New Jersey church visits Congress and urges legislators to support summer meals

Photo courtesy of The Reformed Church of Highland Park

By Jennifer Gonzalez

Social-justice issues, such as hunger, prison reform, and affordable housing, are at the heart of The Reformed Church of Highland Park’s mission. And that commitment was on full display last month when 16 church members – old and young alike – hit the road at 5 a.m. and caravanned from New Jersey to Bread for the World’s Lobby Day in Washington, D.C.

They caught the tail end of the morning worship, but that didn’t deter them. Armed with information about child nutrition and the Global Food Security Act, they made their way to the offices of U.S. Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

It had been several years since the church had taken part in a Bread Lobby Day. Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale, the church’s senior co-pastor, said the church had been concentrating its efforts in dealing with a local immigration crisis instead.

“This year, I had in my mind that the church would participate in Lobby Day, especially because of the focus on child nutrition,” Kaper-Dale said. “I was particularly motivated to ask our legislators to support the summer meals program. We have a lot of people in our community directly impacted by that program.”

Because students are in tune with their peers, teenagers from the church also participated in Lobby Day. They are forceful advocates because they see firsthand the effects of how ill-conceived policy changes, such as cuts to SNAP (formerly food stamps), play out in the real world.

“It’s not just poverty-ridden countries, but in my own town people need help with the problem of hunger,” Olivia Jager, 14, said. “I have classmates on free- and reduced-price lunch. I feel that hunger and food are something a child or family shouldn’t have to worry about.”

By all accounts, the meetings with legislators went well. The group met with a staffer from Menendez’s office and talked passionately about the need for Congress to reauthorize the child nutrition bill and pass the Global Food Security Act. They did the same with two staffers from Booker’s office, but got a surprise when Booker showed up unexpectedly at the meeting. He was not scheduled to meet with the group.

After their meetings, the group again piled into a van and a car to trek back to New Jersey. “It made for a long day but good day,” Kaper-Dale said.

Kaper-Dale said the ride home acted as a sort of debriefing – a chance for church members to talk about their lobbying experience.  He said he was struck, as well as others in the group, by the youthful energy and optimism in the halls of Congress.

“There is this assumption that Washington is broken and that there is a pall of negatively in Congress,” he said. “But that is just not true. There are youthful changers in these offices who listen well and really care.”

Jennifer Gonzalez is the associate online editor at Bread for the World.

Photo: Those from the congregation who went to Lobby Day in Washington, D.C., last month were paid a surprise visit during their time on Capitol Hill by one of their senators, Cory Booker (front center). Photo courtesy of The Reformed Church of Highland Park

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