Serving on ‘God’s wave length’ for 39 years

Cathy Brechtelsbauer speaking after receiving the McGovern South Dakota Hunger Ambassador Award. Photo courtesy of Dakota Wesleyan University.

By Marc Hopkins

During the McGovern Hunger Summit at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D., in mid-November, Cathy Brechtelsbauer got official recognition for the advocacy that many have admired for decades. The longtime Bread member received the McGovern South Dakota Hunger Ambassador Award for her efforts to spark systemic changes that address the root causes of poverty.

“She exemplifies what it means to put together passion and a big heart,” said Michael Troutman, who oversees Bread’s Midwest donor relations, and who presented the award to Brechtelsbauer.

While Brechtelsbauer was recognized for advocacy, she’s really a gifted storyteller whose talents span visual arts, plays, and music. During her 39-year involvement with Bread, her narratives have helped to educate the public and advance causes that drive the organization’s values.

Her credits include the song “Justice Means,” which has been used at Bread workshops. It starts: “Justice means that all are fed and everyone will have their bread, a place to lay their heads.” And there’s the play she wrote during the campaign on developing world debt that’s been performed in numerous churches. The plot is inspired by the Bible’s jubilee theme of debt forgiveness, and some of the main characters are indebted farmers from developing countries.

A visual display she was once part of has had a lasting impact for South Dakota’s children in need. In the early 1990’s, Brechtelsbauer led a group that wrapped a half-mile chain of 13,000 paper dolls around the state capitol building in Pierre to draw attention to the 13,000 children who were denied a cost-of-living increase under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children Program. (The program is now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families following welfare reform in 1996.)

At first, the state’s government ignored the spectacle. Undeterred, the following year, Brechtelsbauer, who serves as Bread’s state coordinator in South Dakota, positioned the dolls along a CROP Walk route. The display motivated the Sioux Falls Ministerial Association to write the governor’s office to get the kids in the budget. Since then, the state’s cost-of-living increases have usually included the children.

Brechtelsbauer is Lutheran (ELCA). The passion for her work is driven by the call for justice in the Gospel. “You hear the Bible say, ‘Do justice,’ but you don’t have a handle on how to do it,” she said. “I think Bread for the World gives you a way to work for justice.” She continued, “I feel like it’s a faith calling. You’re kind of on God’s wave length when you’re working on hunger. It helps you get God’s agenda to be part of your own agenda.”

Currently, Brechtelsbauer’s efforts have expanded to payday lending. She’s part of an attempt to force a ballot initiative in the general election that will cap interest on such loans at 36 percent. The state average is 574 percent. “There’s a reason we call this predatory,” she said.

Even as Brechtelsbauer gears up for new challenges, she wrestles with old ones too, like working to get food exempt from the state sales tax. After many years of including a cost-of-living increase for children in the state budget, it was dropped in 2015. She’s working to have it restored next year. But these setbacks don’t discourage her. “I feel like we’re not necessarily called to have success. But we are called to be faithful.”

Marc Hopkins is a writer living in Silver Spring, Md.

Photo: Cathy Brechtelsbauer speaking after receiving her award. Photo courtesy of Dakota Wesleyan University.

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