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10 years later

Former bishop of the Metropolitan New York Synod looks back

Sept. 11, 2001, noon

We had watched in horror from our 16th-floor office windows as both World Trade Center towers in New York lit up, then fell into a cloud of smoke and ash. We are now in the chapel of the Interchurch Center in Morningside Heights, and I am facing hundreds who have gathered to pray. For the previous hour we had been trying to track down loved ones in lower Manhattan, as were millions of others throughout the metropolis. Now the chapel is filled with people not knowing the fate of their loved ones. As our prayer, I asked people to name the folks on their hearts and in their concern.

The rebuilding process at the site of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.
The rebuilding process at the site of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.

José Ortega Y' Gasset, the Spanish philosopher, said: "History happens when the sensitive crown of the human heart inclines to one side or the other of the horizon" (quoted in a lecture by ELCA theologian Martin Marty in Bronxville, N.Y., October 2001). Ten years later that inclination of the human heart describes our mission context today.

I heard the American heart incline and new history unfold as the chapel rang out with the precious names of loved ones, spoken through clenched teeth, strained and breaking voices. I hurled my own names at God. In the names I heard the sensitive crown of the human heart incline from security to insecurity; from entitlement to vulnerability; from the veneer of secularity (disenchantment) to a yearning to speak to our Maker; from insularity to fleeting solidarity. What has always been just beyond the horizon, bubbling beneath the surface, began to come into view. Everything has changed. Nothing has changed. Everything is connected. Nothing is connected. Where's Rachel? Where's God? Where's my neighbor? Where is the safe place now? What the hell happened?

That fear has driven wars, a turning away from the stranger among us, terror from Madrid to London to Oslo. Economic pressure, graceless and balkanized public discourse and politics, a movement from solidarity toward the defended space, a fear of the emerging multicultural/global/interfaith/post-faith world, etch the contours of our Mars Hill mission context.

Re-enchantment and vocation

Theologian David Tracy (again quoted by Marty) has said: "Before faith, hope, love you must know finitude (all these falling bodies, endless memorial services), contingency (I survived in my firehouse, 11 brothers didn't), and transience (the empty sky downtown)."

The Bible became very relevant because it talks to us about the horizon facing all of us: death. Our spiritual DNA (St. Augustine: the soul was made for God and will never find its rest until it rests in God) moved people around the world to gather, to pray as broadly as possible, to go deep in our wrestling with God. On Sept. 13, religious leaders gathered at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem: imams, rabbis, bishops, pastors, lay members, neighbors, agnostics. As I gave a brief reflection, it occurred to me that German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached in this church for his good friend Adam Clayton Powell. Ten years later I think about what Bonhoeffer meant when he said that in a world come of age we will have to invent a new language for the faith.

Today it is possible to experience the whole world coming at us through our computer and social media. Someone draws a cartoon in Copenhagen, Denmark, and someone gets killed in Karachi, Pakistan. Yet we are more alone and afraid than we've ever been. Our mission field is those who are asking: What is a well lived life? What gifts do I want for my children and their children? Our mission is an apostolate to a world desperately seeking a vocation, a community shaped by a narrative, a promise of hope.

One of our chaplains anointed with oil firemen rushing into one of the towers, a reminder of our baptism. There was a sense that we were baptized for this moment, that our lives mattered. Those descending the towers noted the glistening foreheads rushing past them to rescue, a Jacob's ladder, with angels ascending and descending. Vocations came into view. Our hearts were broken, but they were broken open.

Re-rooting in the community

Our congregations will never be renewed or relevant if they aren't intimately connected to the renewal of their changing and emerging communities. Salam Arabic Lutheran Church in Brooklyn was involved in organizing community response to violence between Jewish and Arab kids before Sept. 11. After the attacks, many in the Arab community dropped their children off at Salam, a safe haven for people fearing a backlash against them. Salam became instrumental in growing interfaith communal solidarity in the days after the attacks. Pastor and leaders who were a familiar presence in their local firehouses became agents of healing and hope for these beleaguered and grieving public servants after the attacks.

There were no calls for a post-denominational world after Sept. 11. Lutheran Disaster Response, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Episcopal Relief and all the others did what they always do. The bridge to our communities was already built. Alliances with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Red Cross, and other public and private networks were already forged. Veterans of the Columbine [Colo.] High School massacre helped Lutheran Disaster Response offer summer camps for New York children in a time of posttraumatic distress. About $200,000 from Lutheran Disaster Response New York to seed an "unmet needs table" leveraged million of dollars of partnership support from mainline denominations and partners.

On the Saturday night after Easter 2002, bishops and pastors from every ELCA synod gathered to pray at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church and then preach in most of the 225 congregations of the Metropolitan New York Synod on Sunday. Help from Lutherans in the U.S. and around the world — $20 million — flowed into the disaster response in New York, something repeated by denominations for the tsunami, hurricanes and other places of hurt and hope around the world. The mainline was on the ground in Haiti before the earthquakes. Ten years later could there be an intentional strengthening of these denominational networks, especially where there are full communion relationships?

This re-rooting in the community must also be a re-rooting in this emergent culture and especially in its emerging generation. Just before the noon prayer service, with the smoke and ash on the horizon in front of me, I sent an email to friends, family, the Conference of Bishops and synod leaders describing what had happened, what I knew, and offering Scripture and prayer. In the days ahead these dispatches from the front were copied and sent to thousands across the world. I didn't know that I had started a "blog." But I experienced the power of social media for communal prayer and lament. I began to be a bearer of the stories of many others, and a messenger in New York for the love and solidarity of people around the world. This relational power that has vivified revolutions in the Middle East and kept disparate people connected at times of hurt and hope is surely a powerful context for our mission 10 years later.

My wife, Janet, directed a program called Project Life, a case management ministry for economic victims of Sept. 11. Like in every disaster, those left behind and bereft were people in poverty, already vulnerable. In New York many were immigrants. Her case managers were young, just out of college. They included a Jewish hip-hop musician, an Arab Muslim arts major, an aspiring comedian doing stand-up on the weekends. I watched the burgeoning of what today we would call an "emergent community." The terms of engagement were a community that enabled them to make a difference in the lives of others, where their own narratives were shared and taken seriously, where their work and struggle found opportunity for ritual and reflection, where the Abrahamic meta-narrative infused the community. A growing edge in ELCA new mission starts today are such emergent communities, staffed by a mission developer and a community organizer, re-rooting in their communities.

Lamentations before the dawn

It strikes me, 10 years later, how many people on our globe live with posttraumatic stress. I still cannot speak at ground zero. Refugee camps overflow in Kenya, as well as the welfare motels and shelters in which homeless children live in America. Grief must be spoken, again and again, stories must be told for healing to be possible. Ten years ago you did a memorial for a firefighter, and then they found a jaw. The horror continued to emerge, giving weight to the book of Joel: "What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten" (1:4). Lamentations begins: "How lonely sits the city" (1:1).

Pastors encouraged and heard the stories. I visited every conference, and did a one-on-one with every pastor, with only one question: "How's your soul?"

After many memorials and funerals of firefighters I saw how powerfully that community ritualizes its losses. Memorials for the flight crews and for those in the banking community killed in the towers revealed how much they were holding in their stories, like sheep without a shepherd. We cannot move from objects to subjects until we can own grief and tell our stories — again and again. There is wisdom in Elisha's question to the widow: "What shall I do for you? Tell me, what do you have in the house" (2 Kings 4:2)?

Finally this: I am more convinced than ever that a church in mission that turns its face, the collective face of Jesus, toward the poor, the stranger among us, and those hungry for a story and a vocation, will always be a church in renewal. If the mainline does not show up for the meta-issue of our time in this country, comprehensive immigration reform, then God will find a church that will.

Looking back 10 years, and looking forward, this is what I see as I look toward the dawn: "The recognition of how long, how very long, is the mourners' bench upon which we sit, arms linked in undeluded friendship — all of us, brief links ourselves, in the eternal pity" (Peter de Vries, The Blood of the Lamb).

— Bouman was bishop of the Metropolitan New York Synod at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks.


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