Monday, February 9, 2009

Bread for the World Mobilizes West Michigan Gathering at Calvin College

GRAND RAPIDS, February 8 -- A collective South African voice for peace and justice set the tone for the occasion as a recorded Ladysmith Black Mambazo track softly serenaded more than thirty people of faith in a Calvin College meeting room on Sunday afternoon. It marked the conclusion of a Bread for the World Offering of Letters (OL) workshop, and those in attendance attentively penned handwritten letters to Senator Carl Levin (D-Michigan), urging him to take action to reform the U.S. Foreign Assistance policy.

Bread for the World is a Washington-based advocacy group addressing issues of poverty and hunger at home and abroad. Founded in 1971, Bread has established itself over the past four decades as one of the most influential Christian activist groups in the capital. Bread President, Reverend David Beckman, introduced his organization's greatest need in a DVD that was aired during the workshop. "We are seeking an offering, but not an offering of money," he said. "We are seeking an offering of letters."

The workshop was led by two regional representatives, Larry Hollar and Sarah Rohrer, and was held in conjunction with the Calvin College Faith and International Development Conference. Attendees arrived from communities throughout West Michigan, from as near as Calvin's campus to as far away as Kalamazoo and Lansing. The OL workshop aimed to introduce the gathering to Bread for the World and its objectives and to empower participants to initiate letter-writing campaigns in their respective churches or justice organizations. "Bread for the World sees people who are near and far away that are hungry as our neighbors," explained Hollar. "We are a collective Christian voice urging advocacy."

The content of this collective voice is very specific. "Bread for the World aims to encourage U.S. diplomats to legislate for more self-sufficient, country-owned, holistic foreign assistance," said Rohrer. The reduction of global poverty, she insisted, is contingent not on more funding but rather on a more consistent, flexible, and efficient allocation of resources. Letters, therefore, must be directed at urging Congress to pursue reform, not increase, in foreign assistance spending.

Its advocacy efforts have not been in vain. Bread for the World has urged the U.S. Government to elevate foreign assistance alongside defense and diplomacy as keys to creating a more harmonious global community, and Washington seems to be listening. Hollar and Rohrer cited a shift in fund allocation in the Defense Department's budget over the past six years. In 2002, only six percent of the budget was devoted to aid and development in foreign countries; today, that figure has risen to twenty-five percent. Even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Rohrer noted, has recognized the intricate relationship between justice and peace, referring to Gates' call for increased aid and development spending. The next step is to ensure that this aid is well-organized. "The money we're spending needs to be spent well, be spent wisely, and we need to know where it's going."

Workshop participants responded well to the agenda set forth by Bread for the World. "[Foreign assistance reform] seems complex, but it's a no-brainer," commented Grand Rapids resident Dave Treul.  Tera Dent, a member of the West Michigan grassroots social justice movement, the Micah Center, and a Bread for the World-trained Hunger Justice Leader, was also among those in attendance on Sunday afternoon. "Bread focuses on holding our government accountable to focus its efforts on improved development assistance in areas of poverty," she said. Dent referred to the world economic crisis and pointed out,"We're not asking to send more money overseas but rather making sure that money that is already being sent is put to good use." A Christian with a self-assessed passion for the world's poor and marginalized, Dent expressed desire to replicate the Bread workshop during a Micah Center gathering with hopes of mobilizing a greater number of advocates in the West Michigan community. 

Bread for the World offers resources on its web site ( that can guide individuals and groups through their advocacy efforts. OL participants were encouraged to take the information they received during the workshop back to their home congregations and justice organizations. Taking the time and making the effort to write a letter to one's congressional respresentative(s), Hollar asserted, can have a profound impact on the country's response to world's needy. With Bread's leadership, advocates' action, and the growing national climate of hope, that impacted response may be in the very near future.

Brian Paff, The Micah Center

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