5 April 2011
Diakonia in Finland
by Ulrike Pape
When Susanna* got married with her Kimmo* in summer 2009, only a big party came into consideration. The wedding totaled around 10,000 euros. „We didn‘t think of the money. We just wanted to enjoy every moment together“, the 36 years old says. Because the moments are numbered. Kimmo is critically ill, he has leukemia. „It feels as if he was on death row“, Susanna says.
In addition to the wedding, also renovation works for their apartment left a big minus in her bank account. „We‘ve payed all by ourselves“, she points out. In the beginning of 2010, Susanna lost her job in a factory. Her husband‘s state of health worsened. Thinking of this, Susanna crosses over her arms and stares into space, „That‘s when I‘ve decided not to think about money anymore.“ A fatal decision. The letters with bills and reminders piled up. She didn‘t open them. After all, she has accumulated 30,000 euros debts.
It wasn‘t easy for her to ask for help. In May she dared the step to Diakonia in her parish. The first person she frankly talked about everything was with Saara Kerola. „It was terribly embarassing, but here at Diakonia I didn‘t feel judged“, Susanna reports. She filled out the paperwork for debts counselling with help of Saara. It takes a while to get an appointment. In 2009, according to official statitstics, there were 1.5 million households with debts of 64,000 euros on average in Finland. Additionaly, Susanna has found out about her right to financial support by state through Saara even though she has got her former job back and derives her regular income.
Diakonial Work is linked to Parishes
At the age of 25, Saara Kerola belongs to the youngest among 1,400 deacons in Finland. For her concregational work as „diakoni“ or „diakonissa“ as it is called in Finnish, she was trained at the College of Diakonia in Helsinki. The deaconess works in the parish of Olari close to Helsinki. Moreover, the young active woman is also available for crisis work, last time after a person running amok in a shopping center in Espoo in the morning of the last day of 2009. Five people died, the offender shot himself.
Kerola‘s congregation has almost 30,000 members and finances positions of six deacons. In Finland, about 80 percent – 4.3 million Finns – are members of the Lutheran Church. Financial sorrows are most of the concerns why people address Saara and Diakonia in general. More and more people leave church. The decrease also affects Diakonia as its works is financed by church tax, which is 1.3 percent of income tax on average. Each parish determines its Church tax on the basis of its financial situation.
Unlike in Germany, the majority of Diakonia work is done in parish context. Institutional diakonia represents a minority like at the Helsinki Deaconess Institute, in Finnish Helsingin Diakonissalaitos. „The institute is one of the exceptions in engaging itself in diakonia work with mainly public funds“ explains Jarmo Kökkö, director of Social and Development there. The model for this establishment was obtained from Germany where the first evangelical deaconess institute had been established in 1836 in the town of Kaiserswerth. The Finnish Deaconess Institute started in 1867 with a hospital which was the first one in Finland for the poor with highly trained medical staff. The institute receives orders from cities and communes. One of the biggest clients is the city of Helsinki. „We develop special programs for people who are difficult to approach and who are excluded from society“, says Kökkö. For example, Vamos has become famous. It‘s a project which seeks to find and help homeless youngsters under the age of 21. Besides that, there are services regarding housing the homeless, drug abuse treatment and child protection.m „In spite of the same diakonial value base, we are different in terms of funding and profile of work compared to congregational Diakonia.“, says Kökkö, also president of Eurodiaconia.
Economic Crisis is followed by a Mountain of Debts
However, also Diakonia on the parish level attempts new things. At the beginning of the 1990s, the country slided into its worst economic crisis ever. Due to the sudden loss of its economic partner the Soviet Union, 300,000 people shortly became unemployed. The Great Depression also forced Diakonia to change. The focus of Diakonia transferred from the old people’s care to the aid of unemployed and indebted of working age. Allegory for this development are the queues in front of the parish buildings where Diaconia launched so called food banks.
In 1990, more than two million Finns were indebted, at an average with about 20,000 euros. In light of five million inhabitants it was almost every second Finn. Kalle* was one of them. His enterprise, selling car parts, went bankrupt in 1992. Consequently, he had more than 200,000 Finnmark debts over night. Because of Finnmark‘s devaluation it became 300,000 Finnmark, which equates 50,000 euros. Meanwhile, his wife had left him, the bank took the house. „I had nothing but debts“, Kalle says today.
The today 53 years old seeked for help at his parish and met a group of ten men. All of them were highly indebted and had been self-employed. „All together, we had 40 million Finnmark debts!“, Kalle tells who join the group from then on. The members of the group walked by each other, went running and cooked together. Diakonie Tiina Saarela initiated the group on behalf of Diakonia. „It‘s highly important for their health and soul that indebted people don‘t isolate but go out“, Tiina Saarela says.
„Stand up and ask for help as soon as possible!“
„Our support goes further, if the amount of debts is too high to find a solution independantly“, Saarela explains. In Kalle‘s case, the diakoni contacted each of his 17 creditors and made the following offer: Kalle was not able to pay back his debts in total, however, there were 5,000 euros which could be payed back divided among all. The money came from a fund set up by Diakonia. The creditors agreed. Kalle‘s debts were gone from one day to another.
In 300 cases so far, Diakonia achieved freedom of debts by means of this fund. What it means to the individual, Kalle knows for sure: For ten years, he had been woken up every morning thinking of his debts. „Often I didn‘t want to get up“, Kalle reports, „The only reason why I didn‘t kill myself, was my son“. These times are over though, he is working again, as an employed traffic investigator, and he has found peace with his past. „I was always very angry with my creditors because they treated me like a criminal“, Kalle remembers, „Now, I could forgive them.“ Kalle‘s advice to other people who owe money: „Stand up and ask for help as soon as possible. You waste your life otherwise.“ Also Susanna is glad that she has heeded this advice. She is still on her way to be free of debts, but she has begun facing the problem and becoming active. „I‘m seeing again light in the tunnel through Saara. I know now that I have possibilties to get rid of my debts.“
* Names changed by the editors
Information on the internet:
The Lutheran Church in Finland: http://evl.fi/EVLen.nsf
The Helsinki Deaconess Institute: http://www.hdl.fi/en
Diaconia University of Applied Sciences (Diak): http://english.diak.fi/