By Theresa Carson
“There are many critical issues that we’re facing right now—COVID, food insecurity and climate crisis to name a few,” said Father Paulus Rahmat SVD, co-director of VIVAT International.
Father Rahmat, who comes from Indonesia, was appointed co-director of VIVAT International, a non-governmental organization (NGO) based in New York City, in June 2020. COVID delayed his arrival in the United States, but in Spring 2021, he finally was able to make the trip.
During a recent visit to the Society of the Divine Word-Chicago Province headquarters in Illinois, Father Rahmat used access to the COVID vaccine as an example of disparity in the world.
“More than 205 million people have been affected by COVID worldwide and 4.3 million who have died from it,” he said. “Seven hundred million have been vaccinated, but 100 developing countries do not yet have the vaccine. They’re not equal in terms of access and distribution of the vaccine. Our world is not secure because of it.”
VIVAT International focuses on the eradication of poverty, the rights of women and children, sustainable development and the culture of peace.
“In 2019, the United Nations (UN) noted that there are 690 million people suffering from hunger. Because of COVID, there are an additional 272 million, so about 900 million people are suffering from hunger,” Father Rahmat said. “I just read today that climate warming has increased 1.1 Celsius. We have no time to wait; we have to act right now.”
Father Rahmat and VIVAT International are part of a system that is helping make those changes. VIVAT works with other NGOs to lobby the UN to give attention to issues that affect the poor and disenfranchised throughout the world.
“Together with others we advocate and bring issues to the UN so that they can create policies to address the issues,” he said.
Father Rahmat’s path to VIVAT International reads like a polished resumé. After ordination in 1995, Father Rahmat was assigned to the Martubung parish in the Medan Archdiocese of North Sumatra, a province of Indonesia.
Not only did he observe the conflicts that happen in most parishes, he also faced unrest between the Indonesian army and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), who supported independence.
“Because of war, many refugees came to this area,” he said. “I and my friends assisted the displaced people.”
That experience led him to want to learn more about peace building and conflict resolution. In 2005, he enrolled at Eastern Menonnite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, Va., and eventually earned a master’s degree in Peace Building and Conflict Transformation.
“Conflict is a part of relationships,” he said. “Conflict is a human reality, so we try to bridge relationships through our way of communication. Communication is key. Peace building is an art of building relationship, listening attentively and speaking with clarity.”
After completing his degree in 2012, he was assigned to work with VIVAT Indonesia, a branch of VIVAT International. He and his colleagues addressed humanitarian needs on a national level. Two of the most urgent issues that they brought to the attention of the UN are mining and human trafficking.
“We engage with the people on the ground,” he said. “We brought their concerns and experiences to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. We are trying to bring their stories to the attention of the UN member states through UN mechanisms. We create opportunities for VIVAT members to speak about people’s concerns at the UN level. Our work is based on the work of the people at the grassroots level.”
During the COVID pandemic, they worked on the ground, bringing food to families affected by the disease and providing information to communities and schools.
VIVAT International celebrates its 20th anniversary next year. The VIVAT Board of Directors have asked an external consultant to evaluate the successes and challenges of the past two decades. Founded by the Society of the Divine Word and the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters, VIVAT International now consists of 11 religious congregations with more than 20,000 members working in 130 countries, and they have numerous NGO partners.
“We cannot do it alone,” he said. “Our voice alone is not enough to convince the United Nations but through strategic collaboration with other NGOs, they raise the voices of the marginalized to the attention of the UN and its members.”