Making US food aid more Methodist?

nepal-photo-by-laura-pohl

When we collected an Offering o f Letters (OL) at Woodridge United Methodist Church on April 28th, I shared that writing to support food aid reform put us on the cutting edge; that we were helping Bread for the World try out a new focus for OLs.  Food aid reforms in President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2014 Budget proposal help 2 to 4 million more hungry people get the food they need at no additional cost simply by tweaking the rules governing US food aid, making them more efficient. The reforms also have the long-term benefit of making local farmers and markets more sustainable by allowing aid providers to purchase locally grown food.

Our people responded with 120 letters to our Senators – a record for our congregation!

This week the Chicago Tribune stepped up next to us out on that leading edge.

Two editorials in Thursday’s edition – one, a combined effort by John Kerry (secretary of the Department of State), Tom Vilsack (secretary of the Department of Agriculture), and Rajiv Shah (administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development), the other from the Trib editorial board – support the arguments we made that April morning and provide further information and examples .

How cool is that?

I really hope you’ll take a few minutes to read both articles in full, but here’s a taste from each.

Kerry et al. provide examples of the increased efficiency:

The current program limits our ability to use the appropriate tool for each humanitarian situation — tools we know will help people faster and at a lower cost. This year, 155,000 fewer children in Somalia will receive support because we do not have enough flexibility to use cash to address the ongoing emergency in areas where our food aid cannot go. In eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, we will not be able to reach 34,000 vulnerable children. Each one of these children is three to four times more likely to die than a well-nourished child.

Buying food locally can speed the arrival of aid by as many as 14 weeks — precious time when every day can mean the difference between life and death. It can also cost much less — as much as 50 percent for grains. [read the rest]

The Trib board points out the political realities:

In the Obama proposal, more than half of U.S. food aid still would be earmarked for the purchase and transport of U.S. commodities, and shippers would receive a government subsidy. There is no sound financial reason for either subsidy, except as a concession to politics. The farm lobby is powerful. A who’s who of farm and food organizations already have petitioned the president to keep the status quo for the sake of “stimulating” farm and transportation industries at home.

So here’s a test for Congress, particularly for farm-state Republicans and Democrats. The federal government, thanks to sequestration, is finally seeing some serious belt-tightening. Aid programs such as Food for Peace aren’t immune from the pressure on spending. They, like all government programs, have to prove they can be done with maximum efficiency.

So, members, take your pick: This reform can feed millions more people at the same cost to taxpayers, feed the same number of people at significantly lower cost, or find some comfortable mix of both goals. But members of Congress who block this reform will expose themselves as wasteful spenders (emphasis mine).

To sum up:

Food aid can help to lift developing nations out of poverty, promote political stability and economic growth. It must be structured efficiently to achieve its objective. As is, the Food for Peace program doesn’t work well, except for the benefit of a privileged few. Reforming food aid would enable America to do justice to a large taxpayer outlay — and to save lives. Read the whole editorial.

“Make our food aid more efficient and sustainable,” we asked. In a way, we’re asking the federal government to take a page from our United Methodist playbook. Our relief efforts already follow these sustainable practices. (Here’s one example.) It’s time for our government to become a little more Methodist. 🙂

Remember, it’s not too late to join our OL! You can still write a letter and sign the petition to President Obama. Information and instructions available on our OL page.

Finally, as I wrote last week, if you’re in the Chicago area, make plans to join the public screening of A Place at the Table. It’s a superb documentary on hunger in America. WUMC youth and leaders will be at AMC Showplace 16 in Naperville on Wednesday, May 15. Showtime 7:30pm. Tickets available online. Hope to see you at the movies!

Record-breaking OL not done yet

Last Sunday, my congregation, Woodridge United Methodist Church, partnered with Bread for the World in taking an Offering of Letters. Rosie’s story (see above video) was a key component of our presentation and perhaps part of the reason the OL produced 110 names on the petition to the President and 120 letters to our Senators. The 120 letters is a WUMC record! (It was the first year that an OL included a petition to the President.)

I am, naturally, thrilled by this response and very proud of our people for their advocacy for and with hungry and poor people in America and around the world. It seems to me, such advocacy is an important expression of our faith in Jesus.

But this Offering of Letters isn’t done yet. First of all, if you weren’t able to participate in the OL last week, it’s not too late. You can sign the Petition to the President online. The sample letter to Senators is below. Use that as a guide in writing to your Senators. Or, if you’re in the area, paper copies of the petition and the letters will be available in WUMC’s Narthex (a fancy churchy word for lobby) on Sunday.

The final action item (if you’ll forgive the corporate-speak) of this OL happens May 15. That video above of Rosie’s story is an excerpt from A Place at the Table, an excellent documentary on hunger in America. The film is currently available on iTunes and On Demand. But on the 15th it is showing at AMC Showplace 16 in Naperville at 7:30pm. In addition to watching the movie, we’ll also present our petitions and letters to local Bread for the World organizers.

The petition and the letters were an unqualified success. I hope you’ll join us for film as well. Tickets are only available in advance online

Here’s the sample letter to Senators regarding food aid reform:

Dear Senator ______,

I urge you to publicly support the U.S. food aid reforms that President Obama proposed in his budget request. With these common-sense reforms, our food aid program will work harder for U.S. taxpayers, and two to four million more people in need will receive life-saving help at no additional cost.

In recent years, a number of trusted sources have shown that despite the best of intentions, current laws governing U.S. food aid make it slow to reach people in need and wasteful of taxpayer dollars. The President’s proposal would provide the U.S. with the greater flexibility to respond to hunger needs around the world.

As a person of faith, I want to see hungry people fed, and I also want to see our nation’s resources utilized as effectively and efficiently as possible. Please support—in every way possible—the President’s proposed food aid reforms.

Sincerely,

Your Name

Your Address

 

Remembering that ‘shot rang out in the Memphis sky’

I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you this, but it was 45 years ago today (April 4) that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

Yesterday, Fred Clark posted a long excerpt from Dr. King’s April 3rd speech, often called the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech. It’s fabulous oratory. Fred rightly pointed out that the crux of that speech – and of King’s work and the gospel of Jesus – is to stop asking how we’ll be affected by advocating for justice and instead ask how others will be affected if we aren’t advocates. “What will happen to them if I don’t stop to help?”

Upworthy also has great MLK content today, videos, audio and stills.

It’s no secret that U2 is my favorite band. So naturally I thought about posting their tribute to Dr. King, “Pride (in the name of love).” Then I came across this cover by John Legend. It is a much different take on the song, but it is hauntingly beautiful.

Watch this and then let’s redouble our efforts to bring justice, equality and goodness into the world. You and me. Together we can and should and must do that.

John Legend performs PRIDE (In The Name of Love) by ElectricArtists

 

Watch, read, and give for #WorldWaterDay

Today, March 22, is World Water Day. So what? Water changes everything:

I first learned of World Water Day two years ago. Some of what I wrote then still applies:

I don’t know about you, but I generally don’t even notice just how available water is to me. Among the kitchen sink, the water dispenser in our fridge and our bathrooms, I probably can’t get more than 20 feet away from a water source!

Comparing my water privilege to these stats from around the world is, in a word, sobering:

  • About 800 million people in the world lack access to reliable, safe drinking water.
  • 90% of the 30,000 deaths that occur every week from unsafe water and unhygienic living conditions are children under five years old. Every 20 seconds a child dies from water-related illness.
  • The integrated approach of providing water, sanitation and hygiene reduces the number of deaths caused by diarrheal diseases by an average of 65%. (WHO)

Fortunately, there are many organizations doing really good work helping developing countries find and access safe waterWater.orgCharity: WaterNational Geographic (which has an eye-opening tool to calculate your water footprint, yikes!), World Health Organization, Blood:Water Mission, and WaterAid.

And, the United Methodist Church through The United Methodist Committee on Relief’s Water Collaboration. (UMCOR is the humanitarian arm of the UMC.)

As far as I can tell, partnering with any one of those organizations is a great and important way to make a difference in the world water crisis (though I haven’t done extensive research into all of them).

For we who follow God in the Way of Jesus – for self-professed Christians – taking up this cause is not optional. How can we claim to love and serve the one we identify as Living Water if we aren’t doing all we can to help sisters and brothers around the world have the water they need to simply live.

world water day

How are you celebrating World Water Day?

Victory! What’s next?

Thursday was a really good day.

After months and even years of delay, the U.S. House of Representatives FINALLY passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) – and with it the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA)!

The General Board of Church & Society of The United Methodist Church reminded us what The United Methodist Church says about Family Violence and Abuse:

We recognize that family violence and abuse in all its forms—verbal, psychological, physical, sexual—is detrimental to the covenant of the human community. – UMC Social Principles 161.G

The bill had already passed the Senate and President Obama has said he will sign it right away. Most of the news I saw about this focused on how the main bill protects all women, including native Americans, undocumented immigrants and LGBT women. As Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI), herself a rape victim, sharply put it with a paraphrase of 19th century escaped slave and civil rights advocate, Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t they women?”

Yes. Yes, they are.

But the VAWA also included the TVPRA as an amendment. TVPA expired over two years ago; we finally have it back! What’s that mean? I’ll let two of our best anti-trafficking partners – Polaris Project and International Justice Mission – tell you.

From Polaris Project:

This bill sets important funding benchmarks, encourages distribution of the National Human Trafficking Hotline number by federal agencies, establishes grant programs for state agencies to assist child victims of sex trafficking, strengthens the ability to prosecute those who fraudulently hire individuals in foreign labor contracts, and more. [read the rest]

IJM adds that the 2013 version of the TVPRA has new provisions as well:

  • Gives the State Department authority to partner with overseas governments to stop child trafficking in targeted areas. It’s much more specific and measurable than previous programs
  • An emergency response provision helps the State Department quickly deploy teams of experts into crisis areas—like the situation in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake—where disorder and poverty can leave children or other vulnerable poor especially susceptible to trafficking.
  • New tools to help prosecute traffickers and people who exploit the poor.
  • Continued support for existing programs that support survivors of trafficking both in the U.S. and overseas. [read the rest]

After this victory, as President Bartlett used to ask, What’s next?
Time to talk hunger again, that’s what.

Our friends at Bread for the World ask, How is it possible that people in this country continue to go hungry, despite our abundance of food?

As an answer to that question, they are partners with a new film from Magnolia Pictures and its accompanying social action campaign. “March 1st marks the premiere of A Place at the Table, a new eye-opening documentary that answers the question through the lives of three people. Their stories reveal the depth of the hunger crisis in America and the factors that drive it.

Watch the trailer. But be careful, the trailer does its job – you will want to see the whole movie. Good thing then A Place at the Table is available right now On Demand and through iTunes. Find A Place at the Table on Facebook and Twitter.

I’d love to hear your reactions to the film in the comments.

I do love Bread

I know there much more important issues to cover: protecting SNAP and other programs vital to caring for poor and hungry people in any fiscal cliff deal; raising our voices to destigmatize mental health care; drowning out the NRA’s insanity with petitions, letters, posts, conversations, and every other way we can; continuing to care for the people of Newtown, CT; and so much more…

In spite of all that, I hope you’ll forgive me for a little shameless self-promotion.

I was thrilled and honored when Bread for the World contacted me this fall saying they wanted to write about me in the “From the Field” section of their November/December newsletter. That section highlights a member’s work for and with Bread. Regular readers know I love Bread. I think it is a terrific organization doing vital work with and for hungry and poor people nationally and globally.

I know there are plenty of other people doing just as much and more than I, so it was humbling to be chosen. They wrote a very kind piece. Take a look:

Pastor Dave Buerstetta did not always make the connection between his Christian faith and advocating for hungry people. “I had kind of a conversion experience in seminary,” he says. “I met the Jesus who cares, the one who breaks down the barriers, who helps people who need help.”

“That is the Jesus that I’m in love with. That’s how I knew to live the life that I was called to.”

An ordained American Baptist minister, Dave Buerstetta serves as a pastor at the Woodridge United Methodist Church, in Naperville, Ill., where he lives with his wife, Joann, and two children. At Woodridge, Pastor Dave focuses on youth ministry, outreach, and social justice. He is a thoroughly 21st century minister, maintaining a popular blog and using social media to share his homilies and fight hunger, poverty, and human trafficking.

Despite ministering to a solidly middle-class congregation, Pastor Dave has seen the hidden hunger that exists in most communities. “Even here they have a lot of need,” he says, relating the story of a family who volunteered at a local food pantry for years and now needs help. Unfortunately, the stigma of hunger and poverty drove that family to seek help outside of the community instead of turning to the pantry at which they had assisted for so many years.

That stigma is a barrier that people of faith need to erase, according to Pastor Dave. He points to the new documentary “The Line” as an important resource for understanding that hunger can happen to any of us. “It puts the lie to any notion that people who are struggling are lazy,” he says. (“The Line” can be viewed at www.bread.org.)

In Pastor Dave’s experience, the faces behind the statistics give him power as he advocates as “the hands, the feet, and the voice” for hungry people. He recounts the feedback that he received from a legislative aide for Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) “She said that it’s not enough to tell a moral story. In the current climate, we have to tell stories of people we know in congregations who are receiving assistance. It’s not just millions … it’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith who can’t feed their daughter.”

Since getting more involved with Bread after the 2008 National Gathering, Pastor Dave he has become a seasoned advocate, lobbying in person and on the phone and making the Offering of Letters a major focus in the worship service. He also maintains a one-person Offering of Tweets, sending messages to Congress and informing the world about social justice issues through his Twitter account.

Pastor Dave has seen the positive effect of his lobbying efforts and of the Offering of Letters. When visiting Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) with three other Bread members, she told them that they had received hundreds of letters from Bread and that the letters had make a difference. She also told them that she was cosponsoring a bill to strengthen poverty-focused development assistance.

“It’s experiences like that that help me see the value of lobbying,” says Pastor Dave.

Photo credit: Patti Cash
That’s me with Ushers Jay and Tim, saying a prayer of dedication of our Offering of Letters on April 29, 2012. Photo credit: Patti Cash

Just to clarify, while we live in Naperville, our church is in Woodridge. Also, while I certainly very much appreciate all of you who take time to read this blog…I fear one would have to search far and wide for the metric by which this could rightly be called a “popular blog.” Of course, if more of you reading this would like to subscribe, perhaps we can make that line less of an exaggeration. 😉

Thank you, Bread for the World. It is a joy working with you.

How about you? What ways are you connecting with and caring for hungry and poor people this holiday season?

“I’m not just sitting back waiting for somebody to hand me something.”

I was thrilled that we had a full room watching The Line last week. Plenty of discussion going on in small groups afterwards, too.

After the small group discussion time, I asked for people willing to share some of what they discussed regarding three questions:

  1. What in the film surprised you? What did you learn from the film?
  2. What connections among the four stories did you notice?
  3. What creative ideas do you have about how to respond to poverty?

A sampling of responses (paraphrased to the best of my memory):

  • “I didn’t know there was a connection between violence and poverty.”
  • “I noticed how much all [four] people hated being poor. Hated that they needed help.”
  • “I tried to imagine working 365 days a year and still not making enough to support myself. It gave me renewed compassion for a relative struggling with prolonged unemployment.”
  • “It made me realize how close to the edge just about all of us are. An accident, an illness, loss of a job…those stories could be about us.”
  • “Watching this reminded me that we serve the poor because that is how we live the Kingdom of God ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ Serving the poor is what it means to follow Jesus.”
  • “I want our Confirmation Class to find a local project to support so we can help poor people here in Woodridge.”
  • I can’t watch that and think that any of them feel entitled to federal assistance. I can’t call any of them ‘irresponsible.’ None of them wants to be in a position of needing help.”
  • “I noticed it wasn’t their fault they were poor. Their situation wasn’t about choices they made. Rather, it was due to circumstances outside their control.”
  • “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel in order to help people. For instance, right here in Woodridge the West Suburban Community Pantry doesn’t just give food. They also have many programs that help: ESL classes, free child car seats, access to affordable health care, and they help clients register for SNAP.”
  • “James’ story, especially when he said he called his brother and sister to tell them, ‘I’m ok. You’re brother is ok.’…made me cry.”

Were you there? What else was said that we should share?

If you weren’t there last week, have you watched the movie? The whole thing is below. It is such a compelling film. The title of this post is a quote from Sheila, one of the four people the film features. You really need to experience these stories.
Once you’ve seen it, how would you respond to the three questions above?

Watch the entire film here:

Hands, feet and voice

“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”

It was just a few weeks ago that we read in worship those words from James’ epistle.

This week Fred Clark wrote:

Why do the hungry suffer? For lack of food. Why do the oppressed and enslaved suffer? For want of liberation.

These are not, primarily, metaphysical puzzles for us to ponder. Such puzzles are also significant, but they mustn’t ever be confused for the most important, most urgent, or most obvious response to human suffering. Human suffering is cause for action — for individual and institutional and structural steps to relieve it and to prevent it. [read the rest]

“Supply bodily needs.” “steps to relieve and prevent suffering.” These are other ways of naming what we frequently call being the hands, feet and voice of Jesus in the world.

Over the next few weeks we here in Illinois have an opportunity – and I would say a responsibility – to live our faith, to embody our beliefs, to supply needs, to relieve and prevent suffering, to be the hands, feet and voice of Jesus in the world as we advocate with and for hungry and poor people.

This work is not new. The reasons for doing it are many.

Here’s what you and I can do right now, today:

1. Sign this Change.org petition to Senator Durbin to protect SNAP, WIC and tax credits for the working poor* in his work as part of the Gang of Eight**.

2. Make a pledge to support WUMC’s participation in Sleep Out Saturday. We’re raising awareness and raising money to fight homelessness in DuPage County.

3. Share a story. Do you or someone you know receive federal assistance, especially from SNAP? We heard again last week from Sen. Durbin’s office that he wants stories to support and personalize the importance of protecting these programs. We’re just looking for basic info (name, age, gender, church, community, family status, employment, etc.) and a sentence or two on how the benefits are used and why they’re important. Only first names will be shared if you prefer. Local Bread for the World advocates will deliver these stories to Sen. Durbin’s Chicago Loop office on Thursday, Nov. 1.

Here’s what you and I can do this Sunday, October 28:

4. Watch The Line in Fellowship Hall after second worship service and participate in the discussion. We are trying to model for our young people (and all of us really) that the church is a place to have real conversations about complex issues that matter. Can’t make it to WUMC on Sunday? Watch it now and find someone to talk with about it.

Here’s what you and I can do on Tuesday, October 30:

5. Participate in the state-wide Call-In Day to Sen. Durbin

  • Number to call: 1-800-826-3688. This number forwards to the Capitol Switchboard. Just ask the operator for “Sen. Durbin’s office.”
  • Sample message to deliver: “Thank you for being a champion for the needs of hungry and poor people in our community, in your work within the Gang of Eight (senators working on a bipartisan deficit-reduction plan). Continue to push the Gang of Eight to protect programs for hungry and poor people, especially SNAP and WIC for our neighbors here and foreign assistance for our neighbors abroad.”

Here’s what you and I can do on Saturday, Nov. 3:

6. Participate in Sleep Out Saturday at WUMC. Bring your sleeping bag, your blankets, and a desire to learn, share and grow.

Here’s what you and I can do anytime:

7. Pray

8. Learn more as we read, watch, listen, and converse.

9. Share all this with your networks.

Together we will be the hands, the feet, and the voice of Jesus in a hurting world.

What did I forget? What would you add?

*Why is this the responsible thing to do? Read The Myth of the Exploding Safety Net.
**Sen. Durbin is a member of the “Gang of Eight” bipartisan senators working to craft a framework that could pass the U.S. House and Senate and receive the President’s signature-­‐-­‐no easy feat, given the highly partisan climate in Congress and the conflicting views for how to best move our country forward. But most members of Congress do not want our nation to go over the “fiscal cliff” of simultaneous funding cuts and tax increases, which will happen soon if Congress does nothing. Yet despite this anxiety, the Gang of Eight is currently the only working group in Congress that could potentially reach a deal on a framework that can become law.

Watch “The Line” and #TalkPoverty

As I wrote a couple weeks ago, tonight you can watch the world premiere of (what promises to be) a terrific, important and compelling movie: The Line.  I threw in that parenthetical qualifier because, of course, I haven’t actually seen the film. Hence the “world premiere” part. 🙂

But I absolutely expect The Line to be compelling. While we USAmericans almost always talk about poverty by way of statistics*, it is stories that move us. Stories, especially (though not always) well-told ones, grab us. Stories shake us up. Stories move us. Sometimes stories even change us. And that is why I have such high expectations of The Line – it tells stories.

The Line documents the stories of people across the country living at or below the poverty line. They have goals. They have children. They work hard. They are people like you and me. From Chicago’s suburbs and west side to the Gulf Coast to North Carolina, millions of Americans are struggling every day to make it above The Line. []

Once again, here’s the trailer:

In just a few hours, at 7:00pm CDT, you can watch the world premiere of the film at it’s site. Click over. Watch the film. Stay there for a panel discussion following the movie.

Then, if you want to be really, extra, super cool…come back here and tell me what you thought of the film by leaving a comment!

But most importantly, let’s stop demonizing poor and hungry people. Instead, let’s make reducing poverty and caring for poor and hungry people a focus of our national politics and, if applicable, of our faith.

“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat…”

*Unless of course we want to disparage poor and hungry people. Then we almost always use an anecdote about this one person in this one place who really totally abused the system. So obviously no body anywhere should ever be helped at all.

Toeing “The Line”

I’ve written rather extensively about my involvement with and support for Bread for the World. I’ve been less vocal about my involvement with and support for Sojourners. But both organizations help me reflect upon a Christian commitment to social justice. Both organizations help me act on that commitment.

So you can imagine my interest when I discovered that both Bread and Sojo were involved in a new project together! Bonus: there are really two projects.

Now, I don’t know what was up with the “Middle Class First” signs at the DNC (though I suspect it was an appeal for people to think “we’re just folks.” Or more specifically, “we’re just folks like you!”)

But what I heard almost none of was what each party is doing and will do to fight poverty, to protect programs like SNAP, WIC, earned income tax credits. Which are all programs that literally get people from being hungry and lift people out of poverty. Isn’t that something both Republicans and Democrats say they want? To lift people out of poverty? Then we need a President willing to join the circle of protection around those programs.

From Bread: “We believe that this presidential campaign should include a clear focus on what each candidate proposes to do to provide help and opportunity for hungry and poor people in the United States and around the world.” Bread & Sojo asked, and President Obama and Governor Romney offered these responses:

But it seems to me, both responses more or less just parrot their already-determined platforms. Though I do appreciate the President grounding his response in his faith. How about really dealing with actual poverty? That’s the second awesome project: The Line.

A movie of stories. Real stories. Here’s the trailer. Woodridge UMC plans to screen the whole film in October. I hope you will join us.