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

I was equally disappointed when that meeting place proved to be far from neutral ground, and I was especially disappointed when Sister Jeanne so quickly abandoned her neutral role to take a very public, partisan position--based, I would argue, on very limited information.

As general secretary of the National Council of Churches, the organization that facilitated the grandmothers' U.S. visit, it became increasingly clear to me that a neutral, safe, and private place was absolutely necessary if Elian and his grandmothers were to have a meaningful visit. From the moment their plane landed at JFK airport in New York, the grandmothers were surrounded by security and faced a persistent throng 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 with demonstrators 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 the visit with Elian. In fact, the final delay before their visit occurred when the grandmothers were advised that a group known to hold a very strong anti-Castro position was occupying the house right next door, its balcony overlooking Sister Jeanne's house. The grandmothers delayed their arrival until the group was removed, out of very real concern for their safety and that of Elian.

Their entire experience before and during the visit with Elian heightened their sense of vulnerability and underscored the need for a safe and neutral space in which to see their grandson. Sister Jeanne said she saw fear in the grandmothers' eyes and felt coldness in their hands. No wonder.

The National Council of Churches team that hosted Elian's grandmothers spent virtually every waking hour with the grandmothers over the course of 11 days, beginning on January 20, when we arrived in Havana to pick them up, and continuing through January 30, when we saw them off at Dulles Airport in Washington for their flight home. They stayed for several nights in the home of our last general secretary. We got to know these courageous grandmothers, Raquel Rodriguez and Mariela Quintana, as individuals.

In contrast, Sister Jeanne had limited contact with the grandmothers. The grandmothers were provided gracious hospitality in her home, but Sister Jeanne herself was busy with multiple responsibilities related 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 way that was potentially damaging to our hopes for normalized relations between our countries and, most importantly, to the well-being of an already traumatized six-year-old boy.

We agreed that Elian belonged with his closest blood relatives--a situation that's best for any child, provided that those family members are 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 in Cardenas, Cuba, and to Elian's school. The delegation met with Elian's father, grandparents, and great-grandmother (along with several of his aunts, uncles, and cousins) and shared a meal with them in a nearby ecumenical 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 hours visiting with Juan Miguel Gonzalez and his family in Cuba. Their conclusion: those who, along with Elian's deceased mother, had borne the responsibility for caring for Elian since his birth should continue in this role.

What's more, in our time with the grandmothers during their U.S. visit, we observed them to be interested not in politics or in legal strategies but in the well-being of their grandson, whom they call their "little heart." We were eyewitnesses to the love and care of this family for Elian and can find no reason why he should not be returned home to them.

Only when Elian is returned to his home will he be able to grieve and to heal. Sister Jeanne is right that Elian is a wounded child, but he cannot be made whole again without the loving support of the father, grandparents, and community he knew for six years. Even Elian's maternal grandmother, whose daughter died at sea, wants her son-in-law to raise this child. To suggest, as Sister Jeanne does, that Elian can be healed best in the company of those he has known for two and a half months lacks an understanding of the ties that bind parent and child.

None of us can know Elian's thoughts. Neither can we know the motives of Elian's mother, which were probably complex. Instead of second-guessing the motives and decisions of family members suffering loss and separation, we support the reunification of Elian with his family in Cuba so that Elian can find the comfort and love he needs to begin healing. We believe this is the appropriate first step toward reconciliation for this family and for all Cuban families--for which, as people of faith, we pray.

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