When Australian Lutheran World Service (ALWS) began 70 years ago, it was formed so that our Lutheran family could walk alongside people in need. That’s exactly what people like you still do today, says Jen Pfitzner …
At the end of World War II, Europe was left in ruins and millions of people were forced from their homes.
War-scarred people needed new places to live and Australia needed new workers – so began a 20-year exodus of more than 300,000 people to Bonegilla Migrant Centre near Wodonga in Victoria.
The journey from Europe took weeks. Arriving at Port Melbourne, weary families then boarded a train for the rattly eight-hour journey to Bonegilla – just a few lights in a siding in a paddock. These people looking for a better life must have wondered where they’d ended up!
Yet our Lutheran family was there, welcoming them with open arms. Helping them find their feet. Listening to their worries and hopes for the future.
In 1947 many of the migrants arriving at the Bonegilla Migrant Centre were Lutherans, so the Lutheran pastor in Albury, Rev Bruno Muetzelfeldt, began visiting the centre.
Often there were more than 1000 Lutherans at Bonegilla at a time, so Pastor Muetzelfeldt became the full-time chaplain. The Lutheran ministry to migrants expanded to place Lutheran pastors on the ships coming to Australia.
Then, once the government found migrants a more permanent home, the Lutheran team at Bonegilla let the local pastor know they were coming. This meant people had a pastor supporting them from their homeland to Bonegilla and then to their new home. Their faith may have been the only constant through this unsettling time. What an amazing comfort people our Lutheran family helped provide!
In 1950 the newly formed Lutheran World Federation (LWF) decided a base was needed in Australia to help with refugee resettlement and the Lutheran church’s aid agency was born – Lutheran World Service-Australia (LWS-A).
By 1955 the Lutheran team had helped resettle 2350 refugees and more staff were needed. Brian Neldner joined the team as a case-work assistant. He would go on to serve people through LWS for almost 40 years.
In 1960 Pastor Muetzelfeldt took on a senior position at the LWS headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Brian Neldner became the head of LWS-A. Lutheran Pastor Norman Sander was called to be chaplain at Bonegilla.
In 1964 Brian Neldner moved to Tanzania to head up the new LWS program there and Adelaide businessman Sid Bartsch became the new director of LWS-A.
When the LCA was established in 1966, it was agreed that LWS-A would be its channel for overseas aid. Mr Bartsch promoted the emergency, refugee and development work of the Lutheran World Service around the globe. He encouraged Australian Lutherans to support this work.
This is how the work through LWS-A moved from receiving help primarily from LWF to resettle refugees, to giving help to others!
In 1971 the Australian Government decided to close Bonegilla, so the LWS-A office moved into Albury.
By this time the need for help for migrants had declined, so support increasingly shifted to aid and development around the world, with a focus on refugees. This continues today, with ALWS supporting work in refugee camps where nearly 1.5 million displaced people live.
Through LWS-A, Australians supported the worldwide work of LWF and responses to disasters and emergencies, rather than specific projects. This generosity and trust mean gifts could – and still can – be used where needed most urgently.
In 1974 LWS-A received funds for the first time from the Australian Government’s Development Assistance Bureau (ADAB, which is now DFAT – the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade).
But just when it seemed that support for migrants coming to Australia was no longer needed, things changed. Refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, plus eastern Europeans, and later people from Central America, fled to Australia to find safety and security. Backed by the Australian Government, LWS-A supported nearly 2000 families to begin new lives in Australia. The Australian Government continues to trust ALWS to deliver community development work, with a rigorous process every five years to maintain accreditation.
By 1985 it was clear that LWS-A needed to become an Australian organisation, rather than a branch office of an international one, with one reason being that the Australian Government wanted to work with Australian organisations. The LCA and LWS in Geneva agreed the office should be called Australian Lutheran World Service. In 1991 ALWS became the aid and resettlement agency of the LCA.
The first director of ALWS was architect Gary Simpson. He and the new ALWS Board continued to make sure donations were used efficiently and effectively to help people in countries like Mozambique, Cambodia and Nepal. ALWS also reached out to victims of war and disasters, in places like Rwanda, East Timor and Malawi.
Organisations responding to disasters must coordinate their efforts to ensure resources are deployed quickly and effectively. That’s why Action by Churches Together (ACT Alliance) – a group of churches and church-related organisations of different denominations working together – was formed in 1995.
That year Peter Schirmer became the assistant secretary of ALWS, with the job of creating resources for teachers. These resources – class activities, videos, presentations and more – are used by more than 70 per cent of Lutheran schools across Australia today. After 10 years Peter took over as director of ALWS.
When the Boxing Day tsunami struck in 2004, support for Indonesia began through its largest Lutheran church, HKBP. This work grew to include other LWF churches in Indonesia, in partnership with LCA International Mission and Lutheran Education Australia, with generous financial support from the LLL.
Our Lutheran family embraced the first Gifts of Grace catalogue in 2008, sending support for life-changing assets such as goats and chickens around the world.
Chey Mattner became ALWS director in 2013.
In 2017, when the first Walk My Way refugee education support event was held, our ALWS family, supported by the Australian Government, gave more help than ever before – $8.6 million!
In 2018 Jamie Davies became director.
In 2019, as part of the GRACE Project, ALWS supporters helped more than 40,000 refugee children go to school – matching the number of students in Lutheran schools in Australia.
In 2020 even COVID-19 couldn’t stop our Lutheran family’s support, as Walk My Way became Walk YOUR Way and people like you walked, wheeled, woofed and even toddled your way to help others.
Today our church through ALWS works in 11 countries. Last year the ALWS family helped 297,498 people with the same spirit of service as Pastor Bruno 70 years ago. Walking alongside people. Side by side, every step of the way.
Thanks be to God for the blessings brought through ALWS, as together we seek to bring love to life.
Jen Pfitzner is ALWS Communications Support Officer.