Skip to main content
Listen to Acton content on the go by downloading the Radio Free Acton podcast! Listen Now

In July 2007, the Rev. John A. Nunes was named president of Lutheran World Relief. He becomes only the fourth president to lead the international development and relief organization since it’s founding in 1945. Nunes, 44, is a former research fellow at the Acton Institute and a long-time lecturer at Acton University and the Toward a Free and Virtuous Society student conferences. At Baltimore-based LWR, Rev. Nunes will lead a staff of nearly 100 people, directing projects in thirty-five different countries, and managing a budget currently at $34.6 million. The author of the book, Voices from the City, Rev. Nunes is a contributing scholar for Modern Reformation magazine, and holds membership in the American Academy of Religion. He spoke recently with Religion & Liberty executive editor John Couretas.

John Nunes
John Nunes

R&L: First, congratulations. Why do you think you’ve been called to this job, and what gifts do you think you can bring to it?

Nunes: Thank you. That’s a great question. If I can’t find an answer to that question, then I don’t need to be doing what I’m doing. I do sense strongly that I’m being led by God into this position. I think in many ways it’s a culmination and a consummation of much of what I’ve learned up to this point in my life, and I’m really excited about bringing some of my communication skills to bear on the job. My theological training helps me to help Lutheran World Relief articulate why we’re doing what we’re doing. This is about putting our faith into action.

LWR is a pretty big platform for a preacher. How will you stay connected to the church?

I’m rooted in faith communities. And every Sunday morning and every weekend, I’m going to be in a Lutheran church somewhere. This is an organization that represents the humanitarian interests of both the ELCA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the LCMS, the Lutheran Church─Missouri Synod, all around the world. And many NGOs have become disconnected from those communities that gave them birth. Not Lutheran World Relief. Lutheran World Relief is very committed to local communities of faith and to the fact that the good works that we do derive directly from the faith that we confess. And so the faith that we confess is the root, and the works of love that we do are the fruit that flows directly from our root.

John Nunes

How does that translate into work with those groups that may not be Lutheran, or even Christian?

Lutherans have a core concept when working with others called “cooperation in externals.” That describes the mutual work that people of differing or varying faiths might do together for the sake of the good of humanity. And so while the work that we do is derived from the root of our faith, we will work with people of goodwill and of good interest everywhere to help transform communities.

You started out as a community activist, working in urban areas. How will that experience be important at Lutheran World Relief?

My community development work, especially in the city of Detroit, while it’s very different from the sort of development work that we do globally at LWR, does bear some semblance inasmuch as Detroit has been described as America’s first third world city. I learned some core competencies in that environment.

What did you learn in Detroit?

You know, you have almost the utter desocialization of communities and a deteriorated infrastructure, the lack of access to many of the things we take for granted. The city government was dysfunctional. Who was it that said, “The art of politics is the art of getting a dead horse off the street.” When you’re not even able to perform just the simplest of duties of local government, you’re in dire straits. If government’s first responsibility is to keep communities safe, then Detroit had failed in that regard. And if government’s second kind of responsibility is to maintain a standard of the rule of law, then Detroit had failed also. People were not protected and systems were not protected. So there was basic disincentive to any kind of economic investment in the city. And so I learned in that context, the importance of concepts like subsidiarity, concepts like sustainability, concepts like the accompaniment model as being helpful to bring transformation to communities.

How does the accompaniment model work?

Accompaniment model is designed to build trust and shared accountability with local partners and communities. It means that, before you presume that you have answers or solutions, you have to walk with people and work with people and live with people. It’s face-to-face accountability and becoming a part of a community where you want to bring transformation. And so the accompaniment model is quickly followed by the sustainability model, namely that when you mutually begin to explore strategies for transforming communities, that you’re there first to listen and to learn. Together, you create a strategy that does not breed ongoing and perpetual dependency. Each strategy for empowerment is nuanced based on the needs of each community. So it’s self sustaining. It’s self empowered. It really is about empowering people.

How do you see what you’ve done at Acton informing what you will be doing at Lutheran World Relief, and how might you do things a little differently?

The local community, those closest to the problem, is involved in the process of solving the problem. Also, you know, the Acton Institute has, although it’s based in the United States, always kind of transcended borders and boundaries and really strives to have a kind of global view of the economy, and a global view of the consequences of decisions that we make. And so Lutheran World Relief, of course, also has a global view, and so that was a natural. Another one was a notion that the Acton Institute takes very seriously, the notion that ideas have consequences. That ideas are not disembodied theory or, you know, the consequence of rhetorical flourish, but ideas are actually the presuppositions and presumptions that we bring to bear on reality. And ideas not only have consequences, but ideas and decisions have unintended consequences.

Do you have any sense that the thinking developed at Acton about free markets, rule of law, dignity of the human person, and the power of healthy local communities might be gaining greater currency or acceptance in the NGO world?

I don’t want to speak for the entire sector, but I think those are definitely values that resonate at LWR. We have a set of five core values that inform everything we do—one of those values is “God gives all people dignity.” All people, not some people. And all of the work we do is geared toward making sure all people are able to live lives of dignity. And so much of what we do is at the community level—accompanying local communities as they work together to confront their challenges, whether it’s two villages coming together to build a dam that will provide water for both communities, or a group of farmers forming a cooperative so that together they can sell their crops directly to international buyers —it’s that spirit of community that really makes a difference.

Lutheran World Relief talks a lot about how people should be encouraged to learn to do for themselves. Honest work is a powerful thing, isn’t it?

Work ennobles people. It does not depreciate people. What depreciates people is the supercilious and arrogant assumption that while work might be good for us, maybe other people don’t possess that kind of capacity. And so that’s a common thread between LWR and the Acton Institute. You can’t have sustainability without having a sense that work actually gives people dignity. It’s vocation. It’s about our calling as creatures of God. As I said, a point of correlation between the work of Lutheran World Relief and the Acton Institute is the underlying presupposition, the non-negotiable truth that all people possess inherent dignity, worth and value. It’s one of LWR’s core values. And it undergirds everything that the Acton Institute is about.

Women going to market
A group of women on the way to the market in Africa


That’s refreshingly free of any hint of paternalism.

This is adult to adult. We bring to bear a certain set of resources, but other people also bring a certain set of resources. And so there’s mutual contribution, and there’s reciprocity that happens. I think we see that really happening in the church, too, where the church in many parts of the developing world is much healthier and much more vital and much closer to the central truths of Christianity than the churches in the western world. So maybe that’s why God has set this thing up. The Western church can relearn the faith in many of these developing world contexts at the same time that we help to empower the developing world with the resources we have.

You have the advantage of some sixty years or so of history to draw from at LWR as well.

I’m in a learning mode right now and leaders lead best when they lead with their ears first. And so I’m going to try not to presume anything. For example, I’m trying right now to understand the whole conversation between fair trade and free trade and the relationship of those programs to broader markets. We have a fair Trade chocolate project with the farmer-owned company Divine Chocolate, a fair trade coffee project, and another one involving fairly traded handcrafts. What I really want to do is go to the field and meet local farmers and talk to local people and figure out what’s behind all of this stuff, how it is changing their lives for the better. I want to be the best leader I can be, and I’ve got a long way to grow in terms of understanding the implications of free and fair trade. At the same time, LWR is committed to advocating on behalf of the poor through approaching banks for micro-credit loans. What LWR will do is collaborate with a group of local farmers and, on their behalf, approach the bank and essentially guarantee the loan. We act as a kind of mediating entity and then help the farmers to develop strategies of repayment and how you manage your finances and how you invest. So that’s a growing area. It’s a very, very interesting set of strategies.

So you’re essentially making entrepreneurs out of these farmers?

I have a high degree of confidence that markets that are open and unfettered by unnecessary encumbrances are really the only solution in many developing communities and countries. Economic justice is about trying to look at the root causes and the ultimate consequences of poverty. And so if we really are serious about economic justice, then we’ll be open to a whole variety of solutions—like, yes, encouraging farmers to be entrepreneurial in their thinking!

Like many relief agencies, LWR has worked with government agencies in partnership or as a channel for relief funds. I understand that LWR has intentionally reduced its government funding. Why?

LWR does still receive some government funding, though, you’re correct, it’s not as much as it has been in the past. That’s because our understanding of food security has evolved over time. What we really focus on now in our programming is local agricultural sustainability—programs that don’t just provide a stopgap solution like providing immediate food aid, but that really enable and empower people and communities to make positive changes that will result in long-term food security rather than create dependence. Restricted grants provide less flexibility in that area, though we do still work very positively and actively with the U.S. government to locate funding opportunities that are in line with those values of sustainability.

Our vision statement states our faith values: Empowered by God’s unconditional love in Jesus Christ, we envision a world in which each person and every generation lives in justice, dignity, and peace. So we’re always looking to design our programming around those core faith values.

So you learn, reassess, and put your faith into new initiatives.

Exactly. We keep going. You know, Edmund Burke is right. All that’s necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing. By the way, that’s another Acton Institute kind of premise, isn’t it?

Rev. John Nunes is currently an assistant professor of theology at Concordia University, River Forest (Chicago, Illinois). He serves also as pastor for Bethany Lutheran Church, Chicago. Additionally he provides consulting support to Wheat Ridge Ministries as a Staff Associate for Urban Ministry Research and to the Acton Institute think tank as a Research Fellow. The author of Voices from the City, Nunes writes and presents widely on topics related to urban mission, social theology and ministry among youth. He is a contributing scholar to Modern Reformation magazine and holds membership in the American Academy of Religion. Nunes serves on the national board of Lutherans For Life and the editorial board of the Acton Institute's Religion and Liberty . He has provided pastoral leadership for inner-city ministries in New York, Michigan and Texas. He has also taught for the State University of New York at Buffalo and within the Concordia University System. Currently John is pursuing a Ph.D. through the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He holds a BA from Concordia College, Ann Arbor, MI, a Master of Divinity from Concordia Seminary in St. Catharines, ON, Canada, and received an honorary doctorate in May 2004 from Concordia University, Ann Arbor.