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.

SNAP in South Dakota

Posted on April 11, 2013 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

By the Rev. Dr. Anna Madsen, OMG: Center for Theological Conversation in Sioux Falls, S.D.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 824,082 people called South Dakota home in 2011.

In the last four years, the number of people receiving the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) — formerly referred to as Food Stamps — has increased from 63,655 in July of 2008 to 104,279 in July of 2012 (the last month on record). Not only do these numbers indicate that 12.65 percent — more than one in eight! — of my state’s population draw on food stamps for their daily bread, they also show that the need for assistance has increased 63.8 percent over the last four years.

These are shocking statistics.

Earlier this year, during an offering of letters at our church, our family wrote letters to our members of Congress, asking them to please retain funding for this key program. Our 8-year-old daughter put her own crayon to paper too, and sent off her request that our officials protect hungry children by protecting SNAP from budget cuts. While we were pleased that our daughter received a response from our Representative, we were stunned at what that letter told her. “Loopholes and fraud in the current program have lead [sic] to federal spending on SNAP to increase by 270 percent over the past ten years.”

My husband, an economist, and I, a theologian, were dumbfounded, not least of all because of our respective disciplines.

Based on both economic and basic moral grounds, this assertion couldn’t be more wrong.

December 2007 to June 2009 marked the greatest recession since the Great Depression, an economic event that clearly parallels the increase in families supported by SNAP. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities there is almost no fraud in this program. Since 2008, despite obvious increase in SNAP benefits, the overpayment rate of 4 percent was reduced to 3 percent in 2011 (the last year on record); the underpayment rate went from 1 percent to 0.9 percent; the combined error rate in 2011 was only 3.8 percent; and the overpayment rates are counted as errors even when recouped. 

I wonder if our officials are aware that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office points out that one-fifth of the increase in SNAP monies from 2007-2011 comes from the temporary allowance of higher benefits through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and that higher costs of food and lower earned wages during the recession play a key role in the difference?

I also hope our officials realize that a wide range of religious leaders have converged from various traditions in a coalition called the Circle of Protection. They consider support of SNAP among its core commitments. These leaders and faith groups include our own church, the ELCA, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, National Association of Evangelicals, Sojourners, Bread for the World, the National Council of Churches, the Salvation Army, World Vision and a long list of additional Christian clergy leaders from other traditions across the spectrum. The Jewish community, in a variety of forms, also advocates for SNAP, as does the Muslim community.

The inaccurate statement in the letter our daughter received back from Capitol Hill insults more than one-eighth of South Dakota constituents by suggesting that the primary reason for the increase to SNAP is because of loopholes in the system (loopholes which are then exploited), and fraud from the recipients. 

SNAP is part of the Farm Bill because it is not only a nutritional assistance program; it is also an agricultural assistance program. Feeding hungry people also means feeding farmers, by way of compensating them for their hard work in the fields and on the farms.

We have farmers in South Dakota. We have hungry people in South Dakota. 

I urge our officials in Washington, D.C., to protect SNAP from harmful cuts that would hurt farmers and the poor, not only in South Dakota, but across our nation.

Poverty, policy and the classroom

Posted on April 3, 2013 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA
Erin Ryono Wener

Erin Ryono Werner

By Erin Ryono Werner

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
 - Paulo Freire

I became a high school English teacher because I believe in the strength of words. Reading moves students to live lives beyond their own. Writing empowers them. I echo the words of Carlos Fuente: “Writing is a struggle against silence.”

Yet, I realize that this is not the classroom many students experience. I remember a hip hop song from my high school days: “Man that school *$%t is a joke. The same people who control the school system control the prison system, and the whole social system. Ever since slavery, know what I’m sayin’?” I didn’t really know what they were saying, but I think I understand a little better now. To some, the classroom is a harbinger of freedom and a better life; to others, it is a bolster of cyclical poverty.

As I consider Lutheran advocacy in the fight against poverty and hunger, I can’t help but picture the classroom. I believe school has the potential to be a great equalizer, and in creative ways, the church can help.

We can continue to support successful programs.

About 40 percent of the children in our school district in Oregon receive free and reduced lunch and breakfast. Kids come to class, for the most part, with full stomachs. In Central Oregon, the Family Access Network, which is primarily federally funded and based in schools, ensures that children receive medical care, school supplies, clothing and rent assistance.

Other programs are at risk and need our help.

Head Start programs promote the school readiness of children from low-income families. Parents who cannot afford preschool send their kids to Head Start so that they might be on an even playing field with their more privileged peers. Under sequestration (and even alternative budget proposals), this program is facing devastating budget cuts — budget cuts that would deepen inequalities long present in our country.

We must defend programs that benefit those already at a gross disadvantage and partner with them in creative ways.

Our congregation, Nativity Lutheran, realized that our building sat vacant for the majority of the week, so in 2010 we opened the education wing to the struggling Head Start Program. A member of our community recognized the weekend nutrition gap for students receiving free and reduced lunch. Every week, her organization sends out hundreds of backpacks full of food for students to take home. We must urge our public officials to prioritize these programs that replace poverty with opportunity for our students. 

We are called to reach out to all people with the love of Jesus Christ. In creative ways, policy and outreach can synthesize to do just that. I’m in the classroom every day, so I’ll start there. Where will you begin?

 

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.

Food and Community: a spiritual reflection

Posted on September 27, 2012 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

We close the September edition of the “Advocating on the Road” series with this spiritual reflection.

By the Rev. Carol Jensen, co-chair of Faith Action Network of Washington State (successor to the Lutheran Public Policy Office)

Most Sunday afternoons during the summer months, you will find me at the Everett Farmers Market, a short distance from my home. The first time I saw the sign “WIC and Senior Farmers Market Checks Welcome Here” prominently displayed on the stalls, I have to admit a surge of pride. Lutherans in Washington played a key role in bringing this program to our state — ELCA members and congregations have been longtime advocates for these important programs. Even more exciting, however, was observing real people exchange these checks for the fresh vegetables and fruits grown by local farmers.

The Washington State Farmers Market Nutrition Program is a blessing to seniors, low income families, and the farmers seeking a living from the land, but it is also a blessing to the wider community. In part due to this program, our Farmers Markets have become places where people interact across the boundaries that often divide us from one another (e.g., age, race, class and rural/urban). The Farmers Market Nutrition Program checks are a small part of the markets’ economy, yet they help create a much more diverse community of participants than would occur without them.

In late August, the church concluded five weeks of gospel readings from John 6, beginning with Jesus feeding 5,000 people and continuing with Jesus’ commentary that he is the bread of life that can satisfy our deepest hunger for communion with God. These texts show us God’s desire for our material and spiritual well-being, and also for bringing us into relationship with God and with one another. In the sacramental meal, we receive the bread that is Christ’s body and we become Christ’s body in God’s world. We are entrusted with the mission not only to feed people but to bring people into relationship with one another.

The WIC and Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program is one particular way for us as taxpayers to serve the mission of God to feed the world as well as to build diverse, interdependent communities. Through Christ, God breaks down the walls that are between us. Picture a grandmother living on Social Security, a single mom with two toddlers in a stroller, a Spanish-speaking farmer from the Yakima Valley, an engineer from The Boeing Company, a man in a wheel chair all gathered around the cherries and cucumbers that were sustainably grown in local orchards and fields. It is a scene to remind us that we are fed by the bounty of God’s earth and the relationships that bind us together with God and one another.

Policy connecting growers and consumers

Posted on September 26, 2012 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

We continue the September edition of the “Advocating on the Road” series with this piece, examining how federal policy affects our food, our neighbors, and our communities.

By Mary Minette, director for environmental education and advocacy, ELCA Washington Office

This month, the “Advocating on the Road” blog series explored a program that combines support for farms and farming communities with efforts to reduce hunger and improve nutrition among low income families. The Farmers Market Nutrition Programs in Washington state are funded by state and federal dollars and represent a new approach to food policy — one that looks at our food systems as a whole, rather than as disparate pieces. These programs support not only those who grow food, but also those who eat food, and perhaps most importantly, these programs pay attention to the systems and communities that connect growers and consumers.

The Washington state Farmers Market Nutrition Programs reflect a new direction in federal farm policy that began with the 2008 Farm Bill with an effort to help more farmers markets process the electronic benefit transfer cards that states use to distribute nutrition benefits such as the Women, Infant, and Children nutrition (WIC) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP — formerly known as food stamps). The 2008 Farm Bill coupled these electronic benefit transfer initiatives with efforts to encourage new farmers markets in underserved communities, where access to fresh food is limited. The 2008 Farm Bill set aside 10 percent of the funds allocated to the Farmers Market Promotion Program to support the use of electronic benefit transfers at farmers markets and community-supported agriculture enterprises. By 2011, 2,400 farmers markets nationwide were authorized to accept electronic benefit transfers, and that number continues to grow.

The expansion of farmers markets into new communities benefits more than low income families who receive food assistance. Farmers markets also benefit others in the community who now have increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables at their local farmers market, the farmers (who keep more of the consumer’s dollar by selling directly to those who eat what they grow), and the people who are hired to work in farmers markets and who work in businesses nearby that may see increased traffic on market days. In addition, there are the less easily measured benefits to the health of communities amid growing concerns among public health professionals about poor nutrition and obesity, particularly among our children and youth.

The 2008 Farm Bill that made this possible is due to expire in less than one week (on Sunday, September 30). Although the United States Senate passed a bill in early summer that would renew the Farmers Market Promotion Program — and with it the electronic benefit transfers program for WIC and SNAP recipients — leadership in the House of Representatives has so far been unwilling to allow a floor vote on a House farm bill. Absent a new farm bill, the House and Senate must vote to extend the current bill or many farm and food programs will expire — small, new and innovative programs, such as the Farmers Market programs, are particularly vulnerable to being cut and eliminated as lawmakers argue over declining pots of federal dollars and large programs, including SNAP and traditional farm supports, take up the lion’s share of the smaller amounts that remain. The House left for recess this past Friday without passing either a new farm bill or extending current legislation; they plan to return after the election for a lame duck session.

Also, last week the House of Representatives passed a six-month Continuing Resolution to fund the federal government until the end of March 2013, which failed to provide extended funding for a number of farm conservation programs. Through this exclusion, the House’s Continuing Resolution removed these farm conservation programs from the “baseline” of funding that will be available when Congress finally turns its attention to a new farm bill. This lower baseline means that if these conservation programs are to continue under a new bill, there will need to be cuts in other programs — perhaps including the Farmers Market Promotion Program and the electronic benefit transfers program.

We’ve heard this month how the policy written, voted upon, and signed into law in our state and national capitols deeply affects the lives of parents, children, seniors, and farmers. These policy initiatives, like the Farmers Market Nutrition Programs in Washington state, are more than line items of a budget or words in the pages of a mammoth bill. Strong policy can have a direct, positive impact on our lives and the lives of our neighbors — strong policy can help us build more vibrant and hunger-free communities.

 

 

Fresh and Local Food for All

Posted on September 24, 2012 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

Healthy Food & Food Systems 2We continue the “Advocating on the Road” series, exploring hunger-free and vibrant communities in Washington state. 

Kurt Tonnemaker is a familiar face at farmers markets around the Seattle area. Each week, Tonnemaker Brothers, Inc. packs and sells produce — peaches, cherries, apples, pears, plums, peppers and more — from Kurt’s family’s farm in Royal City, Wash., and travels to as many as 18 farmers markets in a single weekend. 

The produce Kurt sells is grown as sustainably as possible on land inherited from Kurt’s paternal grandfather, a horticulture extension agent in Eastern Washington. “My grandfather’s family moved from Nebraska in 1903. In their move west, they brought produce with them in a wagon. I guess you can say this passion runs in the family,” Kurt says. “When he retired from extension work in 1962, my grandfather bought this land from a Korean War veteran, and the farm has been in the family ever since. My brother, Kole, started in 1980 and expanded the varieties of what we grow. I joined in 1992 and helped develop our business from two or three farmers markets to many more.”

Kurt’s passion for his work shines through to those he meets, as he explains why he values this work. “One of the most important aspects of my job is that I get to help reconnect people to who grows their food. Cherries don’t just come out of a bag, you know,” Kurt jokes. “One hundred years ago everyone either knew or was a farmer. Now, farmers are less than 2 percent of the population. Naturally, people are far removed from who grows their food, and they don’t eat as much fresh food anymore. At the farmers markets, we can help reconnect our customers.”

“Farmers markets sometimes get a bad rap because the prices are higher — it does cost more to pack and handle just-picked, ripe foods,” Kurt notes. “We do sell certified organic produce, and we try to price our stuff so everyone can buy it. Good, fresh food should not be just for the rich.”

Kurt’s family’s work of growing and selling affordable, quality foods to a diverse customer-base is supported in part by the state’s Famers Market Nutrition Program for low-income and senior Washingtonians. The program is an initiative that operates using federal and state funding. It allows seniors and those who receive WIC (Women, Infants and Children) nutrition program benefits to use their benefits for fresh produce at farmers markets, sold by producers like Kurt.

During the 2012 legislative session Kurt joined Lutheran advocates at the state capitol in Olympia to express the importance of these programs to their lawmakers. “We understand that money is tight in the state budget, but we needed to tell them the money for this program is critically important. I helped tell our officials that when money is sent to the Farmers Market Nutrition Programs, it goes back to the farmer and back to our state. By paying the farmers, the WIC and senior customers are getting fresher produce and the money generated vitalizes our local and state economy,” Kurt explains.

“The senators and representatives are excited to talk to people who are benefited by these programs. They’re also trying to make the program as streamlined as possible, so it’s good to talk to farmers to see if where they’re spending the money is worth it.”

“I had to make sure my voice is heard”

Posted on September 14, 2012 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

We continue the Washington state leg of the “Advocating on the Road” series…

Tammy Nguyen is a second generation Vietnamese American and a single mother, whose life’s work grew out of what she experienced while receiving WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) nutrition benefits. When Tammy learned she could redeem WIC benefits at farmers markets (through the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program) in her state, she started exploring farmers markets in Seattle with her children. “I knew it would be so hard to feed my child nutritiously because I didn’t make enough money on my own. Through the WIC program, I was able to feed my children the healthy food from the farmers markets. So often, this type of eating is a luxury — low income people can’t usually buy fresh produce grown locally.”

After she and her children transitioned off the WIC program, Tammy began to focus her energies on ensuring that other low income children had access to nutritious food. She began working with a local nonprofit, Got Green, a grassroots group in the Seattle area led by young adults and people of color that promotes an equitable, green economy.

Got Green recently surveyed low income women and women of color in Seattle on a variety of issues, and learned that 40 percent of them put access to healthy food as their first priority. Tammy came away from this process thinking, “How can we put more food dollars into low-income families’ pockets?” and, reflecting on her own experiences, advised that Got Green make the preservation of Washington’s WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program an advocacy priority. 

The Farmers Market Nutrition Program is a state and federally funded nutrition program that helps provide low-income WIC households and senior citizens access to locally grown fresh fruit and vegetables. Lutheran advocates in Washington are longtime supporters of the Farmers Market Nutrition Programs because of the critical role they play in alleviating hunger in the state, in supporting local farmers and growers, and in stimulating the local economy.

In the 2012 session of the Washington state legislature, the Farmers Market Nutrition Programs were on the block to be eliminated due to the harsh budget climate in the state. “We worked to organize throughout the community and we wrote to our legislators to tell them how important the program was to Washington families,” Tammy describes. “And we brought women who had been served by the program to Olympia to speak to elected officials and their staff. They needed to hear directly from families how devastating the cuts would be.”

Assisted by Lutheran advocates within the Faith Action Network in Washington, the Got Green group met with various officials and left informational material behind in the offices of staff with whom they were unable to meet. “The meetings went very well and, ultimately, the program was saved and it still exists today. At the time we didn’t know what would happen and we were so relieved when the program made it out of both the State House and Senate budgets, then into the final budget the governor signed,” she said.

These victories cause Tammy to reflect on why she became involved in advocacy in her home state. “I was so tired of seeing lawmakers bypass us — low-income, immigrant families. In order to reform this pattern, I had to be at the front. I had to get my community to move with me and I had to make sure my voice is heard by our lawmakers.”

In Washington state and in Washington, D.C., the decisions by lawmakers affect the vibrancy of our farms and communities, as well as the ability for everyone to obtain healthy food.  Click here to learn more about how to urge our federal lawmakers for strong food and farm policy now.

Washington state’s “win-win” programs

Posted on September 10, 2012 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

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scene from the University District Farmers Market in Seattle

Lutherans and other Christians in Washington understand that strong public policy can help ensure that all people in our state have access to fresh food. Many of us are longtime advocates of the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) Farmers Market Nutrition Program and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, important government-funded initiatives that provide low-income WIC households and seniors access to locally grown fresh fruit and vegetables.

Funded by federal and state dollars, the Farmers Market Nutrition Programs allow WIC and senior nutrition program participants to redeem their benefits at farmers markets throughout the state of Washington. In doing so, the use of farmers markets, farm stores, and community supported agriculture programs is expanded and the sale of Washington-grown fruits, vegetables, and herbs increases. This comprehensive model is a “win-win” for our state because it helps alleviate hunger and improves health for participating low-income Washingtonians, it supports Washington growers, and it helps boost our local economy and create jobs. In fact, nine out of every ten dollars invested in this program by the government or spent by a participating consumer stays in the local Washington economy.

Here in Washington, members of the Faith Action Network (a faith-inspired statewide partnership, which grew out of the former Lutheran Public Policy Office) have been leaders in the state capital advocating for expanding the program, securing the electronic benefits transfer card system in our farmers markets, and — in the past few years — working to preserve a budget line for it in the state budget. Lutherans and other people of faith throughout the state are educating their congregations on these programs, encouraging growers and WIC and senior beneficiaries to testify at committee hearings and meeting with legislators. Advocates for the programs also urge their legislators to visit one of the 180 local farmers markets in approximately 80 communities and see the program’s direct benefits (there are 180 such markets in Washington in about 80 cities/towns/neighborhoods).

Washington has a $32 billion two-year budget, which includes $100,000 for the Farmers Market Nutrition Programs. This relatively small sum in turn leverages $900,000 of federal funding for the programs. Like many states, Washington faces severe budgetary problems and important programs — like the Farmers Market Nutrition Programs — risk being cut. Lutheran advocates and other people of faith throughout Washington work to defend this hugely important and effective program from elimination. In essence, the grassroots voices — including those from our ELCA congregations — will be crucial in ensuring the continuity of this “win-win” program. Lutherans and other people of faith need to continue to speak out in protection of this program that helps struggling households with young children and seniors to purchase locally grown fruit and vegetables that, in turn, supports local growers and the local economy. 

I give thanks to God for our church’s commitment to alleviating hunger through advocacy supported by ELCA World Hunger. In Washington state and in Washington, D.C., the decisions by lawmakers affect the vibrancy of our farms and communities, as well as the ability for everyone to obtain healthy food.  Click here to learn more about how to urge our federal lawmakers for strong food and farm policy now. 

“We are all beggars”

Posted on June 4, 2012 by Advocacy Ministries of the ELCA

We close the Minnesota chapter of the “Advocating on the Road” blog series with this reflection by Kate Gaskill, ELCA Washington Office. 

“We are all beggars.  This is true.”    - Martin Luther

In 1546, a dying Martin Luther scribbled this sentence on a piece of paper.  It turned out to be one of the final missives Luther would physically write himself.  The man who transformed Christianity and altered the course of world history with his pen ended his career and life with these words.

“We are all beggars.”

In the final days of Luther’s eventful (and often controversial) life, he united all people by saying that before God we are all sinful, in need of God’s grace. Theologians debate the intent and meaning behind this heavily studied statement, but  it is interesting to note that  Luther made this point of common need by identifying all of us as beggars.  He aligned us all as  poor, as outcasts.

Alone we are all beggars in the eyes of God, yet the risen Christ justifies us, lifts us from “beggar” to “child”, from “outcast” to “beloved.”  Through Christ, we are free to live joyfully in God’s grace—and we are free to serve… free to tear down the walls of poverty and inequality that divide our society.  “For he is our peace,” reads Ephesians 2:14, “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

It seems so often through our rhetoric and public policy, we distance ourselves from the beggar and we often reinforce walls.  How reluctant are we to unify with all people, and especially the person who is in need?  We often seek to do the very opposite of what Luther acknowledged  on his deathbed.  We don’t want to be thought of as lowly, poor, or in need of help.

Today people who use government assistance—no matter how temporary—are often vilified.  We’ve all heard the rhetoric, and sometimes it even comes from our elected officials.  Parents who rely on state and federal hunger programs for meals are often deemed “lazy.”  Families who must transition to government assisted housing are part of the “problem.”  Children who rely on programs, like the Minnesota Family Investment Program—or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) or WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) “threaten” our nation’s financial solvency.

Therefore, life-saving programs are cut.  Proven effective ways of aiding direct need and creating self-sufficiency are abandoned.  We don’t seem to see the people behind policies… or if we do, we immediately separate ourselves from them.  “They are different than me”, we might say, “They are a beggar.”  We build a wall between ourselves and the others.

But Luther reminds us that in the eyes of God, “We are all beggars.”  How can we separate ourselves from this commonality?  Regardless of socioeconomic status, race, or gender, we are alike in our need for forgiveness and grace—given to us through Christ.  And because of our freedom in Christ, how can we reject Christ’s example of breaking down the divisions between us and our neighbors?

Governments, at their best, can help tear down walls between people. They can be a gift that enables nations to live peacefully with one another and help cycle people out of poverty.  Government programs can aid immediate need all over the world, and government policies can help shatter cycles of homelessness, conflict, and hunger.  But this good government requires participation and direct advocacy from constituents.  It requires action from ELCA members—and our partners—to speak out for just government that serves the common good.

As Christians in the United States, we have unique opportunities to speak out for policies—like the Minnesota Family Investment Program, or SNAP and WIC—that help restore lives.  We also have the duty to reject harmful rhetoric that vilifies, and may even dehumanize, those living in poverty.  We are called to align ourselves with the beggar.

“We are all beggars.  This is true.”