The Transformative Power of Diaconia

An eight-headed hydra

In Germany today we hear a lot of talk about the “new normality”. In the middle of the coronavirus crisis it aims to show that the “old life” is not coming back. Some see it as an opportunity: perhaps it will finally be possible to drive digitalisation forward or to also appreciate the system relevance of the medical professions. And possibly we will even manage to learn from the pandemic how to handle the climate crisis – that political action is possible! Others fear that this crisis will only reveal and heighten what has been moving in the wrong direction for years – the growing inequalities, intergenerational conflicts and struggles to obtain care.

At least the awareness is gradually dawning that the pandemic is only another, particularly abrupt tipping point in a series of major crises that condition one another. Only recently the ecological crisis – coming to a head in the acceleration of climate change, increasing conflicts about raw materials and a growing decline in biodiversity – has brought young people worldwide into the streets with Fridays for Future. And when, at the moment, there is so much talk about economic recovery programmes and sovereign bonds, the model is the financial crisis of 2008, whose consequences have not yet been overcome. Above all in southern Europe the sovereign debt crisis showed what it means when states are unable to act and societies are taken hostage by the financial markets; the high death rates through Covid-19 in Italy or in Spain are telling evidence of having “slimmed down” their health systems. And finally, problems of globalization came to the fore right at the start of the current crisis, when demand for medicines and masks produced in East Asia led to considerable supply shortages worldwide. And soon the employment crisis showed up as a threat to health. In the organisations and companies with precarious employment – abattoirs, parcel distribution centres, but also in the accommodation of seasonal workers – the number of persons infected was particularly high. That also applied to almost forgotten hostels for refugees. In view of the first debates about the consequences of the pandemic, many now remember what is called the refugee crisis of 2015, which had the potential of splitting the population – not least for fear of further “social cutbacks” in the aging societies of Europe, which are struggling to shore up their national welfare systems. And yet the wars, the environmental and economic disasters from which people flee are themselves partly caused by the worldwide conflicts for food, water and energy. It is an eight-headed hydra – every attempt to solve one or another problem in the usual way seems to lead to contradictions and tensions. We need to find new ways forward, a radically new reality.

Could we have prepared for this? Could we have known what was coming? No doubt! Not only the problems in the Middle Eastern countries, or the threat of a looming pandemic had been known for years. The same applies to the global economy, the unemployment crisis and the concerns about extreme climate change. It had long been clear that the above-mentioned crisis phenomena were intersections in a great transformation process comparable to the transformation towards an industrial society in the 19th century. It was still not possible to describe the challenges for politicians and civil society in such a way that change became possible. In 2009 the EKD issued a statement entitled “Like a High Wall, Cracked and Bulging”; the crisis on the financial markets was interpreted in the spirit of Isaiah´s call to repentance. But for those who are “too big to fail”, it is hard to let go of the old life. Hence those who experience and suffer injustice are giving up hope and despairing. That undermines the credibility of democracy but also of the church.

For all those reasons, the crises we are going through raise questions for faith and the church. In 1928, in his sermon “Serve the Time”, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “If we but understand the deep, pure form of these times and how to represent them in the way we conduct our own lives, then we will encounter God’s holy presence in the midst of our own time.” Two years afterwards, when National Socialism was leaving its imprint more and more on society in Germany, he was visiting the United States. He was urged to remain there, in exile like other emigrants. He decided to return to Germany and get completely involved in the depths of his age. “You have to see the depth of reality with the clear eyes of faith in order to be able to shape it with the saving arms of love,” wrote Johann Wichern in the 19th century.

Signs of the times

What do we discern in these days of crisis – and what had become clear beforehand? “As long as Germans have to go to the food bank, there is no room there for refugees” was the message in 2018 in the German city of Essen. The leaders of the Essen food bank had decided to temporarily exclude refugees so that German pensioners, unemployment benefit recipients and deprived families could receive food supplies. The argument that flared up all over Germany showed: there is not only a crack between top and bottom but also between inside and outside – this is magnified at the food banks. And “poor kitchens” have a tradition. When the great transformation in the 19th century overwhelmed families and parishes, diaconal associations took the initiative and founded soup kitchens, kindergartens, care homes, houses of refuge. It took until the end of the century for social security systems to be created at the national level. Anyone who saw their life falling to pieces through accident, illness, unemployment, was to be able to rely on mutuality and community support. Yet it was not just a matter of money – it was about the feeling of belonging even when depending on assistance. This basic feeling seems to be falling apart again today. The food banks are the soup kitchens of our days. But more is needed. In Spain an “unconditional basic income” is being tried out. Perhaps, in the foreseeable future, Germany too will need to detach the social insurance systems from a direct connection to earnings.

In the coronavirus crisis there was constant reference to the heroes and heroines of daily life – to nurses, sales personnel, cleaners, who “kept everyday life going”. After the first few weeks, when people clapped on their balconies everywhere in Europe, it was clear: these heroines – they are mostly women – are “system-relevant” but generally poorly paid, if at all. When schools and daycare centres closed, women coped with home schooling on top of work in their home office for weeks, or did without paid work altogether. And even before the crisis 1.5 million people were cared for by relatives – for an average of nine years with reduced employment and a growing risk of poverty. Often with support from an ambulatory care service, where the poorest paid staff work as carers. Eastern European domestic helps are the answer when the relatives live too far away. There are between 300,000 and an estimated 600,000 of them at present. Many only became aware of this when the borders with eastern Europe closed at the start of the pandemic. Where the welfare state policies fail, care work will be privatised again and performed by the family. The commission for the Seventh Family Report of the German Federal Government pointed out that a care deficit will threaten if it is not possible to question the absolute priority of economic thinking.

We need networks against loneliness, caring communities – with families, neighbours, service-providers, and cooperation between staff and volunteers. After all, according to a representative survey 25 percent of the German population are already engaged in neighbourly assistance with shopping, handyman services and child care. In the pandemic crisis that turned into organised networks, with younger people doing errands for the elderly folk. Mutual support improves the quality of life of all concerned.

With the motto “out-speculated” over 10,000 people demonstrated in 2019 in Munich, Frankfurt and Berlin against the “crazy” housing situation. Long queues to view apartments, exorbitant rents and a trend away from permanent tenancy. Students camping in the university. Pensioners who can no longer afford their flat when their partner has to go into a home or passes away. About 37,000 homeless people live in Berlin alone, almost a quarter of them with children. At the same time, luxury apartments are standing empty because they are used as investments and objects of speculation. It is no accident that, of all companies, the real estate group Deutsche Wohnen moved up into the German share index (Dax) when in June 2020 Lufthansa was downgraded. But the rooms in which we live are more than an investment. Here too it is a matter of feeling we belong – as citizens we are part of urban society. The less private living space and the less property we have, the more we need public places in the city, freely accessible river banks, open churches and benches on the market square.

Where WE becomes important

The struggles of our times are care struggles, that mark the end of the neoliberal hopes – it is about food, housing, care and mobility. And it is about home – the town in which I can say “we”. Shrinking regions show how home is eroding: young people in the prosperous regions, with the older ones staying back, frequently as home-owners who can hardly sell their properties. Families and neighbours change too, however, because people move in from elsewhere – from the country to the towns, from the towns to the plusher outlying suburbs, as job-seekers, migrants or refugees. With growing diversity comes uncertainty, a growing feeling of being a stranger in our own city. Families with small children, also old or sick people – whose share in the total population is growing – come under particular pressure when coping with daily life if they cannot fall back on the automatic assistance of relatives.

To organise cohesion it is not enough to install a platform – be it digital or analog. If we want to reach those who do not normally assert their rights, intermediary organisations are necessary: schools, churches, welfare organisations, political parties. Precisely such organisations have been in retreat in the last few years – from district administrations to church parishes. It is not enough to have rights – citizens need information and people who listen and encourage them. How can we succeed in creating good places – or more exactly: the conditions and empowerment for a good life at the local level? Welcome projects for familes or refugees, elderly-friendly and dementia-friendly towns, inclusion districts for people with disability – they all live from an interweaving of different types of assistance. The social seedbed that characterises itself through individual assistance, proximity, voluntary work and versatility, needs supplementing through demand-led, high quality and organised systems of assistance. It will be decisive to understand both in terms of their own dignity and logic. The promotion of “caring communities” in neighbourhoods and church parishes must be embedded in communal care structures.

Church in transformation

The experiences in the refugee crisis can open our eyes to this. The voluntary commitment in assisting refugees was a key factor in coping with the most urgent requirements. According to an Allensbach poll on civic engagement in assisting refugees of April 2017, 40 percent of volunteers work in groups that have formed exclusively for this purpose – without a legal form, with flat hierarchies and a high degree of ways of participation. 23 percent got involved of their own volition and outside all institutions. Young people between 20 and 30 were the dominant age group – and they organised themselves not least via the new media. In order, however, to perpetuate the successes, these initiatives needed an institutional framework. At many places such a structure was established and the church has thereby visibly returned to its public mandate. Volunteers offering the refugees accommodation, clothing, language courses and accompaniment in daily life were able to rely on church structures and premises.

That reminds me of the beginnings of diaconal ministries in the 19th century when committed citizens looked after those who were falling by the wayside during the industrialisation – migrants and patients without nursing care or close to death, overstretched families or unemployed youth. Over time, in the eyes of many, the welfare associations functioned similarly to “state” social services and, more recently, they have become market-driven. Dedicated volunteers are particularly welcome when the public coffers are empty. At the same time, however, the commitment of volunteers is a seismograph of societal changes. The demographic change became clear to many in a flash when, during the coronavirus crisis, the volunteers at the food banks or neighbourhood assistance stayed away – many of them were over 65. These older people, from the angle of health policy perceived as the main “risk group”, constitute the bulk of the volunteers. Even before programmes and structures are developed they roll up their sleeves and get down to work wherever needed.

It was like that in the 19th century diaconia, when Johann Hinrich Wichern highlighted the diaconal role of all – by analogy with the priesthood of all baptised. That idea has since sustained youth associations, the ecumenical movement and adult education. But Christians have also contributed and carried their own ideas into the church in the peace movement, the environmental movement, in movement for women’s liberation or to establish hospices… The “official” church needs people who are close to societal upheavals and to personal hardship, and who recognise the signs of the times.

But unlike in the 19th century, those involved in the church and diaconia are far from all being church members nowadays. How much responsibility may they assume in church bodies and structures? What about those who are not baptised because their parents were not members? Would church membership on a trial basis be conceivable? Essential questions for the future of the church will be whether the dialogue with activists and seekers succeeds and what role is played not only by vocational and skills-related training but also religious education. Pastors, deacons, congregational educators and youth workers increasingly see themselves in the role of coaches, trainers and moderators of change processes. Here all concerned benefit from the cooperation between parishes, diaconal ministries, adult education, youth work and schools. Instead of separate functions a network mindset is called for.

Our society, which is strongly characterised by the wish for autonomy and self-optimisation, needs a counterweight to the commodification of the social and health system – the readiness to mutually support and take responsibility for ourselves, for others, for social development and for creation as a whole. It is about having open eyes to discern the signs of the times, and finding words of comfort. It is about feeding the hungry, offering a home to refugees, visiting the sick, not forgetting the prisoners and placing children in the centre. That often starts on a small scale with works of compassion. But the history of the church shows how small gestures can resonate and change society. Diaconia has transforming power.