Politics were clearly in evidence at the recent UN food summit in Rome, during which, according to a report by the BBC, nations were seeking to issue a declaration on “eliminating hunger and securing food for all.”

Argentina wanted to retain the right to impose its own trade restrictions. The U.S. wanted to maintain its embargo on Cuba, and Brazil was pushing back at the accusation that its biofuel industry was contributing to the rising cost of food.

That kind of politicking is why Good Shepherd Lutheran Church participated in an “offering of letters” sponsored by Bread for the World in May.

Members of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church prayed for the starving people in Myanmar May 18. Two weeks before, some had participated in the CROP Hunger Walk to raise money to feed the hungry.

And Good Shepherd members made use of a third weapon in their arsenal to fight hunger in the world. They participated in a Bread for the World offering of letters, sending 30 communications to their elected representatives in Washington D.C., urging them to support a $5-billion increase in poverty-focused development assistance for 2009 and to co-sponsor the Global Poverty Act (SB 2433).

In its literature, Bread for the World describes itself as “a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s decision makers to end hunger at home and abroad. By changing policies, programs, and conditions that allow hunger and poverty to exist, we provide help and opportunity far beyond the communities where we live.” In contrast to the charities which most congregations support and which seek to mitigate hunger and poverty by distributing food, digging wells and coordinating reforestation efforts, Bread for the World devotes its resources to changing public policy.

Bread for the World activists mix religion and politics without apology. Cindy Larson, who helped coordinate the offering of letters, said that the Good Shepherd congregation belongs to Bread for the World. She sees it partly as a power issue, i.e. people using their power to direct elected officials to use the government’s resources and influence to feed hungry people at home and overseas.

Nancy Leonard, a member of both Good Shepherd and Bread for the World, donates to charities like the Women’s Opportunity Fund and the OP-RF Food Pantry. Explaining her movement into the political arena, she declared, “I believe we need to put our faith into action and care about the ‘least of these our brethren and sisters.'”

Susan Greeley, another Good Shepherd member who walked in the CROP Walk, said, “People of faith-all faiths-have an obligation to live out their faith in the real world. Charity is wonderful, but it only goes so far. Poverty will never be eliminated without policy changes.”

Leah Abraham and Anthony Suarez defended using the church to influence public policy, noting, “It is intrinsic to our faith-that is, as Christians, we are called to work on behalf of the poor to transform their situation, to transform society.”

John Wallick-who took part in the CROP Walk, works for the food pantry and cooks breakfasts for PADS-doesn’t see his letter-writing as mixing religion, at least not on an institutional level, and politics. “My letter,” he said, “is over my signature, not that of Good Shepherd Church.”

Members of Bread for the World believe putting pressure on elected officials is a productive way to address the issue of hunger. For example, the BFW coordinator’s manual for the offering of letters claims that the organization’s lobbying was in large part responsible for reforming the U.S. farm bill in 2007 to include a more equitable safety net, winning a $1.4 billion increase in funding in 2006 to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic in developing nations, and preventing Congress from cutting nutrition assistance in 2005.

Everyone who wrote letters at Good Shepherd agreed that numbers make the difference when it comes to changing policy. Wallick said, “Our elected officials are our voice in government. If enough letters are sent, the action will come.”

The BFW coordinator’s guide said although the U.S. gives the largest amount of food aid in absolute terms, it is near the bottom of the list of rich, industrialized countries when its food aid is seen as a percentage of GNP. For example, countries like Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands give more than .8 percent of their GNP while the U.S. gives less than .2 percent.

BFW provides the following breakdown of the U.S. budget for 2007:

22% National Defense

21% Social Security

16% Non-Defense Discretionary

13% Medicare

.5% Poverty-Focused Development Assistance

Linda Bostrum spoke for many of her fellow members at Good Shepherd when she said, “I continue to write the letters because I support using our money to feed people overseas. A good example of this is the situation in Myanmar where the government won’t readily allow food supplies and aid workers into the country, and while our country didn’t hesitate to use force against a country that has large oil reserves, I don’t know why we can’t muster a little of that support to help these children who are homeless or starving because their government won’t allow other governments to help them.”

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...