(RNS)--When Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin offered her home as a"neutral meeting place" for Elian Gonzalez's visit with his grandmotherslast month, I was delighted.

I was equally disappointed when that meeting place proved to be farfrom neutral ground, and I was especially disappointed when Sister Jeanne soquickly abandoned her neutral role to take a very public, partisanposition--based, I would argue, on very limited information.

As general secretary of the National Council of Churches, theorganization that facilitated the grandmothers' U.S. visit, it becameincreasingly clear to me that a neutral, safe, and private place wasabsolutely necessary if Elian and his grandmothers were to have ameaningful visit. From the moment their plane landed at JFK airport in New York, the grandmothers were surrounded by security and faced a persistentthrong of media, with cameras thrust inches from their faces.Though they were told they would be safe from demonstrators in Miami,the streets leading to Sister Jeanne's home were congested withdemonstrators yelling, "He will not go back!"

Sister Jeanne's value as a neutral mediator would have been immeasurable, but she chose instead to take sides, based on only brief impressions.

Security concerns continued to mount right up to the moment of thevisit with Elian. In fact, the final delay before their visit occurredwhen the grandmothers were advised that a group known to hold a very stronganti-Castro position was occupying the house right next door, itsbalcony overlooking Sister Jeanne's house. The grandmothers delayedtheir arrival until the group was removed, out of very real concern fortheir safety and that of Elian.

Their entire experience before and during the visit with Elianheightened their sense of vulnerability and underscored the need for asafe and neutral space in which to see their grandson. Sister Jeannesaid she saw fear in the grandmothers' eyes and felt coldness in theirhands. No wonder.

The National Council of Churches team that hosted Elian'sgrandmothers spent virtually every waking hour with the grandmothersover the course of 11 days, beginning on January 20, when we arrived in Havanato pick them up, and continuing through January 30, when we saw them off atDulles Airport in Washington for their flight home. They stayed forseveral nights in the home of our last general secretary. Wegot to know these courageous grandmothers, Raquel Rodriguez and MarielaQuintana, as individuals.

In contrast, Sister Jeanne had limited contact with thegrandmothers. The grandmothers were provided gracious hospitality in herhome, but Sister Jeanne herself was busy with multiple responsibilitiesrelated to the visit. Even though her value as a neutral mediator would have been immeasurable, she chose instead to take sides, based on only brief impressions.

The NCC has never claimed to be neutral. In early December 1999, we received a plea from our Christian partners in Cuba, the Cuban Council of Churches, to work with them to obtain the release and return of Elian to his paternal home. As partner church councils, we have long worked together to provide humanitarian relief for those who are suffering, especially children.

We feared that Elian's situation was becoming politicized in a waythat was potentially damaging to our hopes for normalized relationsbetween our countries and, most importantly, to the well-being of analready traumatized six-year-old boy.

We agreed that Elian belonged with his closest blood relatives--asituation that's best for any child, provided that those family membersare fit to raise him. In order to speak confidently on that point,members of an NCC delegation made a personal visit to the family home inCardenas, Cuba, and to Elian's school. The delegation met with Elian'sfather, grandparents, and great-grandmother (along with several of hisaunts, uncles, and cousins) and shared a meal with them in a nearbyecumenical studies center.
Even Elian's maternal grandmother, whose daughter died at sea, wants her son-in-law to raise this child.

Over the course of three days, our delegates spent about eight hoursvisiting with Juan Miguel Gonzalez and his family in Cuba. Theirconclusion: those who, along with Elian's deceased mother, had borne theresponsibility for caring for Elian since his birth should continue inthis role.