Nestled in a small Minnesota harbor village on the north shore of Lake Superior in the middle of winter, members of First Congregational UCC in Grand Marais have warmed to the idea of the Bread for the World Offering of Letters campaign.
First Congregational is one of many UCC churches joining other faith groups putting pen to paper during the recently-launched effort to encourage their elected representatives to "Think. Act. Be."
In the case of the Offering of Letters, the accent is on the "Act."
"This is something our congregation has become accustomed to doing and considering important," said church member Kristine Bottorff, noting that many of the 50-60 congregants who typically worship on a Sunday morning will stay after services to help prepare letters.
"We'll get 30 sets of letters out that day or the following week," said Bottorff. "Each person is signing and addressing three letters (to both senators and a House representative), so we send out a total of 90 letters once a year."
The 2012 Bread for the World Offering of Letters campaign urges Congress to protect programs vital to hungry and economically disadvantaged persons. Thousands of churches representing nearly 50 diverse Christian denominations throughout the United States generate hundreds of thousands of letters to Congress every year and place them in offering plates on Sunday mornings.
Through visits, phone calls, and personal letters and emails, Bread for the World activists and other people of faith are successful in keeping the needs of vulnerable people before Congress. Some of the victories include preventing deep cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps); the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC); food assistance to poor senior citizens; school feeding programs in developing countries; and emergency food aid.
"Our outreach person writes a personal letter –– it's not canned by Bread for World, but it takes their information and works off a theme for the year," said Bottorff. "So it's not the same letter each year, but rather coincides with a theme of what is going with the current legislative business of the Senate."
For example, last year the theme was centered on the risk of the U.S. government removing food from the list of foreign aid to other countries. "So that was picked out as a really good issue to address," said Bottorff. "That was the theme last year."
Within the broad campaign are four mini-campaigns addressing specific legislative topics to come before Congress in 2012: nutrition, poverty-focused development assistance, tax policy and food aid.
The Rev. Philip Hoy, part-time pastor of Zion UCC in Henderson, Ky., said his church sent out 84 letters to elected officials, including 12 from its four-member youth Sunday school class.
"Zion understands what advocacy is all about," said Hoy, a former Indiana state representative who in 1987 became director of Second Harvest (now Feeding America), the first regional food bank in Evansville, Ind. "I've never served a church that is more interested in mission outreach than this church."
Collecting food is only a piece of the equation, said Hoy. "Collecting food is important, but that's not enough. That feeds a person, but it doesn't change the system."
The Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, is prayerfully optimistic about the organization's future.
"We thank God that the deficit-reduction decisions Congress and the president made in 2011 avoided most of the proposed deep cuts in programs that help struggling families make ends meet," he said. "Since 2012 is an election year, Congress is even more focused on cutting federal spending, and many programs for hungry and poor people are being targeted.
"We will have to work much harder to protect the gains we have made and ensure that anti-poverty programs are not sacrificed to meet political needs."
To obtain Offering of Letters materials, visit www.bread.org/ol