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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Welcome to the long mourners' bench

'Let the pictures we have seen of the poor and vulnerable left behind, left to fend for themselves be seared into our souls so our arms are linked with them around the world'

Editor's note: In recognition of the Sept. 11 anniversary and Hurricane Katrina recovery. Stephen Bouman, bishop of the Metropolitan New York Synod, wrote this last week and shares it with readers of The Lutheran.

New York: Sept. 11, 2005, four years later.

It was a small “local color” piece on the news. New York firefighters are going to New Orleans. One of the trucks they are driving to the disaster was donated by Louisiana, which saw duty at ground zero. It was also a revelation to me. As we are days away from the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, we are filled with pictures of unrelieved suffering from Hurricane Katrina. How much each of us desires to do something, anything, to alleviate the pain and suffering! There has been such heroic effort from around the country to be present, helpful, to touch and heal. We offer our prayers, and we mean it and do it. There is the feeling we can’t do enough. We feel helpless, powerless, yet filled with such compassion and a physical need to make a difference. And we are proud and glad to see local folks, including a red fire engine donated by the state of Louisiana, head off to that ground zero on the Gulf on our behalf.

The revelation is that this is how all of America felt and responded four years ago. This wave of compassion, energy, improvised response and prayers, were directed at us four years ago. People promised prayer and meant it. People in our Lutheran community in America sent almost $20 million in the first 10 days, resources still being used for comfort and renewal here in New York. At ground zero I met EMS workers, ironworkers, fire and rescue personnel, chaplains from around the world. On this fourth anniversary, as we behold the massive response and outpouring of compassion in the wake of Katrina, it is fitting to remember with gratitude the solidarity of so many with us, a solidarity which continues.

This anniversary is a time to remember that our insularity, security and narrow view of life was pierced, perhaps forever. Our life changed, our worldview changed. I hope that it has made us more compassionate, more in tune with suffering around the world. Four years ago ground zero opened up a global window. In many ways these past four years of war, terror and national hubris have also slammed shut many of these windows. These past four years have linked us to many other names: Darfur, Kabul, Baghdad, Madrid, Beslan, London, Niger, the South Asian seacoast. This anniversary, let us call one another, in the words of Peter de Vries in The Blood of the Lamb to “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.”

As we gather this Sunday, Sept. 11, let us see our altars as links on the long mourners’ bench. Let us pray for places of hurt and hope to which we are linked around the world, and especially these days to our neighbors devastated by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Let the pictures we have seen—of the poor and vulnerable left behind, left to fend for themselves—be seared into our souls so our arms are linked with them around the world. Let us find ourselves on the long mourners’ bench with a renewed understanding that the only true security in this world is at the baptismal font and in the well-being of every child of God in the world, especially the poor and vulnerable. 

The long mourners’ bench reminds us that recovery from terror, war and disaster is a marathon, not a sprint. The poor are poorer here in New York since Sept. 11, the stranger is even more sidelined and despised, our disaster relief efforts are still addressing the wave effects of our common tragedy four years ago, meeting a need that is in some ways more acute than ever. Because, you see, we are supposed to get over it and move on. But I am remembering the 51 children in our schools who lost parents, the many funerals and memorials done in our churches, those so traumatized they still cannot leave their homes. The “empty sky” downtown that the Bruce Springsteen song will not let us forget. Our short attention span in this culture has already let go of our sisters and brothers whose lives were torn apart in the South Asian tsunamis. The death of schoolchildren in Beslan is now just a picture of angry mothers meeting with Vladimir Putin on the back page. Last year’s hurricane victims or last month’s victims of Midwest tornados are already beside the point.

But the mourners’ bench is long, and God’s attention is infinite. The one who remembers the sparrow is the one who calls us on this anniversary to sink again into the “eternal pity,” to our solidarity with all who suffer. We must not look away and we must never forget. The church is God’s reminder that suffering is never isolated, meaningless, anonymous, but always linked to the long mourner’s bench upon which we sit, arms linked in undeluded friendship, and linked forever to the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

This suffering world needs a story and needs to know the end of the story. Beyond the maelstrom is the empty tomb and the presence of the Risen Christ, Immanuel, God with us.

Let us take an offering for the victims of Hurricane Katrina throughout our synod this coming Sunday. In a time in which everyone is tempted to do their own thing let us give the offering to Lutheran Disaster Response and do it as the church. Let us take another one next week for the tsunami victims through LDR. Let the offering be a tangible sign of our linked arms on the mourners’ bench, and a sign of gratitude for all the fire engines, linked arms and prayers which headed north from Louisiana and around the world four years ago.


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