‘Not Called to Win; Just to be Faithful’
Elections aren't all about winning, are they? A group of Bread activists in the Birmingham, Ala., area realizes that they have an uphill battle in getting their issues heard by candidates in this fall's elections, but they are staying focused on what's important: just being faithful in their advocacy.
Alabama's 6th Congressional District, based around the suburbs of Birmingham, is represented by Republican Spencer Bachus, who is retiring from Congress when his current term ends in 2015.
A runoff election in July will determine which Republican candidate will compete for Bachus' seat in the general election in November. The Republican nominee is almost certain to win in the district, which the National Review Online called "the reddest district in the country."
In the meantime, the Bread activists in the area are deciding how to raise issues of hunger and poverty with the final two candidates as well as getting themselves organized for general and ongoing advocacy activities for Bread.
Suzanne Stigler Martin has done most of the coordinating of the Bread group and reviving its membership after a previous leader, who had built a strong group over a number of years, left and members fell away.
The earlier group of activists had worked hard to win Bachus over on issues related to hunger, and the congressman had actually changed his mind about debt relief in the Jubilee Campaign of 2000. The current group is looking to continue the legacy they've had with Bachus with his successor.
With Martin, the current group has organized itself into teams so that leadership is not so dependent on one person and so the work is spread out.
The teams divide the work into areas such as outreach to churches, advocacy, and elections strategy. The group started a Facebook page to promote their work and provide education on hunger and poverty issues. During the slower summer months, the group plans to add educational items on immigration reform.
The group has been actively trying to engage new congregations in the area in Bread work, encouraging them to hold an Offering of Letters or move to the "next level" by adding advocacy if they have a food pantry or soup kitchen, for example. The group has used the visits of Bread's regional organizer, LaMarco Cable, to encourage congregations to connect with issues being debated in Washington, D.C.
For its congressional campaign work, Martin said the group tried to contact all of the candidates running in the primary with three basic questions related to hunger and a deadline to respond. They planned to post the responses on their Facebook page.
Martin said that it was a challenge for the group to try to contact seven or eight candidates, so it has decided to wait until there are just two candidates in the general election. She said in a primary campaign candidates tend to be focused more on winning the nomination and less on issues.
Martin has other tips for similar groups that want to be involved in congressional campaigns:
- Appoint a person to monitor candidates' campaigns for events that Bread activists can attend.
- Try to get to know the candidates as human beings. Befriend them so that you become a trusted source or adviser on hunger issues.
- Work your networks. If nobody in your group knows a candidate directly, maybe a friend knows a candidate and can make an introduction.
Overall, Martin says advocacy work is for the long-haul. "There's a lot of opportunity. It just takes time," she said. Her group's work shows that it's about developing relationships with not only political candidates in a campaign but also with church members. She adds: "We are not called to win; we are just called to be faithful."
Photo: Building the political will in Congress to make hunger a national priority will take constituents standing up and speaking out to the candidates, telling them that hunger is an important issue. One place constituents can do this is in public forums like town hall meetings, where average voters can ask questions.