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!

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.

Making hungry people hungrier is unacceptable, Part 2: Showing my work

I recently shared this post that was originally published on Bread for the World‘s Bread Blog.

I would understand if you thought my conclusions in that post seemed a bit like a math student who simply writes down an answer. Even though the answer is correct, you’d still like to know how she got there. This post is me trying to show my work.

In the Wesleyan tradition we use four theological guidelines for understanding our faith and discipleship: scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. (Often referred to as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. But I’m bad at geometry, so I try to stick with calling them guidelines.)

When it comes to raising your voice with and for hungry and vulnerable people, it’s an uncontested slam dunk.

The biblical witness is clear: caring for the hungry and poor is God’s desire for us.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. – Luke 10:27

For me, that really says it all. But that’s no where near all scripture says! There are at least 2000 verses in the Bible about caring for poor and hungry people. Psalm 72:12-14, Jeremiah 22:13-16, Micah 6:8, Mark 12:30, Luke 4:18, 1 John 4:19…just to name a few.

Our tradition is bold: Methodists advocate with and for people in need.

John Wesley was a forthright advocate on prison reform, human rights, abuse of spirituous liquors, labor justice, healthcare, slavery, the humane treatment of animals…The women’s rights movement, the labor reform movement, the temperance movement and the Civil Rights movement all saw leadership from a number of courageous and prophetic Methodist voices. Read more from the General Board of Church & Society.

But one need not be in the Wesleyan tradition to claim a bold heritage of advocacy. Read the first four chapters of Acts again. One of the first things the earliest Christians did in response to being filled with God’s Holy Spirit was to “sell their possessions and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:45).

Our experience is encouraging: SNAP works! Letters from constituents are effective.

Since 2008 unemployment has increased dramatically, poverty has increased as well, but food insecurity has remained essentially  the same, largely due to domestic nutrition programs like SNAP. The very same program Congress is currently considering cutting by $36 billion this year and $133 billion over ten years.

Need a more personal touch? Meet Alli and André:

SNAP and WIC work. Letters and petitions to Congress work, too. Two years ago, I was privileged to be present at a meeting with Rep. Judy Biggert and her Chief of Staff. Three other Bread activists and I presented our case, asking Congresswoman Biggert to co-sponsor a bill that would create more and better poverty-focused developmental assistance. The Congresswoman let us have our say and accepted the stack of letters one of the others brought from their Offering of Letters.

The Chief of Staff said they’d received hundreds like them. Then Rep. Biggert declared she was meeting with us to announce that she had co-signed the bill!

Still, there are some reasonable questions about advocacy, such as: Why don’t churches just care for the poor? Why get the government involved at all?
Size and scope.
Private feeding through churches and charities covers just 6% of the nutrition needs for low-income and struggling families in the United States. National nutrition programs like SNAP & WIC provide the rest.

As I wrote previously, to make up the gap created by recently proposed cuts to SNAP – $36 billion this year, $133 billion over ten years – means churches and charities would need to do everything we’re currently doing to fight hunger…and come up with an additional $50,000 each year.

And if churches and charities needed to cover the entire costs, each church, synagogue, mosque, and charity would need to increase their efforts by at least $160,000 each year! That’s just to cover food, they’d also need to create the structures through which they would provide food ans aid.

Here’s another question I hear with some frequency: What about the separation of church and state?
Doesn’t apply. That separation means our government cannot privilege one religion over another. We cannot create an official religion of the state.
There are no restrictions on people speaking to their members of Congress just because they are motivated by their faith in Jesus.

Why write a letter asking our Senators to create a circle of protection around our vital domestic nutrition programs or sign a petition urging Congress not to decimate SNAP?
The biblical witness is clear: caring for the hungry and poor is God’s desire for us.
Our Methodist tradition is bold: we advocate with and for people in need.
Our experience is encouraging: letters make a difference.
The facts are in: domestic nutrition programs work.

We are called to protect hungry and vulnerable people. People like Alli & André need our voice. We are called to speak on their behalf.

Will Congress hear from you?

Listen to Amos, #endhunger

“…Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

We read those inspiring, challenging words from the prophet Amos this past Sunday.
It certainly is a beautiful image – justice, as strong as the tide rolling in yet as refreshing as a cool stream, coming for those in need.

But for we who would worship and serve God, those words also culminate some stark proclamations. To paraphrase Amos, God says that no matter how eloquent are our prayers, no matter how big are our offering checks, no matter how pitch-perfect and heartfelt are our songs, God will not listen, will not accept, will not hear  them…unless and until we are also actively engaged in bringing justice for the hungry, the poor, and the oppressed.

Like I said, challenging words.

This week, a group of our youth (with some leaders, of course) did their best to live up to that challenge. In lieu of our regular Wednesday night activities, we spent two hours serving at Feed My Starving Children in Aurora. In those two hours the 20 of us, along with about 50 other volunteers, packed enough meals to fill 82 boxes.

That means we packed 17,712 meals, enough to fed 49 kids for a year.

The boxes we packed are scheduled to go to Haiti next week. It’s been two years since the devastating earthquake in Haiti, but tremendous need still exists.

We are humbled and thrilled to provide a small piece of relief, to help bring to life God’s dreams of justice for hungry children.

In what works of justice are you participating?

Undergraduate hunger

As Bread for the World reminds us,

Globally, almost 16,000 children die each day from hunger related causes. That’s one child every five seconds.

This week 8 Woodridge United Methodist Church college students and 3 leaders (including my wife and me) served at Feed My Starving Children in Aurora.

For many of these students, it was their first time volunteering there. It’s a powerful experience, joining dozens of others scooping in ingredients,

weighing and sealing bags of meals,

packing 36 such bags into a box, and stacking the boxes on palettes to be sent to hungry children all over the world.

We also tasted a sample of the meals we packed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In two hours we helped pack 98 boxes containing 21,168 meals. That’s enough to feed 58 children for a year. That’s also, admittedly, a whole lot less than 16,000. But others were there before us and were coming in after us. We’re making a dent in hunger this way. I hope. At the very least it’s the starfish principle, right? We couldn’t help all 16,000 in those two hours, but we made a difference for the 58 who will receive our meals.

Our boxes are scheduled to go to Haiti at the end of the week.

I know this for sure: it was a pleasure serving together with this group of amazing young people! I love those guys.

How are you fighting hunger?

New math: With > 2 & 4

I am an American Baptist. I grew up attending an American Baptist church and I am ordained by the American Baptist Churches USA.

However (and oddly), I’ve spent the last 15+ years serving as one of the pastors of the Woodridge United Methodist Church. As The United Methodist Church is about ten times bigger than ABC/USA, I’ve had a lot to learn about tradition, history, structure and polity. It has been, and continues to be, a blessed journey. I’ve learned to love and respect the denomination. As you might expect, I especially love and respect the deep commitment The UMC has to mission and justice ministries.

However, there is a lot I still don’t know; I lot I can’t explain. Take, for instance, this Task Force and it’s list of member agencies:

The Interagency Task Force on Ministry with the Poor

  • General Board of Church and Society
  • General Board of Discipleship
  • General Board of Global Ministries
  • General Board of Higher Education and Ministry
  • General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits
  • General Commission on Archives and History
  • General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns
  • General Commission on Communications (UMCOM)
  • General Commission on Religion and Race
  • General Commission on Status and Role of Women
  • General Commission on United Methodist Men
  • General Council on Finance and Administration
  • United Methodist Publishing House

That’s a lot of bureaucracy! I couldn’t begin to describe how each of those boards, commissions and whatnot officially relate to each other. I could not begin to create a flow chart of them. (Or at least not one that would reflect reality.)

But I do know this about them: They have partnered together to create a fantastic new resource for mission and justice!

This week Ministry With* the Poor went live and it rocks!

It has a ton of information and links to explore. You could easily spend hours reading and watching, donating and mobilizing, learning and blogging. At the very least though, please take 2.5 minutes and go watch the introductory video. We watched it as part of our Youth Mission Trip preparation this week.

Wait, are you still here? Go watch that video! Now! Do it!

…And we’re back. So, what did you think? Were you moved? Want to know more? Want to join the effort? At Woodridge UMC we’ll definitely begin exploring ways to do just that. Wherever you live, I hope you’ll join that conversation here or at Ministry With* the Poor.

For now, here are a couple pearls of wisdom from the site:

What’s this site about?

The goal of this site is to help connect, inform, inspire, and energize the people of The United Methodist Church to engage in ministries of love and justice that involve partnering with and empowering those who are in poverty to eradicate poverty. We are, after all, called to be disciples of Christ for the transformation of this world.

What are the founding principles?

Ministry with the Poor is fundamental to our Wesleyan and pietistic roots and integral to the Church’s mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and by exemplifying Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor, thus seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in this world” (The United Methodist Book of Discipline 2008, par. 121). Indeed, Ministry with the Poor is a biblical imperative—as much for everyone today as it was for Jesus when he proclaimed: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19; see Isaiah 61:1-2; 58:6-10; Leviticus 25:8-55; Galatians 2:10).

Followers of Jesus too are “anointed”—anointed to serve as disciples of Jesus, to be his “witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), and to serve as God’s co-creators in bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth. But being “anointed” as disciples for the transformation of the world does not imply superiority; in fact, quite the opposite is true.

Disciples of Jesus are all called to be ministers with the poor. As such, disciples are called not only to be prophets, liberators, healers, equalizers, and justice-makers, but also to be hospitable and caring brothers and sisters in Christ, who break bread with one another, nurture community, and work together to make this world a place of justice, mercy, and love. (Romans 12:13).

“Anointed to serve as God’s co-creators in bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth.” To me, that is what following God in the Way of Jesus is all about!

Let’s share best practices: what ways are you engaging in ministry with people in need?

A little something to help Haiti

On Wednesday this week, 30 dedicated youth and adults from our church traveled to Aurora to work at Feed My Starving Children.

FMSC is a Christian non-profit dedicated to providing food for, well, children starving all over the globe. They currently send food to over 70 countries. All the meals they send are hand packed by volunteers. That’s what we did on Wednesday.

Working with groups from two other churches we packed 14,688 meals in less than two hours. That’s enough to feed 40 children for a year.

Let me say that again: working for a short time we fed 40 children for a year!

Praise God! I’m proud of all who helped make this happen!

But it gets better. Did you notice when we were there? Wednesday was the one-year anniversary of the horrific earthquake in Haiti. FMSC sends a lot of food to Haiti. We had the honor of completing and praying for a shipment that was scheduled to leave for Haiti today.

One of FMSC’s directors shared a few Haiti-related stories before we started packing meals: FMSC planned and budgeted to send 25 million meals to Haiti in 2010. As a result of the earthquake the need was much greater than that. Enabled by some generous donations, they sent 50 million meals there last year!

Then the director told us a disappointing, though not really surprising, story. She said that a year ago, right after the earthquake, their phone rang off the hook and their parking lot was full of media members doing stories on their organization and the work they are doing in Haiti. But this week, on the one-year anniversary, FMSC couldn’t get a single media member to cover their anniversary event. An event that even included the presence of some of their Haitian partners!

You and I can do better than that. 300,000 people were killed, 300,000 more were injured and a million people were left homeless. Add to those statistics this story about Haiti’s quarter million child slaves, and we have in Haiti a country in dire need.

So let’s remember the people of Haiti. Continue to read about the situation there. Keep the country and the rebuilding effort in your prayers. And, if you are able, consider giving a gift. You can still do so through UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief). As always with them, 100% of your gift goes to relief and development. Donate directly here.

A lofty goal

Moved by God’s grace in Jesus the Christ – the Liberating King – we raise our voices to help end hunger at home and abroad. – Rev. David Beckmann, president, Bread for the World

A lofty goal, that. Then again, so is “love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” So that is exactly what we will do at Woodridge United Methodist Church this Sunday, August 22: raise our voices to help end hunger.

In both our worship gatherings (9:00 and 10:30 a.m.) we will partner withBread for the World in creating an Offering of Letters. Our letters will implore our U.S. Representatives to help low-income families by making permanent the provisions in the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC) that expire this year.

Why focus on those provisions? Because they work! In 2009 alone, those two tax credits lifted an estimated 8.9 million USAmericans above the poverty line! 4.6 million of which (that’s 51.7%) were children.

In 2009 in Illinois, 870,282 households claimed the EITC and 612,795 households claimed the CTC. If these tax credits are not preserved at their current level, all those families will see their credits cut drastically. For instance, a full-time working parent receiving the minimum wage would receive only a $320 credit instead of the current $1,800 credit.

Would losing $1500 make a difference in your ability to meet your budget?

What if that $1500 was over 10% of your annual income? A full-time worker at minimum wage ($7.25/hour) earns $14,500 per year.

Here’s what such a letter might look like:

Date ___________

Dear Rep. ___________

I urge you to make permanent our current tax benefits for low-income families, parts of which will expire this year if Congress doesn’t act. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit reward the efforts of low-income working families—especially those who are working full-time at the minimum wage.

Programs such as the EITC and the Child Tax Credit work! Millions of hard-working families have been lifted above the poverty line and been able to put food on their tables. These are relatively small programs that have a big impact on families struggling to make ends meet.

In the midst of important debates about which tax programs to change or renew, the needs of low-income families must not be lost. Please make permanent the current provisions in the EITC and the Child Tax Credit.

Sincerely,

Your Name

Your Address

We’ll send our letters to our Representatives local offices. Find yours here.

If you are in the Chicago-land area come to our church this Sunday, bring your compassion and your longing for justice for poor and hungry people…and bring a return address label. We’ll provide paper, pens, envelopes, and plenty more information and inspiration. Together we will live out the Gospel of Jesus. Together we will answer God’s call to seek justice for hungry and poor people everywhere.

Did you get enough to eat today?

Did you get enough to eat today?

I know I did. This afternoon alone I purchased lunch from a local restaurant and an organically grown peach from our church Mission Vegetable cart…and I had a cookie. Needless to say, I’m well-fed.

But that’s not true for everyone. Perhaps your initial mental image of a hungry person is that of a small child next to a hut somewhere in Africa. I know it is for me. But, as real as that picture of hunger is, it does not tell the whole story.

  • 13% of people in the United States live in poverty.
  • More than 14% of US households are hungry.
  • 16.7 million children – that’s nearly one in four! – live in households that struggle to put food on the table.

Here in Illinois the situation is better than those national figures – but only slightly. Families in Illinois are struggling:

  • 12.2% of people in Illinois live in poverty.
  • 11.1% of IL households are hungry.
  • SNAP (food stamps) participation increased 9.7% in the last year.

You may think tax policy should put you to sleep. But here’s why it is important:

  • In 2009, the EITC lifted an estimated 6.6 million people, including 3.3 million children, above the poverty line.
  • In 2009, the CTC lifted an estimated 2.3 million people, including 1.3 million children, above the poverty line.

These are the largest anti-poverty programs in our country! But 7 million low-income people could lose benefits if these tax credits expire. And that is why we’ll raise our voices and add them to thousands of other voices from around our state and our country calling on Congress to care for the most vulnerable of our neighbors.

On Sunday, August 22nd we, the people of the Woodridge United Methodist Church, are taking very specific action to combat hunger and its underlying cause, poverty.

In our worship gatherings we will partner with Bread for the World in creating an Offering of Letters. Our letters will implore our U.S. Representatives to help low-income families by making permanent the provisions in the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC) that are set to expire this year.

So come to church on August 22, bring your compassion and your longing for justice for poor and hungry people…and bring a return address label. We’ll provide paper, pens, envelopes, and plenty more information and inspiration. Together we will live out the Gospel of Jesus. Together we will answer God’s call to seek justice for hungry and poor people everywhere.

Get a head start on your letter or find your Representative:  http://www.offeringofletters.org/2010/act/contact-congress

Learn more about Offering of Letters and Bread for the World: http://www.offeringofletters.org/

To see the source for above US statistics:  http://www.offeringofletters.org/2010/learn-more/facts

For IL stats: http://www.offeringofletters.org/2010/resources/state-facts