Thinking big and small about the Winona fire


There have been so many recent floods and fires that medieval philosophers––those who believed that fire, water, earth and air were the only four “elements”––must be in their heavens and hells wondering if fire and water are at war with earth and air.  Wars here and there––those who sponsor them––can share the blame for some of the fires, and it’s apparent that the wildfires devastating parts of the American landscape result more from human misdeeds than from any tendency nature has to destroy itself.  We can’t help wondering what causes things to burn.  Though in Greek the word for “fire” is puros, also the root of our English word for “pure,” fire seems the most devilish of the four medieval elements.

When things go up in smoke people begin looking for things, often in the smoke itself. When the World Trade Towers came crashing down on 9-11 some saw Satan in the cloud of smoke rising from the scene.  Though many of these same people believe that a loving God is in control of everything on earth, no one is said to have seen the face or hand of God in the smoke.

When a fire recently destroyed the Islamic Center in the heart of downtown Winona, the smoke hovered in the air above the town like sad thoughts.   The fire leveled not only the Islamic Center but seriously damaged shops and offices that represent much that is good about the town––a coffee shop named Blooming Grounds, a gift shop named Pretty Things, a kid’s shop named Pipe Dream Toys, a sporting goods store called Sole Sport, a law office, and offices for Integrative Health Care and Outreach and Emergency Services organizations.  A sex shop on the same block selling eros-enhancing artifacts seems to have escaped serious damage. 

Some dark thoughts, so big and airy they no doubt had holes in them, also were lurking in the smoke moiling over the scene.  Was the fire the work of Satan or God?  Did some fanatical Christian want to do Muslims in, did Muslims conspire to destroy their own Center in order to make Christians look bad, or was the fire some sort of divine revenge for having a sex shop in the middle of town?  Some Christian groups and officials at the Islamic Center had been opposed to having the sex shop on the same block, but learned to live with it when the decision came down that the shop’s right to exist was protected by law. 

The fire gives everyone pause, especially when superstitions start pointing the finger of blame.  With mosques and cars being fire-bombed in Baghdad and Kabul, with mobs violently clashing in Egypt and setting afire Christian Coptic churches, with Syria being destroyed by parties clinging desperately to sectarian identities, with threats of reprisal bombings for poison gas attacks coming from the U.S., and with religious zealots fanning the fires of political extremism at home and abroad, some people still find it hard to believe that the fire in an Islamic Center in Winona, Minnesota, could have been caused by bad wiring. 

No fire set as an act of arson, terrorism or war purifies.

The investigation into the cause of the fire is ongoing, but the best guess so far is bad wiring.  Authorities closely linked to the Islamic Center––Professor Ahmed El-Afandi, a native of Egypt, current Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Winona State University and one of the founders of the Center, and Dr. Mohamed ElHindi, a native of Sudan and the Center’s current President––don’t think the fire was an act of arson.

A reporter on the scene expressed some skepticism about ElHindi’s belief no arson was involved.  “We never felt threatened,” ElHindi said, and the Muslim foreign students who lived in the apartments above the Islamic Center he described as law-abiding individuals peacefully minding their own business.  “And,” says ElHindi, “this is Winona.  Winona is a special place.”

ElHindi, one of two gentlemen named Mohamed whose families are close neighbors of mine, has good reason to think of Winona as a special place.  He may be the only one, or one of only a few in the whole state of Minnesota, to have had the name Mohamed appear on a local election ballot.  He won his election and has been serving as chair of the Winona Public School Board for two years now.  He also happens to be Assistant Vice Chancellor for Information Technology and Chief Information Officer for the University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse.

He and Dr. El-Afandi are both distinguished professionals and public servants, and their quiet good work has helped make Winona a “special”––and diverse––place to live.  Though suspicions lurking in the fire’s stench suggest by innuendo that the fire had something to do with our problems in the Mideast, the community’s response to the fire and its displaced victims has been overwhelmingly generous.  Muslim students have been offered living spaces at Winona State University, and Winona’s displaced Muslims have been offered space to worship, as Muslims, in so many Christian churches they’ve decided to take turns worshipping in all that have invited them.  Paul Brosnahan, whose law office adjacent to the Islamic Center was destroyed by the fire, has been offered several places to re-locate, free of charge.  “Tell people who ask,” he said, “that life will go on.  I have back-up files for all my work, and thank God no one was hurt.”  Offers to help keep coming in.  This one, provided by a woman named Heather, is typical:  “By chance,” she wrote to ElHindi, “are you the president of the Islamic Center in Winona, where the fire was?  I’m writing because I’d like to make a small donation to help with the cost of repairs.”

It’s tempting to believe that these generous responses are unique to Winona.  Winona has a lot going for it––its lovely landscape, its two universities and a technical college, its Shakespeare, Beethoven and Frozen Film festivals, its Marine Art and Historical Society museums, its engaged artists and intellectuals, and its diverse economy, active retirees, and well-heeled individuals who donate generously to community projects.  These presences have combined to create a community––and system––that fosters a modest prosperity, a creative spirit, and a peaceful ambiance. 

It has no monopoly, however, on generosity extended to victims of disastrous floods, fires, and wars.  There are plenty of good deeds and good will everywhere in the world, much of it actively alive in places where disaster strikes.  Wherever there are zealots blowing buildings up, there are decent folk helping the wounded and picking up the pieces.  If there are a few terrorists, there are scores of mothers and grandfathers escorting children to school.  When there are bombs dropping invisibly from the sky, there are shopkeepers and taxi drivers scurrying to help others out of harm’s way.  When there are fires and floods destroying forests and towns, people pitch in so everyone can just get going again.  Good people are everywhere in the world, doing what they routinely do, and there are millions of them.

Even when they can do little to help, they care deeply.  “I saw heart-breaking news of the fire in downtown,” begins a letter sent to the Winona Daily News.  “I immediately started calling friends living near the affected area, and, with the grace of God, they are all fine….I love Winona, and I love all my friends and family in Winona.  Winona is the best.”

The letter was written by a person from and living in Karachi, Pakistan.

It’s difficult to understand the tangled systems of government, business, entertainment and belief that give us wars and misery while doing massive damage to the environment.  When despots and governments are embraced by businesses eager to profit by offering them their arms and services, intolerant belief leaps forward to lead the attack.  Fear––of the unknown, foreigners, others, Them––is the perfect fuel for fires, and fires send military spenders on shopping sprees.  It is hard to distance ourselves from destructive systems like this and to undo their malign influences.  We all are linked to, and many of us profit from, systems that are big, impersonal, expensive, and beyond the reach of the majorities––good people like us––that have no inclination to start fires. 

There’s much to be said for thinking both small and big.  Leaders such as El Afandi and Elhindi were successful in the Winona community because they thought “big”––inclusively––and because Winona is small enough that its turf can be personalized.  As in business, there are cultural efficiencies of scale.  Winona has its neighborhoods but as a small city is more like a neighborhood than big cities are.  People live primarily in homes and neighborhoods, only in secondary senses in cities and nations.  Problems are best contained, and solved, in the small spaces where they occur, and sometimes the best small places are individual big city neighborhoods. 

Currently, and perhaps tragically, we’re stuck with large and impersonal systems threatening to do us in, indiscriminately.  It will take moral resolve and practical good sense to improve on them.

It’s popular these days to debunk big government’s health care and social welfare programs, but not its addiction to military spending.  We need to think big about government the way our Founding Fathers did when they tried to meld opposing factions, some of them led by religious zealots, into a working union.  I feel an urgency to re-validate democratic principles of good government that empower the majorities that put out the fires and clean up the messes. Muslims in Winona obey American laws and honor the core American principle of separation of church and state.  In America an Islamic Center has a right to co-exist with evangelical Christian churches, public schools, and a sex shop down the street, because in America even sex shops have a legal right to exist, just as every American citizen has the legal right to avoid them entirely.  In Winona we have not only a vibrant farmer’s market full of flowers and fresh produce, but a vast and free marketplace that offers goods, services, art, and beliefs that are both odd and ordinary, all of them available to those going about their own business if this business is conducted legally and peacefully.  As the poet Walt Whitman, speaking for America through himself, said, “I am large.  I contain multitudes.”

It is this largess that wins hearts and minds, and quietly keeps new fires from starting.