The Gift of Presence
For nearly two weeks, those of us in the Saint Paul Area Synod have been blessed by the presence of ou[...]
Greetings brothers and sisters in Christ, it was such a great and privileged opportunity to speak at the 2018 Saint Paul Synod Assembly, where the theme was "We Are Lutheran: Restless & Resolute". I would like to thank the Saint Paul Area Synod and Bishop Patricia for giving me the opportunity to speak. I am a full-time seminarian, as well as full-time employee with Lutheran Advocacy-Minnesota (LA-MN) as a Hunger Justice Advocate. I do this work on behalf of ELCA Advocacy and ELCA World Hunger. My passion for advocacy and justice express how restless I am, while school and work full time express how resolute I am.
When I first started this job at LA-MN, I could already relate well to issues of hunger and housing. I’ve had plenty of conversations with friends and families time after time surrounding these issues. But one thing I didn’t know was the simple fact that Minnesotans have to pay at least 30 percent of their income on housing alone which is the “Median Standard of Living” in the United States. And there are people who pay even more than 50 percent, or even twice as much as the Median.
Before starting at LA-MN, I also didn’t know that out of 2.1 million Minnesotans there are over 580,00 people, or 27 percent of the population, who are cost burdened. That is approximately 50 percent of all renters and 18 percent of all homeowners.
And still the cost of rent continues to rise while, on average, income is declining, making it increasingly challenging for renters to make ends meet. While rent was up nine percent, the average renter's income was down 11 percent. On top of that, for homeowners, home value is up 11 percent but their income is down one percent. Though it is not as bad as what obstacles renters have to go through, this is not sustainable.
When the median standard of living is 30 percent of your income, it does not address the utility bills which could get extremely costly. It does not highlight how difficult it may be to not only get food in your home, but to get proper and healthy food, especially when you are a single parent or live in a poverty-stricken home. It does not address how much it costs to get the best health care, or child care, or transportation. And these are just a few of the resources that become hard to acquire when you are paying more than 30 percent, or even 50 percent, of your income alone on housing.
When I started to soak in this information, I started asking many family and friends questions. I started to realize that the majority of the people I have talked to were paying more than 60 percent of their income on housing. This kept them from paying for health care, getting healthier food in their homes, or being able to pay for child care. I started to understand that once a crisis happened, it was a quick route into homelessness. Homelessness affects our youth at a higher rate than anyone else in the state of Minnesota. Our seniors are also at high risk for homelessness. On any given night in Minnesota, there are approximately 10,000 homeless youth and 1,000 homeless seniors.
When children go to school with an empty stomach, it is hard for them to focus on learning and receiving a proper education. It is hard for them to stay positive when they are going to school with a lot of stress in their mind and in their body. Saint Paul Area Synod congregations are placed in an area where there are as many as 20 million missing meals; and I haven’t discussed the plight of those who have mental or physical disabilities.
These are some of the poor and miserable conditions that exist when renters or homeowners are paying too much of their income on housing alone. It is difficult to acquire the other needed resources to live a stable, balanced and centered life when the Median standard of living is above or at 30 percent. These are all the things I have to be concerned about as I advocate for more affordable and sustainable housing.
What is advocacy? Advocacy, as defined by the dictionary, is “to speak or plead on behalf of another.” We ourselves are beneficiaries of advocacy. Jesus is our advocate (1 John 2:1), as is the Holy Spirit (John 14:26). You can also find that in John 14, Jesus calls on the Holy Spirit who will be not only be an advocate with us, but in us. It is in you and I, brothers and sisters, to advocate for anything that will affect ourselves and our neighbors.
As it is stated in Matthew 22: 37-38, when Jesus commands, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it, Love your neighbor as yourself." If you love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself, getting involved in advocacy should be second nature. Advocacy is an extension of the Church’s practices of loving our neighbors and being good stewards of God’s creation.
During my time in this job, I have witnessed how people have hesitated in becoming advocates because it is considered to be too political or too much work. Think of it this way. We are all citizens not only of the United States but also citizens of the state of Minnesota. What does it mean to be a citizen? To be a citizen means that you don’t only make sure you have the resources you need for yourself and your family, but you make sure that your neighbor down the street, in your state, and in your nation has those same resources as well. If everyone acted out their role as true citizens, we wouldn’t need Lutheran Advocacy-Minnesota or other advocacy agencies because we would all love our neighbors as ourselves.
So, how could we not be active as a church today in advocacy? I know some churches are thinking, "But we are involved in Advocacy." During my first time at the headquarters of the ELCA, I was fortunate to sit in on a workshop that discussed the difference between charity and justice. It was quite a large group so we all were told to write down two amazing things our churches were doing that we thought would be justice work. As we placed the great work our churches were doing on the board, we have come to realize what we were doing was mostly charity, and not completely focused on justice.
So, what is charity versus justice? Charity is that which brings people into a positive space, providing resources or education, but once that charity leaves, people are right back in their struggle again. For instance, my home congregation normally does a community cookout every Wednesday during the summer. The community comes and has a free meal and a good time but when the cookout is over, that community is right back to the struggles they have been dealing with all along.
Justice, on the other hand, is that which brings people into a space that provides resources and education but makes sure that when the people leave the space, they have something that will help them take a step up and out of the condition or struggle they have been dealing with. For instance, there is a housing agency that provides affordable subsidized housing. And at the same time, provides mentors to support the renters in the goals they set for themselves. The hope is that people will stick with the program and after 3-5 years of goal setting and accomplishing the goals, they will be able to move into a better situation. The program not only provides a much-needed resource, they also made sure the people in the program are able to grow into a better place. That is justice.
I hope you think about that as I stand here today as a Hunger Justice Advocate with Lutheran Advocacy-Minnesota. The work that I do, that Lutheran Advocacy Minnesota does, is work that cannot be done alone. This is why part of my job is to go to ELCA churches in the state of Minnesota to encourage them to become advocates and active citizens around issues related to hunger and housing. Lutheran Advocacy-Minnesota is here to help you get a start. How could you all get involved in this work to be an advocate?
Hunger Justice Advocate, Lutheran Advocacy-Minnesota