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CHURCHES’ U.S. RESPONSE POST-SEPT. 11 WIDE-RANGING, CREATIVE

Sidebar: Christians from Middle East Grieved at Sept. 11 Attacks, Stereotyping

October 1, 2001, NEW YORK CITY – U.S. churches are responding domestically to the September 11 attacks in wide-ranging and creative ways, revealed discussion among church leaders at the National Council of Churches Executive Board’s October 1-2 meeting here.

The board, which meets quarterly, is made up of representatives from the NCC’s 36 Protestant and Orthodox member communions, with 50 million adherents in 140,000 congregations. Board members set aside 90 minutes of their planned agenda to "debrief" together on the attacks and their aftermath.

They also heard from two pastoral counselors, who urged them not to underestimate their own stress and trauma and to build a support system for themselves to ensure the effectiveness of their ministries on behalf of others.

"We are all victims of what took place on September 11. We have different ways of responding to those tragedies. We as leaders are called to heal ourselves and work in the healing of our communities," said the Rev. Dr. Robert W. Edgar, NCC General Secretary, a United Methodist.

"I was on the West Coast when this was happening, but it happened to me," agreed Elenie Huszagh of Nehalem, Ore., an attorney and lay member of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America who is NCC President-Elect for 2002-2003. "We all have to support each other," said Ms. Huszagh, who chaired the October 1-2 meeting.

Representatives of 10 communions, along with staff of the NCC and its global humanitarian ministry, Church World Service, shared reflections and reports during the discussion. While NCC/CWS and member communions also are supporting a major humanitarian relief effort serving refugees fleeing Afghanistan, their discussion during the NCC Executive Board meeting focused on their domestic response. Here are some highlights:

PASTORAL AND SPIRITUAL CARE: Near "Ground Zero," local churches including St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and St. Barbara’s Greek Orthodox Church are serving as centers of counseling, volunteer coordination and prayer, Executive Board members reported. Seamen’s Church Institute, an Episcopal Church ministry, is supporting recovery workers with meals and other practical assistance.

Top officials of the New York City-based Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (www.goarch.org) and Syosset, N.Y.-based Orthodox Church in America (www.oca.org) have been attending funerals and memorial services, especially for members of their parishes. "Every one of our parishes lost people," reported the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese’s ecumenical officer, Bishop Dimitrios Couchell. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, in the World Trade Center’s shadow, was destroyed when the adjacent buildings collapsed.

From the start, Church World Service (www.churchworldservice.org) emergency response consultants have been helping organize interfaith response in New York; Washington, D.C.; Somerset County, Pa.; Los Angeles, and Boston.

Recognizing that the repercussions of September 11 reach into every U.S. community, the NCC/CWS and member denominations are disseminating – and stocking their Web sites with -- resources to help pastors with counseling, dialogue, spiritual guidance and religious education, especially with children and youths.

To this end, CWS is sponsoring four live interactive conversations over www.FaithandValues.com. The United Church of Christ Web site (www.ucc.org) has opened an ongoing on-line dialogue.

Dr. Margaret Kornfeld (www.margaretsgarden.com), one of the two pastoral counselors who joined the NCC Executive Board discussion, urged religious leaders to "find out what’s already working in your communions" and use that infrastructure to help meet members’ needs.

She told of St. Augustine By-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Santa Monica, Calif., that already had a well-established "TeleCare" Team Ministry where every member is called every six months to see how they are doing and to offer prayer. The TeleCare Team is just starting its fall round of calls and expects to hear concerns related to the September 11 attacks and subsequent U.S. military action.

Emphasizing the importance of religious leaders’ "leadership in the work of spirituality," Dr. Kornfeld said, "Terrorism is a psychological war. The antidote to fear is love. It’s the spiritual response to a psychological trauma. Help people do acts of love that cast out fear."

Dr. Kornfeld is President of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (www.aapc.org).

THEOLOGICAL REFLECTION: Several communion representatives described ways they are seeking to help people make sense theologically of what happened on September 11. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (www.pcusa.org) is engaging in reflection "on radical evil, repentance and just war," reported the Rev. Robina Winbush, PCUSA Director for Ecumenical and Agency Relations.

The American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. (www.abc-usa.org) is seeking to build on the current "outburst of spirituality and worship" to cultivate "a deeper, more mature spirituality," the denomination’s interim general secretary, Robert H. Roberts, said.

Pastoral counselor Dr. Mary C. Ragan urged churches to also "help people understand the process of demonization, why the person who looks and sounds different becomes ‘dangerous’ to us … In a time of patriotic fervor, we must be especially careful about the violence that is projected out."

She added, "This is a time creative energies can be mobilized like no other. Don’t miss this. Don’t go on with business as usual." Dr. Ragan is Director of the Lower Mid-Manhattan area Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute (www.mindspirit.org).

STATEMENTS: Perspectives on September 11 and reflections on how to respond have been offered by many denominations. U.S. Orthodox church leaders are at work on a statement about the nature of the crisis and the challenges all face. The American Baptist Churches are working "to be sure the response seeks both justice and mercy in this moment, making sure we get beyond vengeance," Roberts reported.

The NCC helped circulate the interfaith sign-on statement "Deny Them Their Victory" and will soon mail it to congregations along with the statement "Diversity and Community," issued in November by the U.S. Conference of Religions for Peace.

INTERFAITH UNDERSTANDING: Decades of interfaith relations groundwork undergirded joint meetings and statements condemning the September 11 attacks -- and warning against blaming the wrong people. The Episcopal Church (www.ecusa.anglican.org) quickly distributed a factsheet on Islam. The NCC invited Muslim leaders to a meeting and the United Methodist Church Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns (www.umc.org) set aside most of the agenda for its meeting in Los Angeles the week of October 8 for visits with the Islamic community.

PARTICIPATION IN REBUILDING: Asked by its members across the United States how to help following the September 11 attacks, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) (www.disciples.org) is encouraging people to help rebuild their own communities.

"It’s a practical way to respond," said the Rev. Robert K. Welsh, President of the denomination’s Council on Christian Unity. The Disciples were instrumental in founding Habitat for Humanity, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in September in Indianapolis, the Disciples’ headquarters city, he said.

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