Greetings from the World Council of Churches, which is a global fellowship of 352 churches from more than 120 countries representing more than 580 million Christians. The WCC is the broadest and most inclusive of the many organized expressions of the modern ecumenical movement, the goal of which is Christian unity.
Faith and spiritual bases for humanitarian aid
What we now call humanitarian aid is at the very heart of our Christian identity, life, and work. This imperative comes from the affirmation that out of love for humanity and the whole cosmos, God has assumed flesh in Christ. God in Christ has become one of us, having taken upon himself all the weaknesses of our fallen and sick nature to heal, reconcile, save, and bring all to harmony and reconciliation. The consequence of such a faith affirmation is that Christians are called to see in every human being, in every human face, the face of Christ, and to look and treat every human being as a brother or sister in reconciled humanity. The New Testament speaks of Christ suffering in all those who suffer, who are hungry and thirsty, sick or in any need. Serving the needs of such people means to serve God in Christ. It is notable that the preferred name with which Jesus Christ calls himself is that of diakonos, which means servant.
For Christians, therefore, humanitarian aid is not merely about generosity or goodwill; it goes to the very heart of who we are called to be. Christians call this work of caring in Christ’s name for people in need “diakonia,” from the Greek word for servant.
The World Council of Churches was founded in 1948. At that time the greatest humanitarian need, especially in Europe, was addressing the refugee crisis in the aftermath of the Second World War. The WCC was at the centre of promoting this work amongst churches. Church-related humanitarian relief agencies grew up – one example is Christian Aid in the United Kingdom – which initially channelled humanitarian aid particularly for the relief of German children suffering shortages of food in the severe winters of the late 1940s. Over the years, the WCC has been itself an important vehicle for humanitarian aid in many crisis situations. This included, for example, responding with significant volumes of emergency assistance to the North Korean people during the acute famine of the 1990s.
In order to improve coordination among and the effectiveness of church-related humanitarian agencies, the WCC – jointly with the Lutheran World Federation – gave birth to Action by Churches Together International, which has since evolved into ACT Alliance. This is the largest coalition of Protestant and Orthodox faith-based actors working on humanitarian, development, and advocacy issues.
From a very early stage the WCC recognized that humanitarian aid alone is insufficient. The root causes of injustice and poverty must also be addressed. And already, since the 1970s, the WCC has been promoting and advocating sustainable development, and an effective response to the existential threat of climate change. This is why the WCC is strongly behind the targets set by the UN Sustainable Development Goals 2015–2030. We cannot let the setbacks caused by COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine be used as excuses for inaction and failure. The one billion poorest people in the world deserve a better life. Let me give one example. The WCC is sponsoring a project to promote learning and understanding for the better coordination of humanitarian aid and development work in Malawi and Cameroon, led by local churches and development agencies. We also organize training for leadership in diakonia and development in conjunction with ecumenical partners in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. Much of the humanitarian work by churches is locally organized and does not depend on money from other countries.
Indeed, as important as the work of international humanitarian agencies is, it is often national and local faith-based organizations and communities who are the leading edge and long-term foundation for humanitarian relief and development. The WCC seeks to support and strengthen the humanitarian and diaconal roles of its member churches in their own contexts, right down to individual congregations in small villages. This was of great importance during the Ebola crisis in West Africa, and an important basis for our co-operation with the World Health Organization, as well as our long-term engagement in addressing HIV and AIDS. COVID-19 has been a major challenge in recent years, with churches playing a key role in advocating a fairer and greater distribution of vaccines, as well as in meeting the needs of affected people and communities.
What are we doing now?
The humanitarian work done by the global membership of the World Council of Churches and ACT Alliance is immense. Currently, the work of churches and related organizations in countries neighbouring Ukraine has been of huge importance in assisting refugees fleeing from the conflict. In many cases, church buildings have been used to store humanitarian aid and to provide accommodation to refugees. Church congregations and individuals have worked tirelessly to help, but this also requires support and co-ordination on national and international levels.
Right now, many African nations and the UN World Food Programme source significant amounts of wheat and other staples from Ukraine. The current inability to harvest, transport, or receive these essential supplies is yet another reason why this terrible war must be brought to an end as quickly as possible. When the war in Ukraine does come to an end, as all wars must, there will be a critical need for sustained humanitarian and development work to address the human need exacerbated by this crisis globally. Let us not forget about other places in great need, such as Yemen, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Central America, Afghanistan, to name just these. Churches and churches-related development agencies are active in all these places, both in providing immediate humanitarian aid as well as working in long-term development on issues such as gender justice, educational support, sustainable energy projects, and other critical issues for the future of individuals and communities.
In conclusion, it is clear that churches do not and must not undertake humanitarian work to proselytize or for any other hidden agenda but as a response to their very identity as churches, as I set out at the beginning of this presentation. They care for and serve all in need as sisters and brothers regardless of religious, ethnic, or other identity. Countries once in receipt of humanitarian aid, such as Germany, are now among the largest donors internationally. As human beings, we are all interdependent irrespective of faith. There are times when we need support – and there are times when we are able to provide it. As churches, our faith compels us to be part of the global humanitarian effort to care for people in need.