In a church basement in Indiana earlier this week, I watched a letter-writing campaign stir to life. Letter-writing is a solitary pursuit: sitting alone with pen and paper, or alone with a computer and a printer – and a pen to affix a signature. It is a lost art in these days of emailing and texting and instant messaging.
But as old-fashioned as it may be – and as silent as it may seem – writing letters to people with political power is still one of the most effective ways to raise a clamor. Petitions with pages of signatures might impress by sheer volume, but the recipient might wonder how much thought was behind those scribbled names. And email blasts might quickly fill inboxes, but the click of a mouse button doesn’t capture the passion of an argument.
Ah, but an individually written or typed letter, with a hand scrawled signature – now that conveys an investment of time and dedication and commitment and passion. Beyond the words on the page, this personal touch says, “This is really important to me.”And this really does attract attention, according to Congressional staffers who do the letter-opening and initial reading. There is a certain power in these individual letters. Strength often does lie in numbers. But these staffers say it might take only 10 to 15 letters on one topic to put that issue on the radar.
That’s why Bread for the World activists gathered in the basement of the North United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. Over soup and bread and some dessert, they conducted a workshop to prepare for their annual Offering of Letters campaign, when people of faith appeal to their members of Congress to take action to reduce poverty and hunger in the world. Past campaigns have successfully advocated for debt relief for the world’s poorest countries and for making medicine more affordable and accessible to AIDS sufferers in Africa. This year’s goal is to shield federal poverty- and hunger-reduction programs from the budget-cutting in Washington.
The workshop considered a sample letter:
“Dear (member of Congress),
I understand the need to make difficult budget decisions, especially given the increasing national debt. However I am very concerned about proposals to cut budgets of programs for hungry and poor people.
Our global hunger and poverty programs…account for less than 1 percent of the total budget.
It is simply wrong – morally and religiously – to focus our budget cuts on the people who are already hurting, and make them hurt more. Please find better ways to cut our national deficit.
Instead of cutting US foreign assistance I ask you to reform it so that it is even more effective.
By focusing our aid dollars on moving people out of poverty, we help foster economic growth and opportunity. Fewer people struggling with poverty in developing countries contributes to our own national security.
This is why I am asking you to support reform of, but NOT cut, US foreign aid.
Senator Richard Lugar’s office provided helpful advice, for the Indiana senator himself has been appealing to his colleagues on Capitol Hill to support President Obama’s Feed the Future initiative, which seeks to end hunger through agriculture development, particularly in Africa. His office distributed a one-page tip sheet, offering these suggestions:
- A personal contact is best.
- Mail should be personally composed and written.
- You are a resource to your legislator.
- There are times you may agree to disagree.
The fast was announced on March 28 by Tony Hall, a former Congressman and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations’ food agencies, and three other leaders – Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World; Jim Wallis, president and CEO of Sojourners; and Ritu Sharma, president of Women Thrive Worldwide. As they began the fast, they challenged “people of faith and conscience” to join them in “pledging to put pressure on Congress to form a ‘circle of protection’ around programs benefiting poor and hungry people.”
Fasting, like letter-writing, is a very personal, solitary form of expression. But when amplified by hundreds or thousands of people taking similar action the passion and conviction should resonate loud and clear.
This quiet clamor can raise quite a clamor.