Columns, Faithful and Reforming

American Lutheran aid to refugees

Though World War II in Europe ended in the spring of 1945, the people of that continent continued living in perilous conditions. The war had been one the first modern examples of “total” warfare, which brought the destruction of combat to all sectors of society, not just the battlefield.

The lives and homes of many Europeans had been seriously disrupted, millions were without employment, housing, and food, and untold numbers of people had been displaced. Many Germans had abandoned cities destroyed by bombing and fighting, while countless Europeans (mostly from the East) had fled the advance of Russian troops and the Soviet takeover of the Baltic countries and Eastern Europe. The only major industrial power left that had not been directly subject to the destruction of war was the United States, but it was unclear how this country would act.

Mark Granquist

After World War II, Americans came to realize that, if they wanted a peaceful world, they would have to assist in rebuilding war-torn countries in Europe and Asia; and so they did.

Directly after World War I, the American people and their leaders had largely retreated from the world into a blanket of isolationism. But after World War II, Americans came to realize that, if they wanted a peaceful world, they would have to assist in rebuilding war-torn countries in Europe and Asia; and so they did.

During the war, many groups in the United States had already begun to plan for post-war relief and reconstruction. Ready to take their place in this task were American Lutherans, especially in aid to their fellow Lutherans in Europe, as well as others.

After the war

As early as 1940, American Lutheran groups began major annual fund drives to collect resources for these tasks, and in the decades to come they would raise almost $250 million dollars. Almost as soon as the fighting ended in Europe, American Lutheran leaders headed there to assess the situation and to begin funneling aid to the people of that continent.

Organizationally, the National Lutheran Council (and in cooperation, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod) began to work with European Lutheran leaders, eventually founding the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in 1947. One of this group’s first tasks was refugee assistance and resettlement (“Service to Refugees” — SR).

The situation among the European Lutherans, especially in Germany, was grave, as the war had destroyed churches and other institutions, scattered pastors and church leaders, and the horrors of Nazism and total warfare had scarred the people. Lutherans from the East had fled the expansion of Soviet communism and were refugees in Western Europe.

After first meeting the basic needs of people, American Lutheran relief personnel began to work with the Allied Military government in Germany to plan for the rebuilding of the German Lutheran churches, and to assist in building churches-in-exile for Eastern European Lutherans. Individual Lutheran pastors and others began to work in camps directly with refugees (“Displaced Persons,” or DPs), and to help them rebuild their spiritual lives and communities.

By the late 1940s, there was a major Lutheran organization in Europe to coordinate this work (LWF-SR), and an equally large organization in the United States to support and to fund it. In 1948, the United States government passed legislation to allow for up to 200,000 of the displaced persons to enter the United States, a figure that would later be expanded. This was the beginning of a refugee resettlement program, mainly to North America, that required both funding and organization to make it work.

The ministry of resettlement

In 1954, American Lutherans founded the Lutheran Refugee Service (now Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services or LIRS) to coordinate this work. Lutheran congregations throughout the United States were called upon to help resettle the DPs in their communities, and to support them in building new lives in North America.

Many congregations responded generously and opened their arms to the refugees. By the 1960s it was estimated that American Lutherans had helped to resettle 70,000 refugees in the United States, as well as 22,000 in Canada and 20,000 in Australia.

As this task of resettling DPs from Europe wound down, it became clear that this service to refugees (and immigrants) would be a long-standing and permanent need. Wars and conflicts around the world continued to produce refugees: In the 1960s and 1970s, LIRS resettled refugees from Asia, especially Southeast Asia. More recently it has worked with refugees and immigrants from Africa.

American Lutherans took their place, and in many instances the lead, in this work. Through LIRS, American Lutherans continue to assist refugees, ministering to the continuing needs of a conflicted world and those people affected by it.

Mark Granquist is Associate Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary, St. Paul. He lives in Northfield. He is project editor of “Faithful and Reforming.”

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