By Lacey Johnson
Rev. David Beckmann, Bread’s president emeritus who retired in June, welcomed this year’s attendees with an opening message centered on the Bible story of Jeremiah – the theme of the 2020 Virtual Advocacy Summit: Our Faith, Future.
“Jeremiah was a prophet of doom. For years he had been saying to the people that the nation was on track toward war, pestilence, and famine,” he said, while reflecting on today’s perilous times. “But during those really difficult, discouraging years, [Jeremiah] also voiced a tender word for our Lord: I have a plan for you … a future with hope.”
Beckmann spoke to the crowd, not from the pulpit of a church, but from behind a webcam. Hundreds of people logged on to attend Bread’s first-ever “virtual” Advocacy Summit on June 8 and 9, which included two days of online sessions focused on how to continue hunger advocacy work in spite of social distancing.
Thousands of online letters sent to Congress
In years past, hundreds of Bread activists would gather in Washington, D.C., to urge lawmakers to oppose budget cuts that increase poverty and hunger, in addition to supporting programs that boost food security in the United States and around the world. While in-person discussions at congressional offices are off the table due to the coronavirus, summit organizers stressed that such meetings are only part of the equation.
“It only takes seven unique letters for an office to notice an issue, assign a legislative aid to research it, and form an opinion,” said Margaret Tran, a senior regional organizer for Bread, who co-hosted a session called Advocating Alone Together.
In addition to letter writing, organizers urged attendees to highlight their advocacy efforts on social media, call their members of Congress, and even reach out to lawmakers to schedule virtual meetings.
More than 4,500 online letters were sent to Congress during the Summit. During a Twitter storm, Bread activists reached nearly 30,000 people.
“I’m sad we’re not together, but I feel like we’ve still been able to cultivate a good sense of momentum,” said Lisa Masotta, a Rhode Island native who had planned to travel to Washington, D.C., for the Summit. She enjoyed the Advocating Alone Together session so much that she watched it twice and took notes.
“When I learned it was going to be virtual, I still decided to take the week off work to give me the space to engage and start reaching out beyond my own church,” explained Masotta, who provides spiritual support to hospice patients in Providence. “I’m focusing the time I would have been at the summit on advocacy.”
Advocating in perilous times
This year’s Advocacy Summit occurred at a perilous time. By some estimates, the COVID-19 pandemic could increase the number of food insecure people to 54.3 million in the U.S., representing a 63 percent increase among children. Globally, 265 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation.
Rev. Eugene Cho, Bread’s new president, acknowledged this reality when he addressed attendees. “I want to be honest about the reality of our current times,” he said, noting the economic hardship and food insecurity sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve seen these jarring images of cars – miles and miles of cars – waiting in line just for a couple bags of groceries … but this is a reminder that our work only continues, and actually even deepens,” Cho said.
In a livestreamed Legislative Briefing on June 9, Bread encouraged activists to ask their elected officials to support a COVID-19 recovery package that provides significant relief for struggling U.S. families and individuals. This includes boosting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) maximum benefits by 15 percent until unemployment rates come down, a move that would give recipients about $25 more per month.
Internationally, Bread is urging an increase in funding of no less than $12 billion for foreign assistance programs that will help protect the world’s most vulnerable during the pandemic.
Impacts on Black and Brown communities
During a Latino Leaders Convening and Pan African Consultation, both livestreamed on June 8, organizers explained how Black and Brown communities are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus and urged attendees to confront racial disparities as they relate to hunger and poverty.
“If we are to move to a nation where all lives matter … you have to have leaders that believe that,” said Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-chair of the National African American Clergy Network, who stressed the importance of voting in the upcoming November election. Black Lives Matter protesters who have taken to the streets to demand police reform in recent weeks must “take that same passion and voice their values through their vote,” she said.
Dr. Deborah Taylor King, president of the Women’s Missionary Society of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, said she found the Pan African session “very uplifting and empowering.”
The Advocacy Summit also included a screening of the new documentary Hunger and Hope: Lessons from Ethiopia and Guatemala, followed by a live Q&A with the producer and travel TV host Rick Steves, a longtime Bread supporter.
“Know that God is on our side”
In his closing remarks, Cho urged attendees to engage and encourage our lawmakers to lead with moral courage and compassion. He explained that while we live in perilous times, we may still find hope in our faith in Jesus Christ, as well as our partnership with one another as people who love God and our neighbors.
“And so as we care and advocate and raise our voices for… human beings created in the image of God – neighbors, friends, our global world – know that God is on our side,” he said.
Lacey Johnson is a freelance writer and photographer in Washington, D.C.