In Washington, D.C., Patricia Kisare, ELCA program director for international policy advocacy, meets with members of Congress to present the church’s concerns about foreign aid and U.S. food programs in other countries.
Cindy Crane, director of the Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wisconsin, meets regularly with the bishops of the six ELCA synods in Wisconsin to discuss state issues needing attention.
And at the U.N. headquarters in New York City, Dennis Frado, director of the Lutheran Office for World Community, talks with ambassadors and national leaders from dozens of countries about hunger, gender justice, refugees and humanitarian crises in troubled parts of the world.
Kisare, Crane and Frado are part of a network of “advocates” working on behalf of the ELCA in addressing social problems, legislation and other matters cited in ELCA social statements.
“Advocacy is witness,” said Amy Reumann, director of ELCA Advocacy, Washington, D.C. “It is witness to Christ; it is where my witness to Christ makes me care for my neighbor.”
John Johnson, program director for domestic policy in the D.C. office, said the ELCA social statements, the basis for all the church’s advocacy efforts, “are wonderful in that they focus on the things the ELCA as a public church says Jesus would care about—the hungry, the stranger, the children, the orphan and widow.”
“Public church” is an important phrase for advocacy workers, for it means making the views of the ELCA public and in places where they can make a difference in what happens in society.
ELCA advocacy is a wide-ranging effort, touching on some very local concerns ranging from food pantries for the poor to complex international issues like migration and climate change. The advocacy networks work with government representatives and members of their staffs, with other churches, nonprofit agencies and other civil society groups to bring the concerns of faith into discussions about social policy. And when a solution seems viable and in line with ELCA concerns, church advocates can help it be enacted into law or applied in public policy.
In Wisconsin, Crane conducts workshops for congregations on advocacy, telling them, “We have a history as Christians and as Lutherans in being a public church.” In Reformation times, she said Martin Luther and his colleagues sought “economic justice, not just charity, by going to courts, to the marketplace and to princes” to bring the voice of faith into public life.
“You can’t address the hunger problem all on your own,” Crane said, echoing the words of others involved in advocacy. “We need to work with governments and corporations and others.”
Track record for change
Advocacy in the public arena isn’t a new thing for Lutherans, who were active in resettling refugees after World War I. Lutheran churches were also leaders in handling refugees during World War II and later in countries where people fled lives in peril because of famine, war or civil unrest.
This long history has meant that Lutherans are known nationally and internationally. In Geneva, Switzerland, advocates at the headquarters of the Lutheran World Federation have ready access to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and work closely with the United Nations on issues relating to refugees and other matters.
Advocates, whether locally or internationally, are people motivated by their faith. Kisare of the ELCA Advocacy office grew up in Tanzania and said interacting with missionaries and church people on various issues helped her learn to love that kind of work. Raised a Mennonite, she said “social justice was a big part of the teaching as I grew up.”
Many seek to have an influence on government and other decision-makers when they see local problems in a broader context. That was the case for Sara Lilja, now director of the Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministry in New Jersey (LEAMNJ). As a parish pastor and counselor for survivors of domestic violence, “I spent a lot of energy on individual people and individual families,” she said.
Then Lilja began to notice a pattern and saw flaws in the social service and judicial system that was failing the people she was counseling. That led her into advocacy and to her new call as head of the New Jersey Synod’s Lutheran-Episcopal advocacy program.
Lilja learned, for example, that basic state aid to needy families had “not been increased in 30 years.” And she saw that a feeding program near Trenton, N.J., had an “express line” for people who needed to eat quickly because they had to go back to work at a job that didn’t pay them enough to purchase adequate food for themselves or their families. “As church, we need to stand alongside these people,” she said.
Public channels, biblical values
World hunger and poverty in the U.S. and abroad have long been concerns for ELCA advocates, and there has always been concern regarding migration. But some new issues are emerging.
Paul Benz, an ELCA pastor and co-director of the Faith Action Network (FAN), based in Seattle, said that on the federal level child nutrition programs are current concerns. Reform of federal sentencing guidelines that often keep people imprisoned without possibilities for rehabilitation is also an emerging concern. In New Jersey, Lilja said the concerns are racial bias in the criminal justice system and equal pay for women.
The growing industry of “payday loans,” short-term loans extracting high interest from low-income people, worries advocates in Washington and Wisconsin. Also in Wisconsin, Crane is involved in combating human trafficking, which can take the poor and young people into prostitution and involuntary servitude.
Advocacy ministry today is also ecumenical and interreligious, as illustrated by the Lutheran-Episcopal cooperation in New Jersey and Washington state’s FAN. “We lower the ‘Lutheran’ flag,” Benz said, “and raise up a new interfaith flag, a flag that says the family of faith includes our Jewish brothers and sisters, Muslims and others down [across] the religion spectrum.”
Voices of faith have some “standing” in public life, say people with long experience working with government agencies. “We have developed good relationships because we Lutherans are regarded as being extremely thoughtful, that we don’t shoot from the hip—we seek constructive dialogue with public officials and members of their staff,” Reumann said.
Sometimes advocacy is dramatic and very public when rallies and demonstrations are organized around certain issues. But more often it’s quiet and slow, involving months or even years of work with government and social agencies. Reumann said the ELCA helped get the Global Food Security Act, a bill aimed at improving agriculture, water resources and other food-related conditions around the world, through Congress.
Crane said, “Our voice was heard on payday lending.” Her office also helped Republican legislators in Wisconsin pass a bill establishing a telephone hotline to help victims of human trafficking.
In Washington state, Benz said church advocacy was helpful in legislation requiring background checks for those who purchase guns at gun shows.
Church efforts at the United Nations can even open up new opportunities for service around the world, said Frado, who has been in contact with the organization for more than 20 years. His office helps women from around the world meet at the United Nations, and “many doors have opened,” he said.
“It’s the first time some of these women have had an opportunity to meet their national government officials,” he said. High level officials in some countries then get to know what programs the churches have to deal with, issues such as HIV and AIDS prevention, treatment, care and support, and addressing gender-based violence or health care, and “they may want to replicate the programs or collaborate with the churches,” Frado said.
ELCA advocates also say their offices, through education programs and other activities, “provide space” for a variety of people in government to learn about church concerns.
Sometimes Lutheran advocacy touches surprising heights. When Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian Lutheran concerned about the civil war in her country, began to gather women into a peace movement, it was the Lutheran Office for World Community that provided her a U.N. platform. The office helped her and other church groups tell of their work to end the civil war and seek better treatment for women. Years later in 2011, Gbowee was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work, an effort supported at its beginning by Lutheran advocates.
Today, Frado said, “she still often comes to see what we are doing at our briefings.”
For more information on ELCA Advocacy, go to elca.org/advocacy.