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January 6, 2014

Why You Should Care About Political Advocacy

Actual Author: Libby McDermott

“You can be an ambulance driver at the bottom of the hill or you can build a fence at the top.”

ambulance speeding alongfence next to cliff above ocean

Christians are good (although not as good as we could be) at the idea of charity which involves taking care of the people who have been thrown off the proverbial mountain—the poor, hungry, and homeless. We do this through emergency assistance such as food pantries, shelters, free meals, etc. We are not so great at asking why are these people poor and underprivileged and then doing something about it—either by building a fence at the top of the hill or by changing the system that only allows a few people at the top, if you’ll allow me to extend the metaphor.

The work of Bread for the World and other political advocates— something I am beginning to learn though my year as a Young Adult Volunteer in Boston— is asking why are people hungry in a country that wastes food, and going from there. The overwhelming majority of food assistance in the United States comes from the government and only a fraction comes from private programs like food banks and feeding ministries. So it makes sense that the faith community, dedicated to ending hunger and poverty, should be present and use its voice in the political process involving these issues. Not that direct service programs are not important—they are vital programs that save people’s lives on a daily basis– but they cannot “cure” chronic hunger.

My work here in Boston is in the tension between direct assistance programs in Cambridge and being involved with the political process to change a broken and unfair system—and learning how they are inextricably intertwined.

I spend most days on the computer reading articles and doing research about the farm bill, cuts in SNAP, the sequestration, local programs in Cambridge, and meeting with people in the local area. There is only so much computer screen time I can take, only so many numbers and charts and maps I can look at before they start to lose their meaning. I balance this time with volunteering at local food ministries in Cambridge and putting a face and a story to the statistics of “the hungry” and “the poor” that get thrown around in conversation. I can only talk about food justice and feeding the hungry for so long until I have to physically do something about it and get my hands dirty, whether that’s through gleaning at a local farm, doing dishes after a free community meal, or handing out produce at a food pantry with a smile.

But after weeks of helping to give out groceries at a food pantry and preparing meals for the homeless in Cambridge it can be discouraging work—I’ve only been around a few months and I’m already recognizing the same people each week at different programs all over Cambridge. I know how hard volunteers work and how much money, effort, passion, and creativity it takes to run a food pantry or prepare meals on a weekly, or even daily, basis. What we’re doing is a good and necessary thing, but sometimes you start ask yourself if you’re really making a difference if most of the same people will be hungry tomorrow, and the day after that, and the week after that… And that’s where I come back to the political advocacy that focuses on systemic change.

I guess I want to be an ambulance driver and a fence builder. Personally I found that I need to do both to truly understand what it means to “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” to end hunger.

Categories: Advocacy, Food Justice, Hunger

Tags: advocacy, charity, food justice, food pantry, gleaning, hunger, justice, presbyterian, yav, young adults


  1. Thanks Benedict! Rev. Eric- thank you for reading and your kind words! And I agree, the fence on the mountain top metaphor is problematic- implying that there is limited space. (I've also heard one with pulling people out of the river...) Bread for the World's campaign last year was all about everyone having "a place at the table," which I think is much better!

    by Libby McDermott

    January 21, 2014

  2. Libby, you make an important observation. In the social justice world we speak of "service" and "advocacy." Both are needed to do the transformative work to which Christ calls us--attending to people's immediate needs (service) and seeking to change policies or situations that are causing people to be in need (advocacy). One thing I've noticed is that the service end has an element of immediate gratification. Advocacy takes years if not sometimes decades to see fruit. Thank you for reminding us of this challenge and encouraging us to be courageous by engaging in the hard work. I would like to challenge you on the "fence" metaphor, though. Too fences have been used as objects of power and control, limiting people's movement and controlling who is allowed "in" to a system and who is kept out. Jesus offers us the metaphor of the great banquet--those who presume to be invited often don't show up, but the host opens the doors and actively goes out into the streets to find people to come. I wonder if we need to be about the work of tearing down more fences, opening more doors, and actively inviting more people to the banquet. Thanks for your work and your thought provoking words.

    by Rev. Eric Lederman.

    January 10, 2014

  3. Great post Libby! I find it interesting that you said "For a country that wastes food, people are hungry." That is very true. Donating to private food banks, volunteering in soup kitchens, and even giving the homeless a meal or two can make a difference. You are doing something special and I hope you are enjoying your time in Boston!

    by Benedict

    January 7, 2014

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