Voices for Change

Advocacy ministries of the ELCA want to share stories and your voices about public policies and relevant advocacy issues that are of interest to you.

Maria, a nurturer

Posted on February 27, 2013 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

By Sarah Dreier, Legislative Representative of International Policy for the ELCA and The Episcopal Church

Maria spoke very little English, and I speak no Korean. But the wisdom that shone in Maria’s eye instantly inspired my trust. So I climbed into her van, along with two of her employees (sex industry survivors) and her young son, and the five of us drove into the heart of one of Seoul’s red light districts.

“Stay alert — we will need to run if the men catch us!” Maria conveyed to me in broken English.

As I stepped timidly out of the van (which Maria had parked in a narrow alleyway), I watched Maria scamper from one window to another, each of which displayed a young woman. She handed each prostitute a hair barrette with the phone number for Maria’s women’s shelter hidden inside. Maria and her phone are inseparable; she knows that she may only have one chance to connect with the sex workers who call her, eager to escape the indentured servitude of the red light district.

The next day, Maria welcomed me into her home. It was a safe haven she shared with those she has rescued from the sex industry, and with the newborn baby who had been abandoned by his mother. (Like many women and girls, this little baby’s mother had been broken by the confluence of forced drug addiction, physical abuse, and emotional degradation; she disappeared shortly after her son was born.)

Maria and I sat in a quiet little room and prayed together. We held hands and meditated in silence, even as the sounds of a crying baby and a busy house swirled around us. Maria looked profoundly content and grateful.

And I thought of another Mary, the mother of Jesus, amid the hustle and commotion of Jesus’ birth: “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Like Mary, Maria is a nurturer, dedicated to caring for the women and girls who have suffered the tortures of gender-based violence and abuse.

I’ve met many other nurturers in my travels: the sisters of a Lutheran friend and colleague who generously welcomed me into their crowded Nairobi home; the women of the Episcopal Church of Cuba who cared for me when I fell ill; the former Sudanese refugee — herself expecting a child — who shared her own challenging refugee story with me and with members of Congress in hopes that we may protect those who remain in conflict zones. These generous women have nurtured me, a stranger, and it saddens me that our world does not afford them the same courtesy of safety and support.

Gender-based violence is a pernicious global phenomenon that takes many forms, including domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, forced prostitution and sex slavery, female genital mutilation, forced child marriages, assault on the basis of sexual orientation, dowry crimes and honor killings, infanticide, and gender discrimination. An estimated one in five women experiences rape or attempted rape and up to 70 percent of all women will experience gender-based violence from men in their lifetime (for more information, click here). Women in developing countries experience particularly high levels of violence, where cycles of poverty, hunger and insecurity make them more vulnerable to violent assault and abuse.

Next week, world leaders will convene in New York City for the 57th Annual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. This year, they will focus on eliminating and preventing all forms of gender-based violence. Activists will call on world governments to commit to ending violence against women and girls through translating international promises into concrete national action, and by strengthening norms that combat violence.

“We all must do better to protect women and prevent this pervasive human rights violation,” says Michelle Bachelet, executive director of UN Women, announced in preparation for next week’s gathering.

This year during the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, I will remember the women Maria has saved and supported, and how their lives have been affected by gender-based violence. The Commission on the Status of Women can serve as a reminder that we must all work together to nurture those who have nurtured us and to protect those women and girls who, like Maria’s survivors, are in desperate need of care, support and safety from violence.

Maria and her family of survivors crowded around the entrance to their shelter. Watching their smiling faces as they waved goodbye, I was amazed that something as nurturing and life-giving as this community of women could conquer something as abhorrent as the sex industry.

Moments of clarity

Posted on February 20, 2013 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

By Dustin Wright, intern, Lutheran Office for World Community

Having interned here at the United Nations with the Lutheran Office for World Community for almost six months, my friends frequently ask what an average day is like. I usually respond that I am engaged in exciting advocacy work: planning for the upcoming Commission on the Status of Women with ecumenical partners, meeting with amazing people from faraway countries (including speaking with two Nobel Peace Prize winners) and covering the planning process for a new set of global development goals, among other things. Upon hearing about this work, my friends sometimes say it all sounds romantic in a certain way, if not glamorous, to be around global leaders at the United Nations, or that it must feel great to have a job helping people.

What does not always find its way into these conversations is that although I do occasionally meet important leaders and I sometimes feel like I am helping people, that is certainly not always the case. Sure, I get to sit in on all sorts of meetings, but they often involve lower-level diplomats reading a technical report verbatim. I might get to help plan some really powerful events, but that usually looks like waiting for email, updating a website or stuffing folders. Even when it does feel like I am actively working toward creating positive change at the United Nations, that change often seems many years and many obstacles away. In the midst of all these everyday tasks and difficulties, it’s easy to get frustrated and the people we are trying to accompany and empower can seem quite remote.

Luckily, in this advocacy work I have been blessed by moments of clarity, moments where it felt like I knew exactly why I was at the United Nations and exactly what I could do to make a positive impact, even if small. One such moment took place a few weeks ago while taking part in a grassroots advocacy event around recent event. For months I had been learning about the situation in Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa, much of which is covered by the Sahara Desert. In Jan. 2012 an armed conflict broke out in the north, only to be complicated by a military coup the following March. Once the rebels, backed by a number of armed groups, took over a large portion of the country including the ancient city of Timbuktu, French forces, along with troops from elsewhere in Africa, intervened to support the Malian army in recapturing the lost territory. Currently, the international community is dealing with allegations of human rights violations, promoting inclusion of the politically marginalized, humanitarian concerns such as food security and how to keep the peace once the territorial integrity of the country is fully restored.

Given the devastation around this conflict, you can imagine my apprehension when I was asked to accompany a young man to his deportation hearing after the event. This hearing would decide whether he would immediately be sent back to his home country, Mali. After speaking with the man about his persecution and later escape to the United States as teenager, I sat behind him throughout the hearing, an action I was told would encourage his better treatment by the court. I doubt it had much to do with me, but his ruling ended up being postponed a number of months, we formed a relationship, and he will work with my congregation on additional advocacy actions in the future.

I have spent numerous meetings taking notes on violence in Mali, feeling like there was little I could to help. Educating ourselves and working to influence decision makers at the United Nations can help build a more peaceful world; This experience with the young man from Mali reminded me to connect all of the dots between this work in public policy and accompaniment of our struggling neighbor.  In this moment of clarity, I realized that simply accompanying a person through a very difficult circumstance could at least provide temporary support and hopefully make a very big difference.

A Commandment of Love

Posted on February 14, 2013 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

By Jesse McClain, student at California Lutheran University

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Micah 6:8

 There are hundreds of commandments in the Bible, everything from not mixing different fabrics to not eating fat. This commandment we read from the book of Micah is the center of our call to strive for justice in our world. This commandment is a commandment of love. 

 My mom passed away this summer very unexpectedly. Through the shock and mourning there was something I kept feeling when talking with family members, friends, co-workers and all the people my mom had interacted with in her life: love. My mom worked at a homeless shelter in our town. What made her an asset to the shelter was her endless love and kindness to everyone who walked through the door. She knew she had the gift to love and gave it freely and used it to change lives.

One of my most prized attributes passed down to me from my mom was a burning passion for helping people. I have found that a lot can be done by someone with this burning passion to make a change. Working for justice in our world — through direct service and through public policy advocacy based on this service — can be tiresome and incredibly discouraging. It may seem as if all of our time and effort only results in a very small dent, sometimes not even noticeable by the human eye.

That is why we are told to walk humbly. God has not commanded us to change the world on our own, but has commanded all Christians to change the world together — and our God goes with us. That small dent we make may not be detectable by the human eye, but a bunch of small dents made by our brothers and sisters in Christ who share our passions for serving our vulnerable neighbors can definitely be seen and felt in our world.

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Jesse and his mom

So, as the passage in Micah says: love. Love endlessly and passionately. Love the people who need it the most. Love in company of others. And most importantly, love through and with God.

Excellence at an impasse

Posted on February 6, 2013 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA
Sarah Dreier

Sarah Dreier

By Sarah Dreier, Legislative Representative of International Policy for the ELCA and The Episcopal Church 

The discipline of yoga has taught me to realize that I am whole in God, regardless of what goes on around me — that no experiences I encounter in my worldly life will adulterate that godly wholeness. Drawing on this notion of spiritual wholeness, I have developed and redefined what it means to be excellent in my work as the legislative representative of international policy for the ELCA and the Episcopal Church, even as I tackle worldly injustices that seem utterly impassable.

Every day, I work with Congress and the Administration to challenge them to address and abate global injustices, including hunger, malnutrition, lack of development, violence and other human rights violations. I advocate for U.S. policies that will help eradicate extreme poverty, increase child and maternal nutrition, combat HIV and AIDS, address the atrocities of human trafficking, and hold multinational corporations accountable to the taxes they are so adept at evading. I urge Congress to pass an annual federal budget that is consistent with our church’s commitments to address poverty and support those who are most vulnerable in the United States and around the world.

And I am not alone. I work with a network of professionals in Washington, D.C., and New York — and with engaged Lutherans and Episcopalians all over the country — who are committed to speaking reason to partisanship, justice to power, generosity to profane greed; to confronting poverty, racism, sexism, violence, climate change and all other forces that subjugate rather than emancipate God’s people.

Even working together, these enormous objectives seem insurmountable, impassable.

But this should not intimidate us to respond to worldly impasses by surrendering or lowering our standards of success. Instead, through, with and for God, we may be driven by a different kind of excellence — a spiritual excellence that enables us to overcome even the most challenging worldly impasses.

What does it mean to be excellent servants of God as we face and try to overcome these worldly impasses? Surely, we must not misinterpret Jesus’ warning that the poor will always be among us (John 12:8) as permission to surrender to these impasses of injustice. We are instead commanded to open our hands to the poor and needy in our land (Deuteronomy 15:11).

Two principles have guided my own understanding of excellence, within these worldly constraints:

First, take a leap of faith, and trust that God is working through us to overcome the impassable.

Last week, I heard a representative from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief ruminate on the global fight against AIDS in the last few decades — how unbeatable the pandemic seemed at so many critical junctures, and yet the unthinkable progress that our world has seen in the fight against HIV and AIDS. Today, scientists and politicians agree that if countries and international actors maintain a strong commitment to treating and preventing HIV and AIDS, the end of the pandemic is within our reach. Talk about surmounting impasses!

This is just one example, and we have seen, time and again — around the world — that through God, nothing is insurmountable.

Second, redefine excellence, oriented not only toward large accomplishments or measurable changes, but focused instead on the “least of these” — the poor, vulnerable, excluded and weary among us.

When we redefine our own excellence in terms of our service to “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40) — the poor and weary among us — we begin to recognize the unseen vulnerable whose lives are better because we engage them and work with them to lighten their burden (even when we do not overcome the big-picture obstacles), or the contributions that our diverse body of Christ are making to a public dialogue and an evolving public ethic.

We in the church are counter-cultural, tasked to uplift an ethic that prioritizes and exults the “least of these” in a Wall Street, partisan, radically individualistic world. When we remember that we are made in the image of God, this spiritual wholeness frees us from being restricted to worldly impasses. We are freed to reorient our notion of ethics toward those whom society has cast aside. And this leap of faith and redefining of excellence — I believe this is what makes us truly excellent in the eyes of God.