Are East Germans Wealthy?

Letter from the GDR-Delegation to the WCC Conference in Melbourne addressed to their home congregations


Are we wealthy? Many of us would deny that. But in comparison to the hungry and misery in many developing countries, our country is indeed wealthy. We ourselves and also our churches are rich. Is the poverty in developing countries our fault? Many of us would not confirm that. But even if we ourselves are not directly at fault, we are nevertheless co-responsible in the effort to replace hunger and oppression with justice and peace; to see that the wealth of all nations is not squandered by armaments.


For some years now church groups and individuals are reflecting on how we as Christians and churches in the GDR can effectively help in the struggle against world poverty. Some who began with great enthusiasm have grown tired. "We can do so little. The problems are too large and we are too small," they mourn. But such resignation is deadly. It cripples us, and in impoverished countries others die because of our inactivity.


1. Our capabilities to help both financially and materially are limited. We should therefore search even more actively for ways in which we can share the experiences, cares and needs of the poor. Our church organizations should attempt to find modes in which Christians from developing countries could share their experiences directly with us. If we achieve this, then we will soon discover that the poor are not strictly needy persons, but also partners from whom we can learn much about life within the church and general society. Their faith and hope often shame us.


2. In view of world poverty, we cannot continue to live as we now do. This applies to our personal lifestyles a well as to life in our congregations. We no longer have the right to decide alone about our private lifestyles, for we must always consider our distant brothers and sisters. Do we truly need all the big churches and (even large) automobiles which we presently have? Should we not begin to practice sharing? Should we not attempt to live more simply in our congregations? They could then become training grounds for a new lifestyle.


3. Do not our churches live beyond their means? For many years, churches in the German Federal Republic have shared with us. We frequently don't even notice the extent to which they support our "work. Church-owned cars, some renovated and new chapels and support for our charitable institutions are visible expressions of Christian solidarity across all borders. For this we are grateful. But in view of world poverty we must ask: Is all this necessary? Has it not become too much a matter of course that a portion of our ongoing church costs are paid in this way? 1) The report from our national synod in 1979 inquired: "Should we rely long-term on financial means which do not stem from our own congregations to support our work, witness and service?" We propose that on all church levels consideration be given to the necessity of these gifts and how they could gradually and sensibly be reduced or eliminated. We could then in a more credible manner encourage those brothers and sisters who help us to do more themselves for the world's poor.


If we begin such a hazardous venture, then we must of course also be willing to bear the consequences. Here we could learn from poor congregations: If we'll only be capable of paying fewer full-time workers, then more non-salaried ones will need to be found. If we are incapable of constructing any further buildings, then congregational life will need to take place in our homes more than in the past. Where "spiritual life is present, material problems are solvable".


1) Translator's note: Approximately one-third of all GDR church expenses are covered by Western churches.


The salaries of GDR clergy are approximately 70-80% less than those of their West German counterparts. If GDR congregations are stricken with guilty consciences because of undue wealth, in which light does this then place Western churches? We of course have hard, convertible currencies and liberal export laws at our disposal.


Bill Yoder

West Berlin, March 1, 1981


I have only printed excerpts of the above open letter. It appeared in numerous GDR church publications, for example in "Die Kirche", East Berlin, in its issue of February 8, 1981

Appeared in the Mennonite “Gospel Herald”, Pennsylvania, March 31, 1981, 709 words


Note from January 2022: The World Council of Churches' Melbourne/Australia conference took place May 12-24, 1980.