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Church leaders challenged

BY SUSAN KIM | WASHINGTON | November 17, 2001

"Without one voice of the church, justice will never come and we will never get to the point of equality and truth."

—Bishop Samuel Azariah, Church of Pakistan

A soloist at the Simpson Memorial Chapel sang "deliver us from evil" at the same moment American Airline's Flight 587 plunged into a NYC suburb Monday.

The 50 people in the pews that clear fall morning -- a stone's throw from the Capitol rotunda -- were left wondering, for the millionth time since Sept. 11, why.

What is the church supposed to do when a country is suffering, besides open its doors and offer comfort?

The church must find a voice and speak, said international faith leaders visiting from Pakistan, Palestine, South Africa, and other countries.

The interfaith delegation was sent by the World Council of Churches as a "living letter" of compassion to the U.S. in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Before stopping in DC, they visited churches and met with U.S. religious leaders in New York and Chicago,

with another stop planned for California. They represented denominations as diverse as the United Methodists, Church of Pakistan, and Society of Friends.

The group prayed together at New York's "ground zero." They broke bread together. As they began to understand one other, they talked about American churches. From beleaguered countries themselves, their compassion was coupled with a challenge to American religious leaders: find a voice -- one voice -- that the world can hear in

the wake of Sept. 11.

"I have been greatly encouraged by the attitude at the individual church level," said Bishop Samuel Azariah, a presiding bishop with the Church of Pakistan. "But the one voice of the Christian church is not coming out. They are all giving their statements but nothing is

coming out."

U.S. church leaders tried to explain: American churches are decentralized. They can't just issue statements willy-nilly. They have to be approved by conferences, conventions, committees, councils.

Most U.S. mainstream denominations delivered statements within a week after Sept. 11. But finding one statement that would unite all the Christian denominations and satisfy everyone? Impossible.

As Jim MacDonald, vice president for policy and programming at Washington, DC-based Bread for the World, said: "My head is swirling. There is a constant need to process the changes that are taking place in a hundred different directions. What's a homeland security office?

What do we grab hold of?"

Bishop Azariah was firm: "Without one voice of the church, justice will never come and we will never get to the point of equality and truth."

Part of the problem is that U.S. churches seldom have a voice that's heard in the national press, said Bishop Mvume Dandala of the Methodist Church of South Africa, who led the international delegation.

It's a dilemma churches across the world have wrestled with for years, he acknowledged.

"Strategically, how do we communicate in a way that makes sense? I do not think churches anywhere in the world have really thought carefully yet about the place of modern communication," mused Bishop Dandala. "There is always a dilemma between self-projection, which is

unsavory, and communicating in the modern world."

But in troubled times like these, said Dandala, "we're still too parochial. If we as churches wait until we have a common voice on this -- we will never speak."

What the U.S. needs right now is a prophet, said Dandala, a person who can capture the Christian voice. "You just have to say, 'Lord, raise a prophet around whom we can rally.' That's another form of unity."

In South Africa, many people saw violence as the only response to apartheid until Bishop Desmond Tutu was able to help churches find a voice for peace, said Dandala. "In South Africa, that happened when Desmond Tutu began focusing us on other ways of seeking justice besides violence. I believe the church in the U.S. has got to find this voice," he said.

Ultimately, it might mean advocating for peace when most people in the U.S. believe that war is a necessity right now, he acknowledged. And many U.S. pastors are under tremendous pressure to support the bombing of Afghanistan -- or risk being branded unpatriotic or, worse, pro-terrorist.

The U.S. national media has adopted an "either-or" portrayal of the war against Afghanistan, meaning "you are either for the war or you are in compliance with what happened Sept. 11," said Jean Zaru, presiding clerk of the Society of Friends in Ramallah, Palestine.

What happened Sept. 11 "is sinful," said Zaru. "But there should be another way of responding. Violence is not the answer and not the option."

Heads nodded through the delegation. As the afternoon wound to a close, Bishop Dandala summed up their view: "Our collective experience makes us unsure that militarism can be an effective way of dealing with terrorism, even on a short-term basis."

Then he uttered the still-unanswered questions that hung in the air like unexploded rhetorical bombs: "How should the church be in the forefront? How can we best begin to articulate these things in a meaningful way?"

But there were no secular reporters taking down his words. And there were no television cameras recording him as he issued his firm challenge to American churches.

It comes down to information sharing, he admitted. "We need to search for ways that information can strengthen brotherhood and sisterhood. But the power of the communication in the world is so enormous that even to ask a question about how it can be reversed feels stupid. And foolish."

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