Rev. Dr Karin Achtelstetter: “More than ever we need to come together in faith, solidarity and hope”

Photo: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

The World Council of Churches is publishing a series of interviews that portray insights and reflections from the leaders of faith-based global and regional humanitarian and development organizations. Rev. Dr Karin Achtelstetter is executive director of Canadian Lutheran World Relief (CLWR).

What are the major ways in which you and your staff have had to adapt and/or restructure your work because of COVID-19?

Rev. Dr Achtelstetter: At the early onset of COVID-19 we determined which staff were onsite essential to ensure that the organization would continue to operate with as little disruption as possible. These staff represented 13% of our workforce and are located at our head office in Winnipeg. Office protocols for staff working at CLWR’s worksites were developed and the proper personal protective equipment was procured and distributed. The remaining staff worked remotely at home. Our technology was already conducive for staff to work from home in a safe and secure manner. We provided additional mental and physical wellness benefits and have ensured staff have the means to set up appropriate home offices. We had already adopted a flexible work policy before COVID-19 occurred; this policy enabled our staff to work within the complexities of working at home with family.

We recently have expanded the number of onsite essential staff by including our Warehouse (also in Winnipeg) and satellite Refugee Resettlement Offices (in Vancouver, B.C. and Kitchener/Waterloo, ON) bringing our onsite essential staff to 33% of our workforce. In addition to a Return to Work COVID-19 Policy, we also developed an Opt in/Opt out Policy that allows staff who are deemed non-onsite essential to continue to work from home or work onsite. We anticipate that this current level of onsite essential staff will be sustained for the foreseeable future.

Even before travel restrictions between provinces came into force, the leadership team at the onset of the pandemic decided to spread out and to return to their principle places of residence to cover as many provinces as possible. At the moment we have staff in four provinces: Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia and in four different time zones.

Currently all travel continues to remain suspended with only travel deemed essential allowed. A process to determine essential travel is in the beginning stages of development. CLWR continues to conduct and attend all meetings, both external and internal, as well as staff retreats, workshops, and conferences online.

I think we surprised ourselves – we learnt so much more about how we can effectively work together in efficient, but also flexible ways, taking into account and adapting to individual needs – whether determined by family situations or health risk factors. We have regular (anonymous) pulse surveys, which help the leadership team to better understand the needs of the staff.

What are the “best practices” that led to you retaining your institutional vision and mission while restructuring your work?

Rev. Dr Achtelstetter: I can’t really say that we “restructured” our work. The CLWR Board together with the CLWR leadership team – shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic – finalized our strategic planning for the forthcoming years. Instead of a static strategic plan we designed a visionary and dynamic “Strategic Compass” for the organization with an emphasis on innovation and collaboration, sustainability and transformation with a commitment to building resilience, to rights-based and adaptive approaches, which are guided by shared learning as we work together and listen to our partners and stakeholders.

This “compass” strategy allows for transformative, adaptive processes and decisions. We certainly did not have a pandemic in mind when the board approved this strategy; but in hindsight I can say that this is the ideal model for and response to the challenges and changes that we are currently facing. In many ways this Strategic Compass – in my point of view – is an expression of “semper reformanda.”

What are some signs of hope you have observed along the way?

Rev. Dr Achtelstetter: I have seen and I am seeing many signs of hope. I am seeing communities – like my own community where I live – reaching out in new creative ways to “our neighbors,” building social bridges in times of physical distancing.

I am witnessing spontaneous acts of solidarity from people, who are facing their own challenges due to the pandemic and COVID-related restrictions.

At CLWR we received phone calls from congregations and individuals, wanting to know, how they could support CLWR’s work; wondering about our international program work and voicing their concerns with regard to the impact of COVID on the most vulnerable.

And I am more than ever seeing the healing and nurturing power of prayer.

What have been some of your biggest challenges?

Rev. Dr Achtelstetter: Our refugee resettlement work came to a standstill for almost six months. While we have been still processing applications, refugees – already approved to travel – were suddenly unable to travel to Canada due to travel restrictions; an extremely worrying and frustrating situation for those families and individuals, who were ready to travel and begin their new lives; and for sponsoring congregations and also the CLWR refugee resettlement teams, who have been hoping and praying for their safe arrival. This is slowly changing, now – but the COVID-related restrictions also impact the arrival and integration of newcomers to Canada and restrict the interaction with their sponsors.

I personally very much worry that the focus on the pandemic in our day-to-day life might conceal other burning social justice and human rights issues. Within our own sector I am thinking for example of the impact of COVID-19 on food security; according to the World Food Programme (WFP) we could be “facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months.” The number of acute food insecure people could increase from an estimated 149 million pre-COVID-19 to 270 million before the end of the year.

I am also thinking of the impact of COVID-19 on women. 2020 is marking the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action. With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, even the limited gains made in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back, as the pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities and vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems, which are in turn amplifying the impact of the pandemic.

I am saddened and deeply concerned, how media’s attention—for example—has shifted away from reporting about the human and humanitarian crisis at the US-Mexican border. Very little was reported about the fact that hundreds of unaccompanied migrant children were expelled amid the pandemic, leaving them vulnerable and without protection.

The issues and challenges are endless – these are just a few examples.

How do you see the added value of ecumenical relations in the current situation? Does the “ecumenical family” become more important to your organization than ever?

Rev. Dr Karin Achtelstetter: The document “Serving a Wounded World”—in my opinion—has captured not only in its title the crucial role of churches, faith communities, faith-based organizations and agencies in a world impacted by COVID-19. Its call for ecumenical and interreligious solidarity, reflection and action is timely. And I especially appreciate the document’s visionary attempt to inspire and discover new forms and expressions of solidarity in a post-COVID world.

Very much in the spirit of this document, in Canada the United Church of Canada, Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, Presbyterian World Service and Development, Islamic Relief, Canada and CLWR came together in a truly ecumenical and interfaith initiative to address the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. We pooled our funds in support of an emergency response in Sada’a Governorate. Sada’a is amongst the Governorates most affected by cholera and water borne diseases in Yemen.

I strongly believe that our service to a wounded world—wounded not only by COVID, but by many, many other wounds, should not be hampered by fragmentation and divisions—more than ever we need to come together in faith, hope and solidarity to serve a world—wounded and torn apart by discrimination, racism and xenophobia, economic and ecological injustice and religious intolerance.