New York police officers climb to the top of the wreckage of the World Trade Center South Tower to display the American flag. © Newhouse News Service /Andrew Mills photo.
On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, I was on my first trip to Berlin, part of an ecumenical visit to church partners in Germany, Switzerland and Hungary. Peter Makari, Area Executive for the Middle East and Europe of the Common Global Ministries Board, accompanied me. As toasts were exchanged at a closing reception, one of the reporters returned, shaken, to inform us of the unfolding catastrophe in New York and Washington.
Later that evening I was asked to participate in a hastily called ecumenical vigil that would be hosted by the Bishop of the Evangelical Church of Berlin-Brandenburg and the Roman Catholic Cardinal. Several thousand Berliners filled the church and spilled out into the damp, chilly streets.
The leaders of the major political parties, the mayor of Berlin, and the Federal Justice Minister joined ordinary Berliners to sing and pray. I was welcomed as a church partner and as a kind of representative of the American people in this remarkable outpouring of grief, tears and consolation.
Afterward, as the Cardinal, Bishop and I moved from the sanctuary to the crowd outside, we were met by hundreds of mostly young people, singing songs for peace. The moment was made significant and poignant by the fact that one of the songs was in Hebrew, another was our own "We Shall Overcome." Countless strangers took my hand and said, "We are so sorry."
Our day ended as it did for many—sitting in front of television news, telephoning friends and family in the New York area to reassure ourselves of their well-being.
But for Peter and me there was much more as we reflected on this incredible day.
We had gone to a part of the world that many once feared would be the place World War III might begin, only to watch terrifying destruction in cities close to our own home.
We had come to express the support of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to our partner church as it struggles with the largely atheistic, post-socialist context of the former East Germany, but instead we received the care of that church in the face of our own national tragedy.
We came to honor the struggle against violence by courageous colleagues far from home, only to watch violence come home to us in painful, frightening and intimate ways, and we learned that overcoming violence must be our own struggle as well.
We woke up to a city heavy with ominous historical meaning; we went to bed embraced by Berliners gentle in their care and extravagant in their compassion.
For all its horror, as yet not fully grasped, it was a graced day.
At the ecumenical service I offered this prayer. May it be ours in the coming days:
Loving and eternal God, who promises to wipe away tears in a time without mourning or pain, you bring comfort and consolation to those who trust in you.
Tonight we give thanks for this sign of companionship and consolation by the people of Berlin for the people of my own native land. We give thanks for this moment when the church is able to see beyond its own separation to the gift of its unity in Christ.
Hear us now as we pray for those whose loved ones have died today, for those who struggle with pain and injury, for those who even now risk their lives to rescue others.
Guide the leaders of the United States, and their colleagues around the world, that they may turn away from violence and vengeance, seeking the way that leads to reconciliation, justice and hope. This we pray.
And the congregation responded in the ancient song, "Kyrie eleison, Kyrie eleison, Kyrie eleison." Mercy. Let it be so.
The Rev. John H. Thomas is General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ.