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Pastoral letter to the churches and Christians in the United States following the terrorist attacks of 11 September

16 November 2001

Sent by the ecumenical "Living Letters" team at the conclusion of its ten-day visit, Oakland, California, 16 November 2001.

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

     We have come as "living letters" to your country. Shocked at the tragic events of 11 September, we have come as representatives of member churches of the World Council of Churches, committed to the Decade to Overcome Violence: Churches seeking peace and reconciliation. We have come to be with you as a sign of compassion and solidarity in your suffering. We have come out of our wounded contexts to share with you in your woundedness. We have not come with answers; we have come to love you.

     We have stood at Ground Zero and experienced it as death. We were profoundly moved by the terrible silence, the colourlessness, the sense of loss. In that emptiness, we grasped hands and offered our prayers; we reclaimed life in the midst of death.

     It is always difficult to walk into a house of grief. But you have received us with gracious hospitality in this time of sorrow, and we are grateful. In South Africa, there is a saying used at the time of mourning: "What has happened to you has happened to others as well." We are witnesses that God makes it possible for life to continue. Many American churches have visited us in our difficult times to help us find a way when we have been overwhelmed with our grief. We now say to you, take courage. We have come to you as living letters, signs of hope in the suffering and pain of the cross.

     During our visit, in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Oakland, California, we have had the privilege to listen to different voices and words. We have listened to words of hurt and anger from a pastor on the front lines: "We are not ready to be lectured. We still smell the smoke; there are too many funerals each day to be objective. A new consciousness will arise, but if it is forced, it will only stoke the anger." There is the need for space to grieve. And we are ready to wait with you, in your mourning and in your healing.

     We have heard voices of deep sadness. We have been moved by the ways in which you have expressed this sadness. This sea of sorrow also engulfs those who minister, who are now exhausted. "Who will heal the healers?" someone has asked.

     We have heard persons speak of "joining the world": "I didn't just see my congregation weeping, I saw a weeping world." A pastor spoke of the interconnectedness of pain and suffering as he ministered to wounded and orphaned children in New York. "I would have liked to embrace also the children of Iraq, who have been wounded and orphaned. Maybe this experience of suffering will help us to embrace all others who suffer."

We have heard people speak of fear and insecurity, from immigrants who came to the US for safety and freedom to peace workers who feel intimidated and accused of being unpatriotic.

     We have not heard words of bitterness or of revenge. We have been moved to humility and encouraged to hear church leaders battling with questions that are broader than their own concerns, that take in the larger context of the world. The discussion is just beginning.

     We have heard some asking: "What things have been done by us and in our name that have made people feel such hatred for us?"

     We have heard people speak of their ignorance and fear of Islam, but we also heard expressions of solidarity with Muslim neighbours.

     We have heard people relating their suffering to the sufferings of people in Afghanistan and Palestine.

     We have heard people explaining how difficult it is for some Christian communities to be engaged by ethical issues of the response to 11 September.

     We have listened to a pastor in tears ask: "How can the bombing of Afghanistan be the way of Christ?"

     These words did not call for answers from us. We have cried and prayed with you; now, together with you, we ask the questions that have accompanied our conversations:

     1. Where do we find the basis to be together? What can be our common search in the days ahead? We have in common to reject terrorism. We can affirm that military response will never bring security and peace. What kind of relationships with neighbours, across geographical and faith borders, need urgently to be built?

     2. How can churches be at the front line of the struggle against injustice? The churches have responsibility to reflect together and to name together the major injustices in the world. In our encounter we have spoken of the destructive economic imbalances, oppression in places like Palestine, gender and racial discrimination, support of totalitarian regimes.

     3. How can we communicate the imperatives of the Gospel where there is a struggle for the hearts and minds of people? What kind of communication, what images, will bind us together in community, rather than increase the gulf between people, as dominant media images do? As Christians, we have been given the stories and invited into a community that speaks truth to power. We say to our churches: listen carefully to other Christians around the world. By allowing the churches to tell their stories, you give them voice.

     4. Do we wait to speak until there is unanimity? How do we encourage the prophetic voices in our midst? Love unites us. You are our sisters and brothers. Together we are the body of Christ. Let us hold hands and seek to overcome all forms of violence, direct and structural, in order to build a culture of peace.

Bishop Mvumelwano Dandala of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, and president of the South Africa Council of Churches, led the "Living Letters" delegation.

Other members were:
Rev. Jean-Arnold de Clermont, president of the French Protestant Federation Bishop Samuel Azariah of the Church of Pakistan
Rev. Father Nicholas Balachov, Russian Orthodox Church
Ms Septemmy Lakawa, Indonesian theologian and WCC Executive Committee member
Metropolitan Elias Audi, Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, Lebanon
Jean Zaru, presiding clerk, Religious Society of Friends, Ramallah, Palestine.

Accompanying the team were:
Rev. Kathryn Bannister, moderator of the US Conference for the WCC and WCC president for North America;
Georges Lemopoulos, acting general secretary of the WCC
Jean S. Stromberg, executive director, US Office of the WCC