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Cologne priest fights the poverty crisis

October 11, 2022

Franz Meurer wants to help the rising number of Germans living in poverty. In the basement of his church, the Catholic priest shows how poverty can be confonted in a rich country — with the help of volunteers.

Several people holding trolleys and bags pick up food donations from a group of tables
A small church community in Cologne is doing its best to fight povertyImage: Peter Hille/DW

It's hard to keep up with Franz Meurer as he winds through the catacombs of his church. The 71-year-old Catholic priest hurries past boxes full of children's clothes, tightly packed bookshelves and bicycles leaning against each other.

"We give out about 3,000 things a year to people in need," he says, greeting a man in green overalls as he passes.

Meurer stops, grabs a satchel from a stack and looks at the price tag: "€259. The best of the best!" Four hundred of these satchels are given to children from the parish neighborhood, east of Cologne, he says. "It's the poorest part of the city, unfortunately. But we stick together. We don't want our children to have to go to school with plastic bags."

An elderly man with white hair and glasses in a black jacket stands outside a building, as people with baby carriages enter behind him
Catholic priest Franz Meurer says fighting poverty has to be done from the groundImage: Peter Hille/DW

Poverty on the rise

In the 1,000 square meters (10,800 square feet) of church basement at St. Theodor in the eastern parish of Vingst, Meurer has set up a kind of factory — a factory to fight poverty. With hundreds of helpers, he collects donations, distributes food and clothing, provides tutoring, repairs bicycles and organizes the city's largest vacation camp.

"There shouldn't be any poverty," Meurer says. "Especially here, it should be nice." With poverty currently on the rise in this part of the country, Meurer's factory is running at full steam. "We're already seeing the first signs," he says. "Families with lots of kids are saying they can't shower anymore because of gas prices. Families on new energy tariffs are calling and saying, 'I'll never be able to afford that.'"

That times are tough for low-income households can also be seen in St. Theodor's clothing store. "We stack the shelves and then they're empty again in no time," says Renate Wesierski, pointing to the gaps between baby rompers and winter jackets. The 62-year-old folds bedding and hands it to two young women with strollers.

"More people are coming than usual," she says. "They're afraid of winter and want to take precautions. They're running out of money." One of the women asks for rubber boots for her 6-year-old daughter. But Wesierski has to say no, as they are all out of the right size. "Next week again," she says.

Inflation is hitting Germany's poor

Food for more than 200 families

A few doors down, Norbert Zeyss carries plastic crates full of peppers and bananas to the wooden tables at St. Theodor's food distribution hub. "We supply 180 families from Cologne every week and, since spring, another 45 families from Ukraine," he says. "People need all the food they can get." There's room to cover about 30 more families with donations from Cologne supermarkets, he says. "But the quota will soon be full. And then we'll have to turn people away."

The emaciated faces of four children can be seen on the wall behind Zeyss: Hanging there is a chalk drawing by Käthe Kollwitz, entitled "Germany's Children Are Starving," from 1923. Back then, Germany was experiencing hyperinflation; one US dollar was worth 4 trillion marks. Bread became expensive, butter unaffordable and millions of Germans went hungry. Will there be a return to such desperate times 100 later in prosperous Germany? It's unlikely — but the fear of inflation and decline runs deep.

"I think the times that are coming now will be even harder than the ones my grandma lived through," says Marianne Miebach. The 66-year-old has been standing in front of St. Theodor's for hours in the rain with her shopping trolley, waiting for food to be distributed. "I probably won't live to see the really bad times," she says. "But I'm worried about my four children and my five grandchildren. They'll have to struggle for a lifetime just to pay for rent and food."

To supplement her small pension, Miebach says she heads out early each morning to deliver newspapers, which earns her about €1,400 ($1,360) a month. But the rent and utility bills for her small apartment have just increased from €730 to €950. That doesn't leave much left over to buy food — that's why she's happy about the peppers, bread and chocolate cookies that end up in her trolley today.

A woman in a black sweater, wearing blue plastic gloves, holds a bunch of bananas as she unpacks a carton
More and more people are coming to find something to eat at the church's own food bankImage: Peter Hille/DW

Light in the dark

Like Miebach, 2 million people in Germany are now dependent on food donations, according to estimates by the umbrella organization of the nearly 1,000 "Tafeln," or food banks, in the country. As a result of rising prices and the threat of recession, the number of people needing help is likely to increase further. Whole sections of the middle class could fall away, and millions of people are at risk of slipping into poverty.

The discussion about how to prevent this is in full swing. But no one seems to have a simple solution. "I'm not interested in all that," says Franz Meurer. "Politicians, and sometimes journalists, always want to change everything. But that's wrong." He says it's more important to start small, where you can make a difference yourself. "We don't have a bigger ambition here."

This includes making sure that even the poorest part of Cologne has a festive glow in the run-up to Christmas. Meurer points to the 130 Christmas stars stored in one of the basement rooms under his church. Every year at Advent, which begins on November 27, volunteers attach the green bunches with white LED lights to street lamps in the neighborhood. Will the lights be going up for Advent this year as well? Nothing has been decided yet, but faced with the energy crisis in the country, it could be a little darker around St. Theodor in Cologne this year.

This article was originally written in German.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

Peter Hille Bonn 0051
Peter Hille Peter Hille is a multimedia reporter with a strong background in African affairs@peterhille
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