Featured Stories, National Lutheran News

Soup kitchens are fine, good legislation is even better

Lutherans are heavily invested in Bread for the World

For many Americans, it seems incredible that the wealthiest nation in the world still has millions of hungry people in its midst. Why does the problem persist, and what can Lutherans do to help alleviate it?

A Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod pastor in New York City asked that question decades ago. The Rev. Art Simon had encouraged his inner-city parish to take steps to help the hungry in the neighborhood around his church building. Two things became obvious. First, the problem was far too large for one congregation to solve. Second, good legislation at the state and federal level could deliver far greater “bang for the buck.”

So Simon organized an advocacy group to do something about it. “Bread for the World” isn’t concerned only about hunger in the U.S., although that is one big focus for the grassroots movement Simon started. “Bread,” as its members like to call the agency, is also invested in seeing that U.S. development funds help address and alleviate “hunger insecurity” around the globe.

The current president of Bread is the Rev. David Beckmann, an ELCA pastor. His star has risen steadily since taking over leadership of the highly respected Washington, D.C.-based organization. Last year he was ranked number six on a list of “Top Ten Good Men of 2010” by the publication The Good Men Project magazine. Last year he was awarded the prestigious “World Food Prize.”

Bread for the World chairman David Beckmann, left, receives the 2010 World Food Prize from John Ruan III, The World Food Prize chairman. The ceremony took place in Des Moines, Iowa, last fall. Photo credit: The World Food Prize

Lutherans have always played a strong role in Bread For the World.

In his latest book, Exodus from Hunger (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), Beckmann lays out many of the successes and failures that the movement has experienced since Art Simon got the program going. Some of the good-news stories are downright astonishing, given the tendency of the polarized federal congress to tie itself in knots with gridlock these days.

Perhaps the most unbelievable story of all is a chain of events that connected ten unlikely movers-and-shakers (including Beckmann, then-President Bill Clinton, a conservative Republican congressman from Alabama, a progressive Republican from Iowa, and right-wing religion talk-show personality Pat Robertson). They used their influence to help pass seminal legislation guaranteeing the reduction of crushing debt for third-world countries. That effort, the “Jubilee Campaign,” was given its initial kick-start by two Presbyterian women in Birmingham, Alabama — both members of Bread for the World.

In debt to debt

Concerning Spencer Bachus, the conservative Republican from Alabama who played a key role rounding up the critical votes needed for passage in the U.S. House, Beckmann explains that he is “a Southern Baptist who believes in heaven and hell. Spencer told his colleagues, ‘If we don’t write off some of this debt, poor people in some of these countries will be suffering for the rest of their lives — and we’ll be suffering a lot longer than that.’”

Fire and brimstone aren’t in vogue in most pulpits these days, but evidently it still works, occasionally, in the halls of Congress.

Beckmann told Metro Lutheran that Lutherans and Lutheran churches make up 25 percent of Bread’s total membership — and 30 percent of the group’s member congregations. “Today,” he says, “ the organization has more than 70,000 members and 5,000 church congregations — involving more than one million people altogether.” Not bad for a nonprofit that was nothing more than a good idea in 1974.

According to Beckmann, Lutherans have always played a strong role in Bread. He says, “As a Lutheran myself, I’m proud that Lutherans have a strong tradition of helping hungry and poor people. In the mid-1970s, the main Lutheran denominations founded hunger programs, and Lutherans have responded generously ever since. Lutherans have always been clear that advocacy with Congress should be part of our response to hungry people.”

Beckmann thinks geography plays an important role in the politics of hunger. He says, “I think the concentration of Lutherans in the Upper Midwest of our country means that many have connections to agriculture, knowledge that helps them realize that God has indeed given us the means to overcome hunger in our time.”

Bread for the World does its best work from the grassroots, influencing lawmakers through persuasion. Key to its success has been an annual “offering of letters,” many of which are written in churches, and some of which are actually placed into offering plates during worship.

Do the letters — and the e-mails and the phone calls — do any good? Says Beckmann, “Bread believes that constituent contacts with lawmakers do help influence their thinking — especially when timed in conjunction with an upcoming vote on a specific issue. Research by the Congressional Management Foundation continues to bear this out. We measure our success by changes we see in legislation, and ultimately by decreases in food insecurity, poverty, and malnutrition in the United States and around the world.”

Understanding what legislation would do the most good in the battle against food insecurity can be daunting. Bread for the World’s staff has proven skilled in helping its members sort through it all, and provides alerts before key votes take place. To get in the loop, ask to be put on the “Bread” newsletter mailing list. Go to www.bread.org.

Bread has a regional office in the Twin Cities. Tammy Walhof is the coordinator of the agency’s work in the Upper Midwest. Her office is in the same building, the Minnesota Church Center, that houses the editorial offices of Metro Lutheran. She’s available to tell the “Bread story” to any faith-based group, including local churches. Walhof can be reached at 612/230-3265 or breadmn@bread.org.

For information on how to influence a lawmaker, see “How to influence your Member of Congress,” below. Metro Lutheran readers might be surprised to learn that President Obama reads 10 hand-written letters from voters every day. Who knows? Yours could end up on his desk.

How to influence your Member of Congress

If you’re writing to the president or a congressperson, keep it short. Include your name and address (so he or she knows you’re a constituent).

State what action you want taken and why it’s important to you.

Handwritten letters take longer — but are also more likely to be taken seriously.

If you send an e-mail, don’t copy someone else’s subject line (making it look like a piece of a “mass mail initiative”). Instead, create your own. Include your home address. Make it personal.

Participate in the annual Bread for the World “offering of letters.” (If your congregation doesn’t offer this opportunity, get it started in your parish.)

Pray for lawmakers, asking God to give them wisdom, courage, and integrity.

—Michael L. Sherer

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