helpless women and children. But our faith, our families, and our nation are under attack; and. many of us will soon be called on to take a stand for what we believe. We may choose to be lukewarm and indifferent, momentarily comforted by the delusion that our complacency will earn us the approval and respect of our neighbors. Or we may rise to protect our own.
The need for civil courage - the courage to speak out when all are against you - is as great as the need for physical courage. My prayer for you today is that you will have the courage of this lone musician who gave his all to save a crowd of imperiled women and children. Our challenges may be different, but our need for courage, faith, loyalty, and honor is as great.
Sherri Kling, a graduate student at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, has written a touching song about the heroic actions of the lone musician the night the Iroquois Theater burnt down.
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