My name is Chey Mattner, Executive Director of Australian Lutheran World Service (the
overseas aid and resettlement agency of the Lutheran Church of Australia), and with me is
Sister Anne McGuire, Head of Mission at Caritas Australia (the Catholic Agency for International
Aid and Development). We’re honoured to be able to join you today.
In 2009, I asked my wife Libby to join me on a monitoring visit of the programs we support in
what was called Sudan at the time, now South Sudan.
My clever strategy was to reassure her that even in the most hostile countries (it was suffering
the effects of internal conflict after a peace agreement a few years earlier) I would be looked
after by colleagues there, and so when I visited any other country – all safer in comparison –
she would not have to worry. I had just proposed to her, and thought this was the best way to
address any concerns she had.
It turned out it was not such a clever strategy. We were caught in crossfire between a farmer
and cattle raiders, then local police and cattle raiders 2 nights in a row, and later stopped by
soldiers on a bridge over the Nile who called us out of the vehicle after a team member was
caught taking a photo of what we later found to be a strategic military position. It is only now, 8
years on, that she’s starting to come to terms with me travelling to these places. I’m pleased to
say we still got married – and… we’re still married today.
During that visit, in a small township called Torit, where reportedly the first and last gun shots
were fired in a 50 year war, Libby and I were put up in an old safari tent. The tent was in the
compound of the Catholic Church’s aid agency, Caritas, because the Lutheran compound
nearby still only had an office and a generator – little else.
We spent most of those nights fending off a rat and her litter nested between the window flap
and the tent wall. Here we were: two Lutherans in a Catholic compound in a Catholic tent with
a Catholic rat.
Between the Catholic compound and the Lutheran compound lay half a kilometer of road.
Along those 500 metres, families had been killed by machine gun fire, machete and air strikes
during the war. While we were there, along those 500 metres the South Sudan People’s
Liberation Army would jog-march in the early morning, singing in deep melody as a united front
against anything that would come their way. And in the afternoon along those 500 metres,
children, women and men rode on the back of United Nations trucks pre-positioned to receive
people returning from neighboring Uganda after years, sometimes decades, of living in refugee
It was 500 metres between the Lutherans and the Catholics. 500 metres of dirt and dust where
blood had been split, where people had lost their lives, and where others began theirs again,
anew. It seemed that out there in the middle of nowhere, in an environment where you look after
each other, 500 metres was 500 metres too far away. Were it not for the local government’s
request to zone them apart, and if they had their way, they would have been neighbours.
In the middle of nowhere, 500 years of bloodshed and disagreement between these two
churches made no difference at all. Reformation never came up over a cup of tea conversation.
It was never cause for division or disagreement. It didn’t keep them apart. Instead, what made
them work so well together was their common purpose to help someone who was suffering.
This was their imperative, as humans, as Christians in a broken and uneven world.
Catholic and Lutheran aid workers in South Sudan, indeed the world over, are committed (often at great personal expense) to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give water to the thirsty, as Matthew asked of us 2000 years ago. As you and I, they believe in salvation and eternity. But that is not what motivates them. They also believe in life before death. It is the 500 metres of hurt and hope between these churches which united them, not the 500 years which has divided others.
One of these aid workers, a lean wiry Dutch man called Arie had worked in Sudan most of his
adult life. He was a Catholic but worked for the Lutherans. In 2013, in the aftermath of an
horrific civil war, Arie was asked by the United Nations to lead a team into a township called
Bor to count, retrieve and dispose of the bodies because no-one else was left to do it.
Afterwards, he told me that the only thing that got him through that was telling himself that as
a Christian it was the right thing to do. Never did he question whether as a Catholic he should
be working for the Lutherans. Never did he question whether as a Christian he should be
removing bodies which may have once housed souls committed to a different Christian
denomination, or even another faith.
You can find people like Arie everywhere across the world working for the Lutherans and
Catholics, working together to have a greater impact on the lives of the poor than if we were to
In 2002, 119 people attending church in a small town in Colombia, many of them children, were
killed by an explosion laid by a local terrorist group. Another 89 were seriously injured. The
explosion tore the arms off a statue of Christ which is kept in the village as a reminder of the
massacre. It also serves as a comfort to victims as a shepherd who still looks over them despite
the travesty. Last year, LWF and Caritas, accompanied the victims of the massacre through a long and painful court case.
Using their international connections, the two churches worked hard to bring this case to the
world’s attention, especially the United Nations Human Rights Council. “Caritas has been a strategic ally for LWF in the country,” said LWF Country Representative in Colombia, Saara Vuorensola-Barnes. “The Catholics and the Lutherans are united by the desire to continue working together to improve the living conditions of these people and we know we can do much more together.
“Our joint work has led us to understand that the gospel’s values go far beyond any religious
denomination, and that ecumenical work for the well-being of people is very important.”
Examples of us working together are not limited to other countries.
At an Australian level, Lutherans and Catholics have joined hands to win government support
for disaster responses, and a long-term development program in Papua New Guinea. At a global level, the Lutheran and Catholic aid agencies sit on the highest aid committees in the world. In fact, they are two of the largest, oldest and closest faith-based partners to the United Nations today.
In Malmo, Sweden, last year, these agencies confirmed their pledge to partnership by signing a
Declaration of Intent. In it they commit to looking for opportunities to cooperate, share and
learn from each other in work with refugees, the internally displaced and migrants, in areas of
peace building, reconciliation, disaster response and interfaith action. The Declaration of Intent was built on the Lutheran-Catholic study document, From Conflict to Communion, which states “Ecumenical engagement for the unity of the Church does not serve only the Church but also the world.”
But Christ reminds us that the poor will always be with us. So why do we bother. Why don’t we
simply give up if that’s the case?
The answer is two-fold. First, to help others is the cornerstone of social Christian teaching. In Greek, this is called Diakonia – or ‘service’ and stretches as far back as Moses in Deuteronomy:
“If there is a poor person with you … you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand; but
you shall freely open your hand to them, and shall generously lend them sufficient for their
need in whatever they lack.” Deuteronomy 15:7-8
Second, we are contributing to something amazing. We are making a difference, and this
motivates us to continue. For example
- Today there are many more girls enrolled in education that in 1990 while the average
number of women in parliaments across the world has doubled.
- Vaccinations have played an important role in reducing child mortality figures. Since
2000 the measles vaccine alone has prevented nearly 16 million deaths.
- Back in 1990 only 59% of births were tended to by a skilled health person. Today that
figure has risen to over 80%, meaning maternal mortality is less likely.
- Less than half as many people die from Malaria today than they did 15 years ago.
- In less than 3 years, tuberculosis prevention has saved 37 million lives
Over 2 million people have received access to better sanitation, and almost all people in
Northern Africa are drinking cleaner water.
Welcoming the stranger
Despite all this, we know that there are more people around the world who have been forced
from their homes than any other time since WW2 – 67 million people, set to increase to 80
million in a few years. That’s over 60 Adelaides or put differently, if all held hands in a line, that
line would wrap around the Earth 30 times.
Religion has been the cause of some of this displacement. We cannot ignore it. Poverty is the
result of human greed not just natural disasters; and the majority of people flee from war –
often justified by religion – not floods, or droughts or cyclones. And so it follows that a strong way of addressing greed, oppression, and war is not by government decrees or diplomatic negotiations but through the language of faith. In 2012, the United Nations Refugee Agency recognised this. It chose not to criticize the world’s main faiths (it could have), but instead reached out to them. It asked them to develop a
statement which responded to injustice, welcoming and receiving the other, the banished, stateless and weary.
It was the Catholics and Lutherans, together with a couple other denominations, who
represented the Christian community. And this community worked with other religions. During the process they found that despite their differences, to welcome the stranger was deeply
rooted in each of their holy teachings. What resulted was a shared commitment to opening the door to others, irrespective of creed or culture, and together standing firm against a global push to stop the boats and build the walls. The statement has since been translated into Arabic, Chinese, French, Hebrew, Russian and Spanish.
In the same way the road of suffering and hope brought the churches together in Sudan, the
suffering of the displaced has brought faiths together. As it is written in Hebrews,
“Let mutual love continue. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so, some
have entertained angels without knowing it.” Hebrews 13:1-2
Let us then put aside our differences, for what point is there in arguing? And let us instead
allow mutual love to continue, towards others and towards each other. This is the mandate we pass onto the next generation. To consider the road which unites us rather than the years which divide us.
Listen to them, our future, as they lead us in this pledge to Welcome the Stranger: