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January 4, 2008  Guest – Ralie Deffenbaugh
A Refugee Named Jesus

Ralie Deffenbaugh has worked since 1981 with Lutheran organizations concerned with international affairs. A human rights lawyer, he has headed Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) since 1991.

Deffenbaugh traces his interest in international affairs to living in Geneva and attending the International School there with the children of many different nationalities. The son of an American executive of the Caterpillar Tractor Company, Deffenbaugh lived in Geneva from the age of 9 until he was 15. While there, he learned to speak French fluently and developed a working knowledge of German.

After receiving a 1973 bachelor’s in economics from the University of Colorado, Boulder, summa cum laude, and a 1977 law degree from Harvard, Deffenbaugh worked for a Denver law firm for three years before joining the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in Geneva in 1981. As assistant to the general secretary for legal and international affairs, he worked mainly on human rights advocacy and in-house legal matters. He was also the primary staff person for committees dealing with southern Africa and the LWF constitution.

In 1985 Deffenbaugh became the Director of the Lutheran Office for World Community in New York, the office that represents the LWF to the United Nations and conducts international affairs advocacy for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Major issues of concern included human rights, Africa, Central America, and international development and economics. In 1989-90 the year of the transition to Namibian independence, he acted as legal advisor to the Namibian Lutheran Bishops in Windhoek, advising the bishops and the Council of Churches in Namibia on relations between the United Nations and the South Africans, and on how the independence plan was being implemented. He also served as an informal consultant to members of the committee drafting Namibia’s constitution.

In 1991 Deffenbaugh accepted an invitation to become the chief executive officer of LIRS, the cooperative agency of the U.S. Lutheran churches working with refugees, immigrants, asylum seekers and unaccompanied refugee children. Through an emphasis on the strategic planning process, he has sought to strengthen the sense of mission of the agency and create an atmosphere of being open to new areas of need. During his tenure, the agency’s program and budget have expanded significantly. In 1999 Deffenbaugh moved the national headquarters of LIRS from New York to offices in The Lutheran Center—a new six-story building in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Deffenbaugh served for two years, 2000-01, as the first chair of the newly formed Refugee Council USA, the coalition of American voluntary organizations working in the field of refugee protection and service. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Deffenbaugh was a public member of the 1995, 1998 and 2000 U.S. delegations to the annual U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) Executive Committee meetings. and of the U.S. delegation to the special meeting in 2001 that marked the 50th anniversary of the U.N. Refugee Convention. He has also been an observer of political trials for Amnesty International, the LWF and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law. He has written extensively on the legal, moral and political aspects of resettlement.

Deffenbaugh’s awards include the Sylvester C. Michelfelder Award for Christian Service from Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio in 1995; the Henry and Helen Graven Award for Faith in Action, Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa in 1994: and the Arnold E. Carlson Award, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota, in 1991.

Biographical information from LIRS Website


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