ICJS Emerging Religious Leaders alumna and Bread for the World Director of Strategic Communications and Campaigns Heather Taylor joined ICJS’ final weekly Congregational Leaders’ call on June 25 to discuss how COVID-19 has affected and expanded hunger and food insecurity, as well as ways in which our advocacy can lead to change during these trying times. Taylor asked tough but important questions, and stressed that we have a “theological moral imperative” to act and advocate for those in need.
Food insecurity and hunger were already major challenges for millions of Americans, but this pandemic has exposed a number of fragile inequities and inequalities that people face in our country each day. As Taylor noted, the continuing cycle of state violence and rebellion that has gripped the country since the murder of George Floyd adds to the inequalities and further highlights the need for change.
“The crises that we are experiencing at this moment are demonstrative,” explained Taylor. The “flaws within the system”—from hunger to the criminal justice system, minority rights to economic disparities—work together to highlight the root cause, namely, systemic racism. “As people of faith, we are coming to terms with the fact that these are systemic issues, which means that we must bring about systemic change.”
Historically, religious congregations and communities have played a large role in assisting governments to address food insecurity and hunger. This is still the case in terms of food banks and pantries and other methods of direct service. But now the need is even greater and more timely, and the majority of religious institutions are still not congregating in-person due to ongoing fears and restrictions. “We cannot foodbank our way out. We cannot use business-as-usual solutions to get at the heart of the problem,” said Taylor. “We have to be creative, but we can still act, still advocate.”
Digital advocacy is perhaps the lowest-hanging fruit, simply because the ask is so little and the time needed so minimal. But, digital advocacy campaigns—including petitions, letterwriting initiatives, social media sharing, etc.—can be effective, especially when people personalize their stories to make the need more familiar. According to Taylor, these stories have a much greater impact on legislators and policymakers than do statistics and empirical data.
With congregations gathering digitally, it is important for religious leaders to consider ways to educate and motivate congregants to act. Many congregations are seeing an increase in service participation because of the ease of digital programming. Religious leaders can leverage this expanded access, not only to benefit the community, but to hold political leaders accountable. Partnering with direct service organizations is one way for a religious institution to show concrete solidarity with its community.
“I think it’s important to remember that in terms of faith communities, a lot of times we can get in the door where others cannot,” said Taylor. “And that is a very powerful tool. When you can get an institution of faith, there is often a willingness to listen and meet. It is incumbent upon us as a faith community to provide an alternative narrative.”