Members of an international ecumenical team representing the World Council of Churches (WCC) have left the United States enriched and encouraged by the signs of hope and community commitment they witnessed at a nine-day solidarity visit during which they met US Christians struggling with issues of gun control, war and a culture of violence.
After travelling to Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York and New Orleans, and towns along the way, the 'Living Letters' team members from South Africa, Lebanon, Pakistan and Brazil said they gained much more than they had given along the way. But they also left behind messages of support and encouragement to those who work tirelessly to promote peaceful alternatives to violence.
They offered encouragement to Philadelphia's mayor battling the highest homicide rate of any city in the nation, and listened to how an Amish community in rural Pennsylvania recovered from tragedy, forgave and helped support the widow and children of a gunman who killed five school girls and injured another five one year ago. They experienced the struggle of a black congregation in New Orleans that is determined to overcome street violence and joined in the United Nations community in New York as UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon rang the peace bell to commemorate this year's International Day of Peace and declared that “Peace is the United Nations’ highest calling.”
Standing with the secretary general were several of the UN’s Messengers of Peace, distinguished individuals selected from the fields of art, literature, music and sports, who have agreed to help focus worldwide attention on the work of the United Nations. They included actor Michael Douglas, environmentalist Jane Goodall and Holocaust survivor and human rights activist Elie Wiesel.
The WCC had its own “messengers of peace” present. The Living Letters delegation included the Rev. Edwin Makue, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches; Lina Moukheiber, a public health specialist from Lebanon; Aneeqa Maria Akhtar, a human rights lawyer from Pakistan; and Dr Marcelo Schneider, an ecumenist from Brazil.
Witnesses for peace
Following a meeting with denominational leaders at the Church Center for the United Nations and an ecumenical service at the center's Tillman Chapel, the delegation held a press conference and met with student activists who were at the UN to witness for peace.
“The Decade to Overcome Violence aims to build awareness among the churches, to encourage churches to link up with civil society activists and to bring the concern for just peace from the periphery of the churches’ life into its center,” said the Rev. Hansulrich Gerber, coordinator of the WCC’s Decade to Overcome Violence, who accompanied the delegation.
Each member of the delegation testified that violence is a daily occurrence in his or her own country. “Today is a national day of mourning in Lebanon,” said Moukheiber, referring to the killing of one of her country’s political leaders that day. “I have had to struggle with [the concept of] peace and forgiveness. As we come together, we are affirming our solidarity and support.”
“There was a time less than 13 years ago when South Africa was a very violent country, a nation turned on itself to destroy itself,” said Makue. “Because of people like you, who would believe in peace, we have peace in South Africa today.”
But peace and freedom is tied to the peace and freedom of other countries, he continued. “We cannot claim to be free while our neighbors in Zimbabwe have no freedom. Think of the people in western Sahara, and the violation that children suffer. They have been deprived of their right to be children. But we believe that through this campaign we are engaged in, we are under an obligation to bring about the end of that violence."
Akhtar said Christians are a tiny minority of the population in Pakistan. “Churches are not strong [enough] to cope with the terrorist attacks,” she said. “It is really a challenge because [the future of] all of the minorities are at stake. We don’t know when we are going [to] be shot dead or hit by the terrorist attacks. Everyone [is] looking out for their own.”
“Where do you see hope for those people of faith who search for peace,” asked Moukheiber, who said Christians compose 40 percent of Lebanon’s population. “The way I see hope is for people in Lebanon to forgive each other, for everything we have done against each other.”
In the streets of New Orleans
Within a matter of hours, the delegation found itself from the United Nations Plaza to the French Quarter of New Orleans, a historic city that was two-thirds flooded when high winds from Hurricane Katrina broke through levees two years ago. They were met by Rev. Dr Bernice Powell Jackson of Beecher Memorial United Church of Christ, the North American WCC president.
“New Orleans is the ground zero of every racial social and economic injustice in the US,” Powell Jackson told them. During the final 24 hours of the delegation’s visit, members met with clergy and local artists and worshiped with the congregation at Beecher Memorial, whose members faced evacuation during the hurricane, then returned to struggle in the rebuilding of their damaged church. Amidst the street violence that has plagued New Orleans, they also heard stories of courageous Christian witness – weekly neighborhood walks, teen meetings, services for the homeless, racial reconciliation and community development.
The delegation witnessed the outstanding work of church coalitions in providing relief and emergency aid, but they also heard calls for churches at the national level to increase their advocacy for more government action in order to help people to rehabilitate their homes.
“We traveled in a rented van to so many places and little by little the van was getting smaller,” wrote Schneider, who kept an online journal or ‘blog’ about the visit. "Our van did not have enough space to carry all the people who were with us by the end of the trip: the ten [Amish] girls and the violence perpetrator from Nickel Mines, Pasadena; the man murdered in the night we spent in Philadelphia; the victims of the man-made errors in New Orleans, and so on. We don’t need a larger van though, we need bigger arms to express our solidarity and to make people feel that they are not alone.”
The WCC delegation to the US was the second visit of “Living Letters” in the context of the WCC Decade to Overcome Violence. Living Letters are small ecumenical teams who visit a country to listen, learn, share approaches and help to confront challenges in order to overcome violence, promote and pray for peace. The first was a 4-14 August visit to Sri Lanka, a troubled Indian Ocean nation, that has suffered internal strife since 1983. Renewed violence since 2005 has claimed at least 5,000 lives. Other “Living letters” will focus attention on other regions of the world over the next three years.
(c) Jerry Hames is a religion journalist who has worked for 40 years for Canadian and American church publications. He recently retired as editor of the national publication of the Episcopal Church in the United States.
Further information: http://overcomingviolence.org/index.php?id=4104 
Read team member Marcelo Schneider's blog on the Living Letters visit: