From a Bishop's Desk

A series of opinion articles and essays from bishop's of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and ecumenical partners.


What Rough Beast Slouching from Ground Zero?

Sep 11, 2019

By MNYS Former Bishop Stephen Bouman

"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." —Matthew 11:28-30

“Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”  —Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”


A freezing rain whipped in on the wind from New York Harbor as we gathered at the Battery in lower Manhattan. Through bone-chilling sleet we could see the lady in the harbor, an enduring iconic presence holding aloft the welcoming torch. It was the day after the President George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address in 2006, and New York’s religious leaders and immigration advocates were holding a press conference to urge the president and congress to enact humane immigration reform and to reject current legislation pending in Congress that would criminalize acts helping undocumented neighbors. Just a few blocks away, on a beautiful September day five years earlier, the Twin Towers had come tumbling down, destroying the lives of thousands. For a brief moment afterwards, the world’s attention and our own was focused on what mattered most: our shared humanity, our communal compassion, our deepest spiritual longings and hope. But, too soon, all that changed. In the ripples of 9/11, something ugly has emerged, slouching from Ground Zero: a hardening of the heart toward the stranger among us. We became fearful, and in our fear we came to believe that our security can only be achieved through power, enforcement, a closing of the ranks, and a sealing of our borders. On this cold, rainy day, representatives from many religious traditions gathered to refute that belief and to give voice to a shared spiritual conviction that our mutual security is tied not to power and isolation, but to the well-being and dignity of every child of God. We were gathered to ask our president, our leaders, and our fellow citizens: What kind of community is emerging from Ground Zero? What kind of communal future are we building together?

"Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity...and what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?" —William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

The above is from a book I wrote with Ralston Deffenbaugh, former director of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, in 2009 (They Are Us: Lutherans and Immigration). We are presently working on a second edition of that book.

Things are even worse in America at on the eve of the 18th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The rough beast sloughing from Ground Zero is being born again and again in cages at the border, families split apart, plans to restrict or even end refuge resettlement and a graceless public arena which not only distrusts the Stranger among us, but blames them. I’ve seen too much and I am spiritually drained, and almost mute at the eve of another anniversary of this heartbreaking event.

My point of reference has moved over the years from literal presence at Ground Zero to witness of the events and their ramifications through a wider lens. Hearing the stories of refugees and asylum seekers in San Pedro Sula and San Salvador in Central America; at the border in group homes and shelters; in detention facilities in Texas, New Jersey and New Mexico; accompanying a member of my congregation, a Lutheran pastor as she was deported, leaving her children and grandchildren behind in the community of our congregation. I’m not a bishop or a denominational executive anymore. I’m a parish pastor at a magnificent, but struggling urban congregation in the north side of Chicago. I am not struggling any more to make sense of this in a public and national and global scale. Tomorrow I will lead chapel with the children of our parish school. We will sing and pray and process to the rear of the church to sing and pray for peace and ring the parish bell. Our neighborhood will hear the sound, wafting to Wrigley Field. The spiritual hunger of our community will be in hearing distance of a community of Jesus. Our church and school will continue to be a sanctuary in a graceless world. This Sunday I will baptize an adult immigrant, show up in hospice for a dying child of God, proclaim the Gospel as we remember Holy Cross Sunday.  

I don’t have any more 9/11 epiphanies, national and global level insights. I will be pensive and guarded and spiritually mute tomorrow. I will cringe at the jingoist, patriotic appropriation of the day, remembering those buried at Ground Zero are from every race, creed and representative of humanity. In years past I could withdraw, be quiet, shelter from it all. Tomorrow, I can’t be aloof in my grief. I’m a parish pastor and was a witness to these things and tomorrow, with the children, we will pray and embrace and ring the bell, and sing songs of graceful liberation: ”Lord, listen to the children praying...”


The Rev. Stephen Paul Bouman

Chicago, September 11, 20019